As this year winds down we’ve recapped its highlights to bring you the best of 2016 in fashion, sneakers, music, movies and more.
On December 26, 1991, at 19:32pm, the flag of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was lowered from the Kremlin for the last time. The president of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev, resigned, and handed his powers over to the new Russian president, Boris Yeltsin. The USSR was officially dissolved, and Russia, Georgia and the rest of the Soviet countries were thrown into political, cultural and economic chaos.
The years following the demise of Communism were, by all accounts, an orgy of culture and consumerism. Countries that had been shut off from the outside world for generations were suddenly flooded with Western music, clothes, TV and films. Young Russians, Georgians, Ukrainians and their peers in the rest of the bloc experienced McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Vogue and MTV for the first time, witnessing a world that was a million miles away from the one their parents grew up in.
Gosha Rubchinskiy, Demna Gvasalia and Lotta Volkova grew up in that chaos, in Moscow, Georgia and Vladivostok respectively. Theirs was the first generation to come of age after the fall of Communism, and almost 25 years to the day after the Soviet Union ended, they’re three of the most influential people working in fashion today. That’s not a coincidence: the east-meets-west culture clash in their work has fascinated the world.
Gosha is now up there with Supreme and Palace as one of the most coveted streetwear names in the world. Demna basically sent the world crazy with Vetements, and while he’s only a few seasons deep at Balenciaga, he’s already transformed the house into one of high fashion’s *must-have* labels. Lotta is a bit more behind-the-scenes, but she’s integral at Vetements and Balenciaga, styling, casting and consulting for both brands.
The trio work in different fields, but they share a similar vision, one that’s all about unconventional beauty and hard, jarring visuals. They celebrate things that are normally considered low-brow or poor taste, like faux fur, consumerist logos and mass-market ’90s sportswear. The fashion press calls it the “Post-Soviet” look, and the internet is flooded with stories about it. It was the most important thing that happened to fashion and streetwear this year, and it’s much, much bigger than a few DHL T-shirts and some Cyrillic lettering.
Designers are just one half of the Post-Soviet movement; the aesthetic is a genuine reflection of how young people dress on the streets of Moscow, St. Petersburg and Kiev. Kids in the former USSR are just like their peers in the West: they’re obsessed with social media, they love sneakers and they want to look good. The Post-Soviet economies are far from stable, though, and when the Russian ruble crashed a few years ago, Western brands became prohibitively expensive for many young people. Russian-speaking kids started mixing up the streetwear pieces they already owned with obscure thrift store finds and stuff they’d uncovered from their parents’ wardrobes, creating that spontaneous mashup of styles that you see so often in Gosha’s photography.
“The main idea is the beauty of Russia and its new generation” Gosha explained to BoF. He’s using streetwear and photography as a platform to tell the world about his homeland, and he’s constantly finding inspiration in the country’s youths. His aesthetic looks to the past, bringing back tracksuits, crudely-cut denim, faux furs and mass-market sportswear from the early ’90s. A lot of the Russians I’ve spent time with in Moscow feel a little strange when they see westerners dressed in clothing that would, in present-day Russia, be viewed as tacky or in poor taste. It’s a similar vibe with Vetements, whose aesthetic celebrates all things low-brow — ugly chic, you could call it. At the same time, though, people are immensely proud of what Gosha, Demna and Lotta are doing. They’re local heroes who are taking their culture to the global stage. My friends in Moscow, the Russians I meet on the fashion week circuit and Sanzhar, Highsnobiety’s Kazakh intern, all share a similar view.
People in the west have been so drawn to this new wave from the east because, like Russia itself, it’s simultaneously familiar and exotic. We all know what New York, Paris and London are about, even if we’ve never actually been there. Moscow, though, is something else. Spend a bit of time there and you’ll find McDonald’s, subways and churches (lots of churches), just like anywhere in the west. But menus are completely unreadable, the subway stations are grandiose monuments and the churches look almost like islamic mosques. It’s a collision of east and west, and it’s unlike anything you’ll find in Europe or America. Similarly, Gosha and Vetements make the sort of streetwear that we all know and love, but all the Russian lettering and obsession with consumerist logos feel like relics from the early ’90s, when the Soviet past and Western capitalist future collided.
2016 was the year that the Post-Soviet aesthetic went worldwide. A few years ago, nobody could imagine that two of the most coveted designers in the world would be a former hairdresser from Moscow and a Georgian with a fondness for the DHL logo. It shows just how global streetwear is these days — it’s a uniform that unites youths all over the world, and in many ways it’s overtaken music as the number one method of personal expression for young people. When I was a teenager, I queued up for hours to see bands I loved, and bought their albums on the day they released, and I tried (badly) to copy their style. Now, for a lot of young people, it’s the clothing itself — most commonly streetwear — that they identity with. They queue for hours on drop days to spend their money on streetwear, they talk about streetwear with people all over the world, and they use streetwear to identify themselves as part of a global, borderless, Internet-empowered community. That’s a powerful thing when you think of all the “us vs. them” narratives that are plaguing the media these days.
Nobody likes to be pigeonholed, fashion designers especially. Gosha told 032c that the Post-Soviet tag is “a cliché invented by the media,” and it pretty much is. I doubt Gvasalia or Volkova like it either, but labels help us to understand things that are new. They help us wrap our heads around things that are completely different to anything we’ve seen before, so we can see the bigger picture and appreciate just how important something is.
In the ’80s, six graduates from Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts turned the fashion world on its head. Dries Van Noten, Ann Demeulemeester, Walter van Beirendonck, Dirk Van Saene, Dirk Bikkembergs and Marina Yee came to be known as the Antwerp Six, and while each of them was a designer in their own right, they shared a radical, groundbreaking vision of fashion. Back then, the Antwerp Six probably hated the tag — not least because nobody could pronounce their actual names — but today they’re regarded as legends.
Maybe ten years down the line we’ll be talking about the leaders of the Post-Soviet movement — Gosha Rubchinskiy, Demna Gvasalia and Lotta Volkova — the same way people talk about the Antwerp Six: as legends. They’re part of the same generation, and they share a similar vision that goes beyond just aesthetics. They’re bridging the gap between east and west, shining a light on a beautiful part of the world that we never knew existed. Gosha is the first time a streetwear brand has “made it” from outside of the States, Europe or Japan, and it’s only a matter of time before designers from other places — it could be South Africa, Brazil, Indonesia, anywhere — are bringing their own cultures to the global stage too. In an industry that’s all too often dominated by what’s going on in New York, Paris and London, that’s worth celebrating.
The Post-Soviet movement was the most important thing to happen in fashion and streetwear this year, because it is in such sharp contrast to what’s happening in the rest of the world. The West’s newfound love of the Russian alphabet, grey tower blocks and Gopnik-esque styling couldn’t be further from the global narratives placing Russia in conflict with Europe and America. It’s shown that kids from Moscow, Kiev and Tbilisi are just like their peers in New York, Paris and London, or anywhere else for that matter. “All the fights in the press where people are divided into “us” and “them” are just bullshit.” Gosha told 032c. “But on the other hand, there is a great international unity of young people… I feel a great energy that comes from youth all over the world. Old people can keep making wars for money, but we’ll grow up and change the world.” In a world that seems to be spiraling deeper and deeper into tribalism, streetwear’s sense of global community is more important than ever.
The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Highsnobiety as a whole.
- Cover Image: Gosha Rubchinskiy