Russia has always fascinated me. From the times of the tsar to the Soviet Union and now the terrifying undemocratic and corrupt rule of Putin, it’s a country of extremes. The sheer size of the country, to the language, different people, the history and the politics, I have an enthusiasm for Russia that is mingled with terror.
In the recent years it has spread to fashion, with the rise of the so-called ‘post-Soviet aesthetic’, spearheaded by designer Gosha Rubchinskiy, as well as genial stylist Lotta Volkova and of course Balenciaga and Vetements creative director Demna Gvasalia. Their takeover of fashion’s aesthetic is incredibly influential, and I personally love it. So, when it was time for me to write my dissertation (thesis, final essay, C-uppsats etc.), I knew I had to write about A) something to do with Russia B) something related to current fashion. The result ended as “Subculture in a postmodern world: The post-Soviet aesthetic by poster boy and designer Gosha Rubchinskiy”.
The choice of topic feels even more relevant now that Gosha has closed the chapter of his brand Gosha Rubchinskiy, by recently announcing that he’s stopping it in order to begin something new.
Post-Soviet is a term coined by the press to describe a young generation born in Russia and former socialist states in Eastern Europe, in the 1980s and 1990s (Eshun and Fedorova, 2018). This generation is shaping modern Russian culture, including art, music, and of course, fashion. The post-Soviet aesthetic in fashion, describes a look inspired by Russian dress following the fall of the Soviet Union, in 1991, made popular by designers from the region, prominently Russian Gosha Rubchinskiy, seen in the cover image for this dissertation (Staub, 2014). It is a way of dressing that largely fits into the category streetwear, “casual clothing of a style worn especially by members of various urban youth subcultures” (Streetwear, no date). According to writer and critic Steven Vogel, streetwear has its origins in subcultures in 1980s New York, where young people felt alienated from society, and streetwear came to represent the style of inner city communities influenced by skateboarding, punk, hip-hop, club culture, graffiti, and other activities (2007). It quickly became a worldwide phenomenon (Vogel, 2007). The post-Soviet trend has grown popular inside and outside of Russia, in the past ten years, while it has manifested an unprecedented high status in the world of fashion in the last three years. This is based on its increased appearance in fashion and culture media from 2015 until 2018. This dissertation will decode the aesthetic, analyse its subcultural elements and explore its rise in the world of fashion.
The initial stages of research for this dissertation are based on Yunia Kawamura’s Doing Research in Fashion and Dress. I aim to study the fashion phenomenon of the post-Soviet aesthetic objectively, to analyse its nature and characteristics. The dissertation question will be answered with research executed through visual and textual analysis. The research strategy used in this dissertation is based on secondary research, using academic theory on subcultures by writer David Muggleton (2000) and subcultural capital by writer and sociologist Sarah Thornton (1995), as I aim to explore this contemporary aesthetic as a subculture. To study the rise of the aesthetic, I look at diffusion of subcultural elements in fashion through the bubble up effect, using Ted Polhemus (1994) theories. Visual analysis of an image by the case study Gosha Rubchinskiy, is decoded, to reveal what the aesthetic entails, using theory by Martin Lister and Liz Wells, in Theo van Leeuwen and Carey Jewitt’s Handbook of Visual Analysis (2001). Lister and Wells’ “Cultural studies as an approach of analysing the visual” (2001, p. 61) entails looking at the “‘everydayness’ of culture, an interest in culture as the process through which a society or social group produces meanings” (Lister and Wells, 2001, 63-64) to understand the image, as well as focusing on the image’s history, production, circulation, consumption, visual properties and representation (Lister and Wells, 2001). The case study of designer Gosha Rubchinskiy is chosen for his fundamental role in shaping the post-Soviet aesthetic, which will be further explained in the three chapters.
Anastasiia Fedorova, a Russian journalist who specialises in Eastern European fashion and culture, has provided context for the post-Soviet aesthteic. Her published articles provide information to deepen textual analysis. Fedorova grew up during the post-Soviet era, and writes frequently for The Calvert Journal, an online magazine dedicated to culture from Eastern Europe, the Balkans, Russia and Central Asia (no date). In addition, I have read about the history of the subject in Dr Djurdja Bartlett’s book FashionEast, about fashion in 20th Century Eastern Europe (2010). I am using secondary research because published fashion and culture articles, mostly found online, as well as cultural studies books on fashion, have provided me the information and facts needed – the evidence is edited, published and readily available.
