Along with off-kilter Gucci nerdiness, the fashion obsession of the moment is the post-Soviet chic envisaged by Gosha Rubchinskiy, Vetements and the new Balenciaga, styled by uber-stylist – as she has been recently dubbed by Vogue – Lotta Volkova Adam.
A bit trashy, a bit provocative, slightly exotic and spiced up with a tinge of bad taste, the new post-Soviet aesthetic attracts a cult-like following.
It's hard to say now where the popularity of the post-Soviet style began. Maybe the story started when Gosha Rubchinskiy met Adrian Joffe of the Dover Street Market at a friend’s party, or when Demna Gvasalia showed one of his first lookbooks to stylist Lotta Volkova, or maybe when Vika Gazinskaya was asked to decorate the shop windows at Colette in the 2000s.
What is clear, though, is that the hype is on the rise with young designers from all over the world imitating the fashionable Cyrillic script and fashion bloggers rushing to St. Petersburg to capture the hot young crowd (see the @le21eme Insta). But what exactly is the contemporary Eastern European aesthetic, and what makes it so special?
The Dissolution of the Soviet Bloc
The main point of attraction is arguably the aura of exoticism that still surrounds the post-Soviet bloc. For more than 50 years the Soviet Union remained a totally closed, isolated society, inaccessible for outsiders, mysterious and vaguely threatening. That’s why its collapse presented a sort of social conundrum to the rest of the world – in a rapidly globalizing world, the countries and cultures of the former Soviet Union were strikingly different and unfamiliar.
However, from the post-Soviet perspective, it was the outer world that seemed an exotic and unknown place. Despite the mild democratization that started in the Soviet Union in the 1980s, Western art and literature, just like the home dissident and underground culture, were still hard to get one's hands on.
It was the 1990s that put an end to censorship and created the impression of total freedom. The early 1990s, one of the most controversial times in the recent history of the former Soviet republics, was an era of powerful cultural upsurge. Art and literature that had been banned before – including so-called dissident, underground Soviet culture as well as Western culture – could now be accessed freely.
The Influx of Western Culture in the East
This created opportunities that the Soviet creative scene had never known before. The masses were fascinated by the arrival of international magazines and the newly-attained availability of Hollywood cinema that were rapidly incorporated in the popular culture. The now-iconic Titanic hoody by Vetements is also a piece inspired by the Eastern European 1990s that were literally flooded with cheap T-shirts decorated with poorly-made prints of Kate’s teary face.
At the same time, it was not only Western culture that was imported, but – following the deregulation of the economy – the principles of the Western consumerism, which was a complete novelty at the time. In the Soviet Union, goods from the West, like jeans or Coca-Cola, had had an almost mythical status and were now being imported freely.
Brands and logos were being discovered and re-invented; turning into the symbols of the new order. Gosha Rubchinskiy’s SS17 collection featuring abundant logos and brand names was reminiscent of this 1990s fascination with products and consumer goods.
The Impact on Soviet Creatives
It's noteworthy that most of the fashion creatives from the former Soviet Union who are now celebrated internationally are in their late 20s to early 30s, meaning that they were very young when the Soviet Union fell apart. For them, the Soviet republics are a half-mythical past, the decaying remains of which are still scattered across countries – empty buildings, crumbling monuments and grey concrete walls covered with amateur-looking tags.
This atmosphere of the post-Soviet angst permeates works by Ukrainian photographer Lesha Berezovskiy, and can be traced through the collections of the Moscow-based Sputnik 1985 or the celebrated Gosha Rubchinskiy whose fascination with the Russian skater scene and its main habitat – urban fringes – is universally known.
Trying to explore the mythical Soviet past, designers turn to the early years of the Soviet era with its utopian idealism and absolute faith in the socialist model of society.
The Rise of Constructivism
The beliefs of the time were, perhaps, best articulated by the Constructivist movement. Constructivism, which was a design movement as much as it was an art movement, propagated egalitarianism and offered a new type of clothing that was supposed to suit people of the new formation – utilitarian, simple, clear-cut.
Basically, the Constructivist idea of "clothes for the future" was a uniform, and though their utopian vision of the perfect uniform society was never meant to come true, it influenced the whole history of the almost-ascetic Soviet fashion.
While the Constructivist-inspired purity of form has become one of the core principles of the still-popular normcore trend, Constuctivism itself is a constant reference point in the works by Ukrainian designer Yulia Yefimtchuk, the Moscow-based brand Nina Donis and ZDDZ by Dasha Selyanova. It's not surprising that normcore hype emerged from Demna Gvasalia, who was born in Soviet Georgia.
Equality and Feminism
Another aspect of Soviet culture that strikes a cord with contemporary fashion is the stance on equality and feminism.
As Lotta Volkova, the Vladivostok-born stylist who works with Demna Gvasalia for both Vetements and Balenciaga said in an interview with Vogue, growing up in post-Soviet Russia meant she was used to seeing women as strong and independent, and she now seeks to channel this attitude in her work.
For the young fashion creatives from the former Soviet Union, fashion has become a source of empowerment as well as a means to understand and reconcile the past. Hence, we see lookbooks shot on the Red Square with Lenin’s mausoleum as a background, models styled as prim heroines of the old Soviet cinema and outfits reminiscent of the retro school uniforms.
The New Post-Soviet Aesthetic
The new post-Soviet aesthetic is the epitome of postmodern irony with its crazy, incoherent, startling mixture of allusions and motifs. The new collides with the old in quirky ways – for instance, Gosha Rubchinskiy’s works are inspired by the skater subculture and decorated with the orthodox “Cпаси и сохрани” (“Guard and save”) written in the old Cyrillic, and Demna Gvasalia’s collections oscillate between Soviet asceticism and the sexy audaciousness of the Western ’80s.
The strength of the new set of East European creatives is their ability to move freely between the global culture and the culture of the former Soviet Union, connecting East and West in a way the politics never could.
With its candor and irony, wit and simplicity of design, the new Soviet aesthetic has garnered hype for a good reason. It's exciting to watch this style evolve as designers discover new inspirations within the Soviet cultural legacy.
For more fashion from the East, check out this month's installment of Meanwhile, In Japan.