Gosha Rubchinskiy leans back into a sofa in the lounge of a could-be-anywhere chain hotel in Kaliningrad, Russia. He's on what must be his sixth or seventh interview of the day, having just shown his FW17 collection to an intimate audience of Russian industry insiders and international fashion editors.
"I thinks it’s a cliché. The press can’t say what it is so they try to put it in a box. I don’t know what it is. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why I invited you to Kaliningrad, so you can see the post-Soviet look with your own eyes."
Ever since Gosha sent the world crazy with his streetwear label, people have been talking non-stop about the so-called "post-Soviet" aesthetic, a term coined by the press to describe a new wave of creativity coming from the former USSR. Rubchinskiy, along with Vetements and Balenciaga's Demna Gvasalia and cool-as-fuck mega-stylist Lotta Volkova, have been outrageously successful in recent years, and their work has been the topic of countless online think-pieces and op-eds.
Nobody likes to be pigeonholed – fashion designers especially — so it's hardly surprising that Gosha is less than enthused when I ask him what he thinks of the post-Soviet trend. Regardless, grouping peoples' work together — whether it's musicians, artists or fashion designers — helps us understand it and appreciate its significance. In my opinion, the post-Soviet wave was the most important thing to happen in fashion last year.
Gosha's work looks back to ’90s Russia, when the country was in the midst of cultural and economic upheaval. Many Russians were, and still are, trapped in poverty, and so to many people the tracksuits, crudely-cut denim and baggy sweaters that Gosha resurrects in his collections were a sign of poor taste or low social stature.
Many have argued that this cultural revivalism is ethically problematic. My colleague Aleks Eror, who grew up in socialist-era Yugoslavia, argues that "it’s a form of class tourism: moneyed Westerners fetishizing commodified poverty that they have the privilege of discarding once it’s not so cool anymore."
Online commenters, op-ed writers and editors have been talking about the post-Soviet wave forever, but nobody has actually asked Russians what they think. I've been lucky enough to make many Russian friends since I first visited Moscow fashion week in 2015, so I hit them up — as well as some of the boys who walked in Gosha's FW17 show — to see what they think of the post-Soviet trend.
Their opinions offer a unique insight into how the fashion world's latest obsession is perceived on the other side of the Russian border.
Olga Karput is the founder of Moscow concept store KM20, which is kinda like Russia's Dover Street Market. KM20 was one of the first stores in the world to get behind Gosha, and they've been supporting him since the very beginning.
Ivan Shemyakin walked in Gosha's FW17 show, and stars in the designer's Journey to Kaliningrad mini-film, where he reads out prose by legendary Russian poet Alexander Pushkin. He travelled thousands of miles from Siberia to walk in the show and also skates for PACCBET.
When did you first notice that the world was taking an interest in Russian fashion?
Olga Karput, KM20: I’d say it was around two years ago. It was happening slowly for quite some time and then Russia took Crimea back. The international media was constantly attacking our politics, then there were sanctions and the ruble crashed. Everyone in Russia was expecting bad news for the industry and retailers started to close. And suddenly, for the fashion industry, Russia became so much more attractive. Young kids from USA — where Russia was presented as the number one enemy — wanted to wear Russian flags on their T-shirts.
Kirill Astrakhantsev, SLOWW Magazine: The first global recognition of Russia I saw was during the #menswear trend. FOTT was the first Russian store which had its editorials and videos posted on the big fashion and streetwear online magazines. With the help of the sneaker industry, the store became even more known globally, because we did collaborations and were the only account in Russia to stock, for example, Nike Tier Zero, adidas Consortium, Reebok Certified Network and Vans Vault.
Then Gosha came. He was the only person who managed to take something very Russian and transform it into something cool. He took the bad taste we saw in the streets years back and represented it in a classy way, and mixed it with skate culture. He wasn’t afraid to take things from our past. That was tough; nobody cared about it, and this "heritage" was considered uninspiring. Many kids at school dressed that way, because they didn’t have enough money. Gosha turned these harsh times into something unique.
About 2-3 years back, when our crew was traveling to the cities like London, Milan and Paris, most of the people knew only two things about Russian fashion: FOTT and Gosha Rubchinskiy.
How do you feel about the post-Soviet aesthetic? Is it just a trend?
Olga: It has always existed and it's a part of our past. Most people working in the industry now are in their 20s and 30s, so they were all a part of post-Soviet Russia. It means all those people who form the industry at the moment take inspiration from their childhood, so no wonder the post-Soviet aesthetic is popular. From my point of view it is very natural.
Kirill: It is interesting to see how so many brands try to use it. Gosha doesn't consider his brand to be “post-Soviet,” and it became kind of a cliché. To see head-to-toe Gosha looks in the Russian streets is kinda strange. We already saw it years back without any fashion context, and it was associated with bad economic situations and a lack of taste. But for kids who were born in late ’90s onwards it is easier to perceive this style impartially, because they didn’t see it in those times.
For kids in the West this trend is fresh. I saw many guys in London, for example, who wore the “post-Soviet” trend and looked really cool. From a cultural point of view, this style is original and it put Russia on the global fashion map — not just as a copycat of the West.
Tolia Titaev: I think if someone uses it and they’re not from Russia, it’s bullshit. You just need to make your own story, with your own rules. If you do something symbolic just because you like how it looks, it doesn’t work. I think everyone can hype up their own city or country, if they use it in the right way.
Ivan Shemyakin: It’s a very interesting question. I think it’s a geopolitical process, and it reflects in fashion too. Russia came back in the world area, Russian politics and people have a voice in this world. They can show people what happens here. We have been isolated — every country thought that Russia isn’t so good. They thought it was very bad after the Soviet Union, that we were bad people.
Now we can rethink this period of history. We understand that not everything was so bad. We see that, and Gosha does too. Gosha is a patriot, he watched our history with good and bad moments. He tries to explain with his work what's happening here, and I think he does it very well, and the world understands it.
Valentin Fufaev: In my opinion, people from places like London, Paris, the USA, Tokyo have never seen it, and Gosha brings it up today. Russian people got bored with it, so Russian people don’t care about Gosha. They kind of like it, and they say that they saw it 20-30 years ago, but people from Europe, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, from all over the world are interested in it. So they get deep into post-Soviet culture. It works with fashion right now — it gets interesting.
Artem Nanushyan: Russia before Gosha was closed off, no one would even think that it could become this big, cool and popular. He’s the voice of post-Soviet Russia. He’s the true voice that doesn’t say anything. He talks to you without words. You look at it and understand that all these things are so close and true, that everything you thought before doesn’t matter. It’s difficult to me talk about it now, because I’m not drunk (laughs). We come together and each day we are growing and making what we want. Thanks to Gosha, we can make things easier and we can do bigger things.
How do you see the future of the Russian fashion scene?
Olga Karput: I see it in a very positive way. We have lots of talented young people, and they're creating every day. Whether it's clothes, music, visuals or any other form of expression, there is a lot of energy here, but we need a system of support for young people here. At KM20 we have an idea on how to make it work, to create some kind of platform that will support young designers. If everything works out then the world will see many more talents from Russia.
Kirill Astrakhantsev: Russia is still something unknown for the fashion guys from other countries. It has such a strong and rich cultural background which is very inspiring. There are so many young talents here that aren't spoiled with brainless consumption and cultural stereotypes. I hope all of them will have the guts to make their abilities shine to the people. Russia is evolving in many fields — it has great skaters, BMX riders, contemporary artists and musicians. All these spheres are getting more developed. Fashion is also on this course.
For more Gosha reading, check out the meanings behind some of his best graphics.