My research is a combination of local knowledge sourced from journalism and interviews, fashion and dress theory, as well as academic theory in order to place the subject in the field of cultural studies. This will contribute evidence to the dissertation question. Although informative and analytical fashion and culture journalism exists, limited academic theory is published on the subject of the post-Soviet aesthetic, as it is a relatively new phenomenon. Therefore, I have applied existing theories to study it.
As Malcolm Collier says, “When we use the camera to make a visual record we make choices influenced by our identities and intentions, choices that are also affected by our relationship with the subject” (2001, 35). Therefore, meanings coming through in the visual analysis are not singular facts and truths, “but rather produces one or more viewpoints on human circumstances.” (2001, p. 36). “’Looking’ is always embodied and undertaken by someone with an identity” (Lister and Wells, 2001, p. 65), in this case from the perspective of a 21-year-old fashion journalism student in London, from Sweden. A limitation of my strategy is that I come from a Western perspective, which may limit my understanding of the circumstances of the post-Soviet aesthetic. The observations and conclusions are not certified as totally reliable or comprehensive. The research method, theories and visual analysis are used to answer the question of this individual dissertation. As Lister and Wells state, “In this sense, there is no neutral looking” (2001, p. 65). The analysis is based on a representation, not reality.
Chapter 1: Contextualisation and history of the post-Soviet aesthetic and introduction to the aesthetic and designer Gosha Rubchinskiy
Access to fashion in the USSR was limited, “there was no place for fashion because the new Communist regimes wanted to abolish all previous traditions” (Bartlett, 2010, p. 14). “Socialist good taste was the official aesthetics in the everyday. It was granted political approval because it was ordinary, anonymous, moderate, and banal” (Bartlett, 2010, 8). There was limited foreign influence. People had little to no contact with foreign culture and media. Fashion is a self-realising and individual practice, that aims to express the individual, and those practices were antagonised in the Soviet ideology, “the regime wanted to control dress” (Bartlett, 2010, 9). The fashion that existed was austere, focused on making the wearer look appropriate and correctly dressed for purpose. Dr Djurdja Bartlett, reader in Histories and Cultures of Fashion at London College of Fashion, is interviewed by culture journalist Liza Foreman in an article published by BBC, she explains, “In the 1920s, constructivist artists engaged in dress and textile design, like [Aleksandr] Rodchenko, Varvara Stepanova (his wife) and Liubov Popova, embodying […] anxieties concerning fashion as a carrier of status and gender difference” (Bartlett in Foreman, 2017). Constructivism, was “an artistic philosophy which rejected art ‘for art’s sake’ and favoured art as a practice for social purposes” (Foreman 2017), and applied to fashion too.
Foreman explains that before blue jeans entered the market in 1989, Western clothes were not only difficult to find, but also hard to replicate (2017). After 1991, “The sudden arrival of neo-liberal capitalism allowed for a burst of creativity and energy, and opened communication channels with the West” (Bartlett in Foreman, 2017). She continues, “Having grown up during that time, Rubchinskiy and other young designers, feed on that raw energy” (Bartlett in Foreman, 2017).
While fashion was not USSR’s strong suit, it had a visual language, of great importance to strengthen the Soviet identity, and not least to communicate propaganda – an essential tool in any radical political nation through history. Propaganda in the form of art was not only used to decorate public spaces, such as trains and bus stops, but also to bring art into the home (Red Star over Russia, 2017). Art was democratised, and no longer an expensive hobby for the upper classes. Illustrations, graphic design, geometry, clean lines, symbols such as stars, hammer and sickle, large scale, and colours red, black, grey and white shaped the Soviet visual language. The exhibition Red Star Over Russia at Tate Modern showed Soviet art from 1905-1955 (2017). Although some visuals are over 100 years old, it inspires current designers, who translate propaganda art into contemporary fashion. Gosha Rubchinkiy’s spring/summer 2016 collection was inspired by Aleksandr Rodchenko, “a Russian artist who played a key role in the constructivist movement” (Foreman, 2017).
