Today Gosha Rubchinskiy is known worldwide as the fashion designer who redefined cultural notions of global and local. Coming from what seemed to be the periphery, he used his background to create a new global subculture — suddenly, kids from from Paris, New York and Tokyo wanted to look Russian. In the last couple of years, Rubchinskiy has occupied a rightful place among streetwear powerhouses like Palace and Supreme, with mega-brands like Adidas and Reebok queueing up for collaborations.
This phenomenal success is rooted in Rubchinskiy’s unique artistic vision, which was apparent from the very start of his career, even before his partnership with Comme des Garçons. It all started at a Moscow sports stadium in 2008, where Rubchinskiy’s first ever runway show, titled “Evil Empire”, became a defining moment for new-era Russian youth culture.
The show took place on the brick-colored running lanes of Moscow’s Sokolniki stadium. The sporty attire of Gosha’s youngsters — shorts, sport socks, windbreakers — matched the show space, but also channeled the more subversive and hostile spirit of the street. Sweatshirts and face masks were adorned with spikes, sleeves were cut off sharply above the shoulder, and prints were inspired by hardcore and death metal. Like some unknown style tribe, the boys walked briskly around the stadium to the sound of late ’90s rave music, a fitting soundtrack to their (16-19 year old) childhood and adolescence.
The key graphic element of the collection was an embroidery of a two-headed eagle merging with a roaring bear, framed by assault rifles and worlds “Evil Empire” in Russian, a nod to Ronald Reagan’s infamous 1983 speech. On the one hand, it was a cocky joke tapping into the West’s lingering fear of Russia and the Cold War stereotypes — on the other, a reflection of the deep search for the new national identity. It was also a starting moment for what would become known as the post-Soviet aesthetic in fashion, and for Rubchinskiy’s international career.
The show reflected the creative energy of Moscow at the time: Rubchinskiy was able to rent the stadium thanks to the S-11 collective, responsible for Solyanka club, the city’s hottest nightlife spot. “To have a show in a new and strange location wasn’t unusual for Moscow in those days” remembers Julia Vydolob, who attended the show and interviewed Rubchinskiy for Afisha magazine. “There was — and still are — two ways to have a fashion show in Moscow: mainstream and mostly boring or private and more exciting, and this was going to be the latter.”
“Those of us who didn’t have a car were taken to the location by a specially arranged bus from the cult and now closed club Solyanka. The audience mostly consisted of people you knew, including Gosha’s crew: Moscow stylists, editors, PRs; so it felt like your usual friendly non-mainstream fashion event. But when it started, it was so new and strong and weird and unconventional that I was blown away completely. Skater boys instead of models, a little heavily tattooed boy that looked like a 10-year-old, their energy and honesty were nothing that you ever seen before. ’90s-inspired clothes appealed both to the young teenagers and to us in our 30s: the former would wear them everyday, we, the latter, remembered them from our Soviet childhood, when they were so hard to get.”
“Gosha loaded the clothes with social, pop-cultural, political, mythological allusions — the thing that he’s been doing brilliantly from the very beginning. He told me back then that he couldn’t get together his first collection for several years until he had its idea quite formed. It felt exactly so: for a foreigner it might look like a souvenir — with Cyrillic lettering, bears and all that, but any person living in Russia could read that collection like an open book. The strangest thing is that that the codes of that collection still feel very modern. It wasn’t supposed to represent the real Evil Empire, just an idea of it, the myth. But look how that turned out”.
The fact that the collection tapped into a powerful cultural shift driven by Russia’s emerging generation was apparent for everyone working with Rubchinskiy at the time. “I met Gosha in 2007 or 2008 at a street party, and we talked for hours about photography and art, and a lot about [legendary Russian constructivist artist] Alexander Rodchenko” recalls artist Kirill Savchenkov, who was helping to organize the show.
“We were hanging out a lot and sometimes I was doing shoots and photography. It was about something bigger than clothes, about the very current cultural situation, which was exactly what attracted me. It was a conversation about identity which was formed by unique events and processes, the answer to the crisis of culture and identity itself. But it was also unique that it was done through the medium of clothes, the tools of fashion, and we were working with kids who were themselves part of this movement”.
Even back then, Rubchinskiy was skilled in creating complex and immersive artistic statements: for “Evil Empire” everything mattered, from the location to casting to the soundtrack and the zine with his photography, titled “Aglec”, which was one of the key references.
“Today zines are very popular but back then it was something new and interesting in terms of design and expression”, remembers Pavel Milyakov, who did graphic design for Aglec and who today is better known by his music alias Buttechno. Pavel has been working on Rubchinskiy’s show soundtracks for several years. “For me the whole thing was special because it was new, fresh and very earnest, and after all these years it still is. Not even just in the context of Moscow, but globally, and this is its great power”.
Despite the fact that the show took place in Moscow and off the grid of the fashion calendar, Rubchinskiy’s work was making waves on the international scene. Daryoush Haj-Najafi, back then editor of VICE Style, and currently Senior Editor at Complex UK, recalls the sense of excitement he felt upon discovering Rubchinskiy’s work.
“It was spring 2009 and I was sat in the VICE office and saw what I think was the only blog post online on Gosha’s show and literally started jumping up and down. It just looked modern as fuck. This was fashion, art direction, whatever, by someone who loved working class culture. The casting looked incredibly real, the sportswear and metal type fonts fresh as fuck in combination and then the lookbook with the brutalist architecture which a few pages in the words Evil Empire, a re-appropriation of a Ronald Reagan attack on the USSR. As I wrote for VICE at the time, when I read Evil Empire I nearly came, not only did I need the clothes and wanna look at the imagery all day long but Gosha was fucking with our heads too”.
Looking back at the collection today, its political relevance remains stunning: not only is Russian culture both fetishized and demonized as never before, but we’ve also entered the era when the new breed of super-villain-style political leaders are in power. In the midst of the political crisis the only hope is still youth: we have moved on but the piercing sincerity of Rubchisnkiy’s “Evil Empire” still remains incredibly poignant.
- Words: Anastasiia Fedorova
- Lead image: Alexander Lepeshkin