It’s been a good couple of years for Gosha Rubchinskiy. Recent seasons have seen him embed himself in the mainstream, where his profile seems to grow exponentially with every passing six-month cycle. I’m sure Gosha’s success can be bluntly measured in the ever-so banal terms of sales and revenue, but the clearest indicator of his upward trajectory came last Friday with the unveiling of his latest collab, which just happens to be with a certain British fashion house called Burberry.
The eight-piece collection, which debuted alongside the rest of his SS18 range, consists of reversible bombers, shirts, shorts and a number of bucket hats, all of which are smeared in Burberry’s famous check pattern.
For Brits of a certain age, the Burchinskiy collab would’ve triggered a strong sense of deja vu, causing memories of the “chav panic” of the early-to-mid 2000s to come flooding back – a period when the famed fashion house became associated with the problem poor, nouveau riche and football hooligans. This was clearly Gosha’s intention, as he told i-D after the show: “English people know more about chavs. But I have football fan friends, who are a generation older than me, and they were all about Burberry.”
It’s ironic that Burberry agreed to this collab. Although its creative director-turned-CEO, Christopher Bailey, might claim that he has “never been snotty about it, because I feel that's a very important part of our history,” the brand went through a real crisis of identity some 15 years ago as it desperately tried to shake off its chavvy image.
In case you’re not familiar with the term “chav”, it’s a derogatory term in the UK that’s commonly used to describe aggressive, anti-social, working class youth who dress in tracksuits and Burberry caps – the British equivalent of “white trash,” essentially. Its relevance has drastically declined over the past half-decade or so, but back then it was the center of a moral panic that swept the nation.
Burberry’s British sales were falling at the time as some pubs barred entry to anyone wearing it (a similar fate befell that other hooligan staple, Stone Island). Soap actress, Danniella Westbrook, then hammered the final nail into its dignity when she was photographed dressed head-to-toe in Burberry plaid as she pushed her child around in a matching stroller. This popularized the brand with gaudy provincials and caused a wave of counterfeits to flood the market, tarnishing its exclusive, aristocratic image in the process.
Bailey was promoted to creative director in 2004 in an attempt to stop the rot, a move which involved removing its trademark tartan from all but 5 percent of the brand’s products and discontinuing the now-infamous checkered cap.
That’s why the Burchinskiy collab comes as such a surprise. Gosha’s aesthetic borrows heavily from gopniks – Russia’s carbon copy of the chav – and, as he outlined so explicitly, his collaboration with Burberry is directly inspired by its global popularity with football casuals.
Just over a decade ago the brand went to drastic measures to purge this undesirable element from its fan base, yet now it’s more than happy to re-associate with that exact same demographic – if only visually. What gives?
The rise of the “nu lad” has probably played a part, but perhaps it’s the geographical gap that has pushed Burberry bigwigs into such a drastic turnaround: gopniks and Rubchinskiy are completely unfamiliar to most of Britain. Many will be able to identify the unspoken chav references, but they’re presented in such a stylized, flamboyant way that it makes them acceptable.
The Gosha brand might qualify as streetwear but it has just enough high fashion theatricality (case in point: that two-tone trench) to repel any real chavs or casuals, who probably wouldn’t have heard of it anyway.
What’s often overlooked is why the Burberry cap proved so popular with working class louts: because it was the cheapest item in the brand’s offering but also the most visible, giving them maximum bang for the smallest possible outlay.
The only items in the Rubchinskiy range that fits that criteria are the shirt and the bucket hat. The latter isn’t something that chavs wear while the rest of the offering is probably beyond their budget. It’s clear that calculated steps have been taken to sanitize the collab and minimize its appeal to the problem poor.
The world was a very different place in the mid-2000s. Social media was in its infancy and the internet hadn’t yet developed its wry tone. It was a much more sincere era when irony wasn’t the dominant ethos of our collective culture. Enough time has passed for the chav panic to be a distant memory, while the proliferation of irony has emboldened brands because they can deflect criticism by hiding behind an ironic shield.
You can’t attack a brand like Vetements for its ugly designs or its overpriced DHL tees because it’s so self-aware that it’s beyond critique. Demna Gvasalia has already anticipated every barb you could possibly throw at him – in fact, he actively uses them to steer his creative process.
When Burberry agreed to collaborate with Gosha it foresaw that web commentators such as myself would point to the obvious hypocrisy of embracing post-sovietism after scorning the British lower classes for so long, but postmodern irony is so pervasive in this day and age that these sort of criticisms can be laughed off. It’s all for the lulz, they can say, and the joke is on me because I’m the one taking it seriously enough to engage and scrutinize. Any criticism is neutered by default because it has already taken into account.
Ultimately, the loutish undertones of Gosha’s designs don’t bother Burberry execs because they’re still in control of their brand image. The collab was one that they approved of and you would expect them to have had some sway over the final outcome.
When football thugs, chavs and the nouveau riche adopted the brand at the dawn of the millennium, it was treated as a hijacking because it hadn’t been commissioned in the brand’s boardroom, much in the same way that Louis Vuitton sued Supreme some 15 years ago for copyright infringement only to team up with them recently once the skate brand’s profile grew far too big to ignore.
This highlights the fundamentally exploitative dynamic at the heart of the fashion industry: although brands are always ready to appropriate street culture and the working classes for inspiration, that exchange never goes both ways.
But maybe the answer is far more banal: it’s hardly a secret that Burberry’s profits are in the toilet right now. Just last month, Fortune reported that its pretax profits have dropped 21 percent due to weak demand. Marco Gobetti is due to become the brand’s new CEO and will be tasked with strengthening the brand while improving efficiency. Bailey’s duties are set to be confined to the creative side of the business. A collab with Gosha, one of fashion’s most vogueish properties, is evidently an attempt at turning around the brand’s fortunes.
In a way, Burberry has come full circle since those panicky days in the mid-2000s: profits were falling and the chavs got the blame, now they’re being used to drag the brand out of its financial slump. Oh, the irony.
For more on Gosha Rubchinskiy, relive the prolific Russian designer's first ever show in detail.