Russia, and large parts of Eastern Europe, underwent a major societal shift in the aftermath of a communist regime. An irreversible process of dissolution leading to the breakup of the Soviet Union caused the reconfiguration of nations and disruption of new legislation, borders, accessibility and opportunities (Kuchins, 2002). There was a struggle to establish a role in a social climate that transformed from being classless to being ridden by class and wealth divide. Many people became poorer after the fall of the communist regime, and lost employment (Stephenson, 2007). At the same time, capitalism paraded in, new brands, shops and concepts opened in Russia (Stephenson, 2007). “Everything that had been controlled became available all at once” (Godwin, 2017, p. 28).
“Postfashion opposes itself to quiet elegance, but also to comfortable sportiness, to Benetton, Esprit and Gap no less than to Hermès silk, pearl chain, cashmere twinset, and Brooks Brothers. With the growing readiness for ugliness, for the grotesque and the ridiculous, with the citations of a ‘perverse’ sexuality, postfashion exceeds its avant-garde beginnings; it becomes self-distanced, self-ironic, even if, in its weaker moments, it falls back on a tendency to épater le bourgeois [to wow the bourgeois]” (Vinken, 2005, 65). With those words professor Barbara Vinken explains ‘postfashion’, defined by what it opposes: conventional ideas of the purpose of fashion as ‘elegant’, ‘pretty’ and so on. Much like how punks wanted to appear as ‘anti-fashionable’ (Vinken, 2005), their look was of great importance, but disregarded conventional ideas. The post-Soviet style tribe arguably fits into ‘postfashion’.
A quarter century after the fall of the USSR, the New East has emerged. “Post-Soviet youth culture has become a style obsession, with images of suburban skinheads, crumbled infrastructure, and Brutalist housing blocks becoming fodder for fashion blogs and mood boards,” (2016a) summarises Fedorova, who recently co-curated gallery exhibition Post-Soviet Visions: Image and identity in the new Eastern Europe. The exhibition showcases artists who work with the post-Soviet aesthetic in art and fashion. “Instead of old binaries of East vs. West, socialist vs. capitalist, the exhibition’s photographers capture a generation shaped by issues that are personal rather than political: questions of sexuality, gender and cultural identity” (Eshun and Fedorova, 2018). The post-Soviet generation is the first to be able to explore beyond political boundaries, unlike their parents and grandparents. Personal aspects shape the aesthetic, they are redefining what ‘Eastern European’ is.
As Fedorova writes in the exhibition catalogue, “The aesthetic of these locations has been widely commodified and exoticised, but they’re much more than a backdrop – they shape the way we think, feel, breathe and remember,” about the post-Soviet generation, confirming that the aesthetic is embraced by locals (2018). To describe the aesthetic in terms of fashion, designers focusing on post-Soviet, “their interest is in disappearing worlds, with personal histories and national pride often interwoven heavily into their designs” (Foreman, 2017). Post-Soviet fashion is casual, sporty, utilitarian and androgynous, loose and slightly bulky in silhouette. Clothes are often unisex, liberated from masculine and feminine codes. Textiles mainly include polyester, polyamide, acrylic, spandex, cotton mixes, with dashes of denim and leather. In terms of details, prints are common, a result of inspiration from sportswear. Numbers, phrases in Cyrillic lettering, stripes and symbols often decorate t-shirts, jumpers, jackets, shorts, trousers, socks, and shoes. Key pieces include tracksuits, track pants, track tops, tank tops, bomber jackets, sports jersey tops, tube socks, oversize t-shirts, loose fitting jeans, caps and football-style sneakers, see Figure 1.1 and Figure 1.2 for examples. Although the style is updated, and now gender defying, it reminisces clothes from the 1990s, seen in the Russian movie Brother (Кинокомпания “СТВ”, 1997). Post-Soviet’s postfashion origins exceeds the avant-garde, as defined by Vinken, “avant-garde in fashion is anti-idealistic and non-conformist: it is experimental and aims to shock, rather than to create beauty and perfection” (Vinken, 2005, 64). The aesthetic avoids conforming to Western standards, and is not about beauty and perfection. To note, a sensitive reference in the post-Soviet aesthetic, is the pejorative term ‘gopnik’, which can be likened to the English stereotype ‘chav’, a member of the underprivileged class (Jones, 2011). “A ‘gopnik’ is like a country boy who doesn’t have any money so wears only what he can find in his local store and mixes it with no style. Adidas sneakers with a smart suit. Leather shoes with tracksuit,” explains Rubchinskiy (Rubchinskiy in Godwin, 2017, 28). Adidas tracksuits are associated with ‘gopniks’, the sensitivity of the this reference will be discussed further in Chapter 3.
