For the second installment of Counterfeit Culture, Highsnobiety's first-ever documentary series, we headed to Moscow to find what’s driving Russia’s thriving market for fake streetwear. Russia’s counterfeit industry stretches back decades, to when Communism isolated the country from Western products. Now, almost 30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia's borders are open, but a fragile economy, international sanctions and low wages has kept demand for fakes alive and well.
As we were filming Counterfeit Culture: Moscow, we met some unique characters with fascinating stories to tell — in Russia, a country that's been through revolutions, financial crashes and wars, everyone has a story to tell. We met a woman who made fake adidas tracksuits in a friend's apartment, a metalhead who smuggled jeans into the USSR, and a guy who runs a skate shop side-by-side with people selling fakes.
You can watch Counterfeit Culture: Moscow in the player above, and below you'll find full-length interviews with some of the people we met. Their stories bring to life a world of smuggling, counterfeits and gangsters, told through the lens of counterfeit clothing. Enjoy.
Ilya Prima is one of Moscow’s biggest streetwear resellers. He originally sold weed, but that became too dangerous, and many of his friends ended up in prison; so he started reselling streetwear instead. We met Ilya in the car park of a massive shopping center in Moscow, where he explained the popularity of Chinese-made fakes.
As well as fake webstores, there's people selling knockoffs who offer a service similar to Ilya. You can DM them on Instagram or ring them up to arrange a deal in-person. Ilya also told us why there will probably never be a Supreme store in Russia (hint: too much corruption), and why the launch of the Supreme x Louis Vuitton collaboration was a complete disaster. Or, in his words, "like a cheap hardcore porno."
Ilya isn't the only entrepreneur in his family — his mother, Larisa, produced fake adidas tracksuits in her youth. She hand-stitched stripes onto clothing in an apartment in Moscow, while her husband was lucky enough to own a real, German-made adidas tracksuit: a fantasy for most people at the time. adidas was such a status symbol in Soviet Russia that resellers would often flip tracksuits for double the price (sound familiar?), as they were a must-have for any self-respecting man — gangsters especially.
The mythical status of adidas in Russia — where the label was almost impossible to get hold of — shows just how powerful status symbols are: they communicate across borders and languages. The Iron Curtain didn't stop Russians from lusting after Western sportswear during the USSR, and a fragile economy and global sanctions haven't stopped them from wanting hyped streetwear now, either.
Sergey Yaremenko has been in the clothing business for decades, and his career has run parallel with that of gangsters and black marketers. Like many Russians of his generation, he got his first glimpse of Western products when the USSR hosted the Olympic games in 1980. By the end of the ’80s, the counterfeit industry had sprung up in Russia, with many local workshops producing fake versions of coveted Western styles.
The clothes made by bootleggers followed trends that were popular in Russia — Levi's jeans made way for tracksuits in the early ’90s, and by the mid ’90s it was all about flashy Italian labels like Dolce & Gabbana and Versace. The ’90s was a time of cultural upheaval in Russia, and it's a period that Gosha Rubchinskiy constantly looks back to in his collections — as Sergey explains.
In many ways, the counterfeit industry holds a mirror up to our own desires. Communism couldn't stop ordinary Russians from dreaming of consumer products, which they glimpsed at through record covers, magazines and the Olympics. Now, it's social media that's giving people images of things they can't own. Hyped streetwear is out of reach for many people, not just because of economics and sanctions, but because exclusivity is built into its business model. It's inevitable that people would step in to fill the void, just like they did with fake jeans and tracksuits in the USSR.
Now, Sergey is the official distributer for Red Wing boots in Russia, and he runs his own shop, Code 7, which specializes in heritage workwear and American classics. He owns over 2,000 pairs of jeans, and traces his love of American style back to the record covers of ’80s metal bands like Whitesnake and Motley Crue.
Sergey Didkovskiy, aka Grandfather, runs one of Russia’s oldest skate shops, Prodvizhenie (aka Pro Skate). Sergey runs his shop in a mall next to an old ice rink in Moscow, which is filled with shops selling counterfeits. Sergey will often spot people wearing fakes of the brands he sells — Thrasher, especially — that they’ve bought from his neighbors.
Like many Russian businesses, Pro Skate has struggled to stay afloat during the country's economic crisis, which has only increased the amount of fakes in the country: next to Pro Skate, we found bootleg versions of everything from Supreme x The North Face jackets to Stone Island patches (yep, no clothes — just the patches).
The fact that legit businesses sit side-by-side with ones selling fakes just shows you how prevalent counterfeiting is in Russia. The government has little interest in tackling fakes unless they're a threat to public safety — e.g. car parts and pharmaceuticals — and they're so commonplace that it's often hard to tell what's real and what isn't.
You can buy fakes in marketplaces all over Russia, and Moscow's indoor bazaars are filled with bootlegs of all the usual suspects: Supreme, Balenciaga, Gucci, Off-White, YEEZYs, you name it. Supreme x Louis Vuitton was particularly popular with bootleggers — we found bags, wallets and belts covered in box logos and monograms, and some hilarious frankenstein creations, too. They're not exactly cheap — a pair of Balenciaga Triple S sneakers cost almost $200 — but compared to the excruciating price of designer goods in Russia, they're a bargain.
It's not just clothing, bags and shoes that are being faked either — you'll even find shopping bags covered in bootleg fashion logos.
David Aylen is a Managing Partner of Gowling WLG in Moscow, and an expert on copyright law and anti-counterfeiting in Russia. Counterfeit clothing is, clearly, widespread in the country, but that doesn't mean the government isn't aware of it — it's just that the Russian authorities are focussing their energies on threats to public safety. Experts estimate that as much as 30% of over-the-counter pharmaceuticals in Russia are fake, and bootleg car parts also pose a risk to the public.
While the country itself has strict control over its borders, less could be said of its neighbors. Kazakhstan, for example, borders with China, where the vast majority of black market goods are produced, and a free trade agreement with Russia means that goods can pass from Kazakhstan into Russia without inspection.
Russia has imported Western culture for decades, but in recent years designers from the former USSR have drawn international attention to the old Soviet bloc. Muscovite Gosha Rubchinskiy and Georgian designer Demna Gvasalia have sparked an interest from the global fashion press, which likes to call this new wave of creativity the "post-Soviet" aesthetic.
This new-found fascination with the east is something many Russians feel uneasy about. People in the industry here think the post-Soviet aesthetic is a myth, and while Gosha is a local hero for his patriotic take on streetwear, the idea of the entire country being reduced to grey tower blocks and tracksuit-clad youths is seen as a cheap cliché that makes it easy for Westerners to understand the country.
You can see on the streets that Russians dress pretty much the same as their peers all over the world: Puffer jackets, sneakers and jeans were the look of choice for young Russians, and the prevalence of bootleg Supreme, Palace and YEEZYs shows that they're just as plugged in to global youth culture as their peers anywhere else.