The Rise of Post Soviet Fashion
The most significant fashion movements are invariably tied to a geographic region: the early 80s were defined by the radical aesthetic from Japan, through Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo’s Comme des Garcons, and five years later the Antwerp Six (including Dries Van Noten and Ann Demeulemeester) made their mark.
In 2016 the most hyped brands are coming from one of the least likely regions: the post-Soviet East. In the last few seasons, a group of designers from the former Soviet Union has emerged to provide some of the most captivating shows, intriguing collections and enthralling narratives. Gosha Rubchinskiy and Demna Gvasalia of Vetements (and also Balenciaga) have quickly became poster-boys for the movement, with their heady mixture of streetwear-led styles, occasional irony and Soviet-referencing nostalgia. But beyond this duo, there is a burgeoning scene of Russian designers and stylists who, in their own way, are helping shape the current zeitgeist. One such stylist-turned designer is Andrey Artymov of Moscow-based brand Walk of Shame, new to 18montrose. With this industry-wide shift in mind, it begs the question: how did the former USSR become a hotbed for some of fashion’s most feted characters?
Most of these designers are either in their late 20s or 30s – they witnessed the last years of the Soviet Union as either kids or young adults. They were the children of Perestroika – Mikhail Gorbachev’s economic reforms which lit the touch-paper for the dissolution of the USSR – growing up in a country involved in both a cultural and ideological war. Outside influence (particularly from the West) was looked upon with suspicion by the state’s ruling elite, as something that could undermine and damage the Soviet way of life. Music and fashion grew to carry an immense power as mediums that could be used to subvert societal norms or act as forms of protest. But not every young person was politically motivated; many were simply into looking good and appearing cool, just like their peers across the Berlin Wall.
As a result of the style dichotomy between East and West, wearing something as innocuous as a pair of denim became both a political and cultural statement. Jeans were a Western creation, favoured by rock stars and American presidents, none of whom the Soviet Politburo (the executive arm of the ruling government) were particularly enamoured with. A black market emerged for US-made denim by brands like Levi’s, with pairs going for up to two hundred roubles--the equivalent of a month’s wages (you can see where Vetements get their pricing from).
The threat in itself was not benign—there is “more power in blue jeans and rock and roll than the entire Red Army” said French philosopher Régis Debray, asserting the idea that a cultural revolution was just as dangerous to Soviet stability as any of the proxy wars being fought overseas.
But why does this matter, and how does it relate to the current trends we see dominating the catwalks of Paris? In essence, clothes meant something, even for a generation that have lived most of their lives after the first brick was removed from the Berlin wall.
“I remember it as a burst, an explosion of energy,” Lotta Volkova (a Russian stylist for both Vetements and Balenciaga) recently told W Magazine, explaining what it was like to witness the fall of the Soviet Union from the inside. “Afterward, there were all these crazy articles about nightclubs, about drug culture, about youth movements, fashion. Fashion being something else—not just a Christian Dior coat, but belonging to a movement. My mother always encouraged me to be different from everyone else. That was very anti-Socialist, anti-Communist, and it really affected me.”
In those years that followed the dissolution of the USSR, fashion became much less restricted: there was increased access to and movement of both goods and ideas. But the collapse of the Soviet Union also plunged many into years of poverty as states, businesses and individuals adjusted to a free market. Some became very, very wealthy – the kind of people that are keeping several luxury houses today – but the majority stayed poor. But scarcity often inspires ingenuity and post-Soviet teens developed their own styles, mixing the cheap sportswear that flooded in from China (often emblazoned with misspellings like “abibas”) with whatever else they could get their hands on, customise and re-appropriate.
It is this 90s Eastern European aesthetic that has become a rich source of reference in recent seasons, from box cut jackets (a nod to 90s Russian mafia bosses according to Moscow-born fashion journalist Anastasia Fedorova) to logo tees.
The current trend for a less pristine, practised style of design chimes perfectly with a Post-Soviet aesthetic, imbuing all things from the East with a sense of effortless cool. There’s an increased cultural openness from the West, and attitudes have turned from dismissiveness to infatuation. It would seem that after years of looking to westwards for inspiration, Russians, Ukrainians and Georgians now only need to look around them. Meanwhile, it is now our turn to be on the outside looking in.