A post-Soviet aesthetic representative is Gosha Rubchinskiy, Russian fashion designer and image maker, born 1984 in Moscow. He designs for his eponymous label, as well as skateboarding brand Paccbet, from ‘рассвет’, pronounced ‘Rassvet’, meaning ‘dawn’ in Russian (Leach, 2017a). His clothes fit right into the style described in the previous paragraph, while Paccbet is more focused in skateboarding clothes. He presented his first collection “Evil Empire” in late 2008. At the time, he was asked what the future of fashion would be, and he replied “I am the future. In 10 years, everyone will be talking about Gosha” (Porter, 2016). He was right. In 2012, he met Adrian Joffe, president of Paris brand Comme des Garçons [CDG], beginning a partnership with CDG as explained on Business of Fashion (Fedorova and Kansara, 2016). Thus, he entered high fashion and the international market. CDG manages the production of Gosha Rubchinskiy’s collections. The collections are sold at CDG owned store Dover Street Market, and its online store. By 2016, Gosha Rubchinskiy was stocked in 92 stores worldwide according to Financial Times (Porter, 2016). The brand’s prices are lower than its contemporaries, like Yeezy and Supreme, making it available to Rubchinskiy’s young fans. “If high-end collaboration deals are a marker of success in today’s fashion world, Rubchinskiy has hit the big time” wrote Foreman (2017), having collaborated with Burberry, Adidas and Carhartt to name a few.
Liana Statenstein, senior fashion writer for Vogue.com, describes Rubchinskiy’s look as “dishevelled”, “plucked from a bazaar”, “but in a chic way” in short documentary Counterfeit Culture Moscow (Highsnobiety, 2018). This rings of how people in the USSR assembled outfits, back then people styled themselves with what they had. An example from Counterfeit Culture Moscow: former Russian counterfeiter Larisa Prima describes how her boyfriend at the time dressed in an Adidas tracksuit, matched with smart Hugo Boss shoes and a suede jacket (Highsnobiety, 2018). The pieces were his finest, and what he could get his hands on, but are an odd combination to someone who has access to a wide variety of clothing. Gosha has taken the ‘what you have’ look, but tailored it and styled it. While Russians now have access to the same things as any European, many Russians cannot afford branded fashion. There is economic inequality and poverty is prevailing (Walker, 2017), making foreign brands unaffordable. This has caused a counterfeit market to prosper in Russia. Many people buy fake branded streetwear at markets. Many Russians are therefore still ‘fashion outsiders’, or arguably ‘fashion rebels’, as their look continues to alter from Western fashion.
Kirill Astrakhantsev, founder of Russian magazine and creative agency Sloww, says to Highsnobiety, “He [Rubchinskiy] 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. 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” (Astrakhantsev in Leach, 2017b). With a long presence on the Moscow streetwear scene, previously working at streetwear retailer Fott, Astrakhantsev acknowledges what Rubchinskiy has done for the post-Soviet aesthetic. “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” (Astrakhantsev in Leach, 2017b).
In his own words, when interviewed by London journalist Richard Godwin, for ES Magazine, Rubchinskiy says, “To be Russian is now to be part of the world. Before, we were separated. Now a mission of my generation and the younger generation is to be together with everyone else. That’s why it’s important for me to share some culture and some things which are important to me from my teenage years” (Rubchinskiy in Godwin, 2017, 28).
Chapter 2: The post-Soviet aesthetic as a subculture, bubbling up as a fashion trend
Statenstein explains that the fashion coming from Russia makes people want to see what else the country offers (Highsnobiety, 2018). There is a curiosity beyond just wearing the clothing, which has caused the trend to last season after season. It is an aesthetic that people live by, possibly going further than just dressing that way, but also listening to music, raving, enjoying art from that region; it is arguably a postmodern subculture, based on Dick Hebdige’s theory, a group of people who resist dominant culture they live in. Subcultures have their own shared conventions and values, opposing dominant culture, through, for example, fashion (Hebdige, 1979).
Subculture according to Muggleton, “is a complex lived reality, not a static material thing” (2000, 22), and ever-changing because of newly transmitted cultural elements (Fine and Kleinman 1979 in Muggleton, 2000). The “Contemporary subcultural styles can be understood as a symptom of hyperindividualism” (Muggleton, 2000, 6). Unlike earlier subcultures when the experience was collective, now, Muggleton argues, subculture is about the individual’s expression. Muggleton writes about postmodern subcultures, “in the process of making a move to a new historical period or form of society,” here, post-Soviet youth, who grew up during a historical shift in Russia, fits in. Muggleton says that there is “no basis for the distinction between real and pretend. Punk is what you make it” (2000, 2) which allows for fluid meanings of subcultures. Looking at post-Soviet, phenomenologically (Muggleton, 2000), it is lived out as a subculture through style and activities, two being raving and skateboarding.
In the subculture of skateboarding
“The work of Gosha Rubchinskiy turned the experience of growing up in 1990s Russia into a new subculture” (Fedorova, no date a). Fedorova sees that Rubchinskiy’s work has emulated the post-Soviet culture beyond an aesthetic, into a subculture. An activity implemented in the post-Soviet aesthetic is skateboarding.
Skateboarding is a subculture in itself, referencing to Hebdige’s theory above. Skateboarders engage in a lifestyle, including dressing in a certain style, with skating as their leisure activity. Skateboarders appropriate urban environments and use them for fun, see Figure 2.1. For example, they jump down a flight of stairs with a skateboard, instead of walking the stairs, use a park bench to perform a trick, instead of sitting on the bench. There is a rebellious element in skateboarding, recalling the trait of a subculture creating its own conventions and resisting norms. It is about the individual’s experience of freedom and leisure, but in a collective group where there is belonging, shown through dress. Skaters, whether in California, Moscow or London (Post-Soviet Visions, 2018), share this dress code, which often consists of loose-fitting trousers, shorts, t-shirts, hoodies, skateboard sneakers, beanies and caps, see Figure 2.1 and 2.2. As fashion reporter Marc Bain wrote about streetwear, which skateboarding clothes categorises as, it “isn’t just a t-shirt, a hoodie […]. It’s an idea, and it’s a culture” (Bain, 2018). Gosha Rubchinskiy’s Paccbet reproduces this dress code.
Another rebellious element of skating, in opposition to dominant culture, is its inclusiveness of class and background. Gosha Rubchinskiy accounts on Moscow skaters who experiment with style, “Skating unites people. You find crazy rich kids and poor street kids and they’re all wearing the same stuff. […]. Some will like rock, some will like hip-hop, but they party all together. It’s good when people from different worlds meet each other. This is the Gosha look” (Rubchinskiy in Godwin, 2017, 28). Skateboard dress sartorially unites people, as the look is used by people who do not actually skate too.
Baudrillard predicted that society would be premised on reproduction of images and signs (1983). Media has changed the appearance of subculture, and furthermore so has Internet and social media, with a constant flow of images as information. It has intensified the aesthetics of subcultures, according to Muggleton, “Style is now worn for its look, not for any underlying message; or rather, the look is now the message” (2000, 44), fashion forms a subculture as much as the activities and resistance. Postmodern subculture is communicated visually online, on Instagram for example, just as much as physically in places, like nightclubs.
To differentiate postmodern and modern subcultures, Muggleton lists binary oppositions (2000, 52). For example (postmodern in bold):
- “Strong boundary maintenance Boundary maintenance weak
- Subcultural provides main identity Multiple stylistic identities
- Stress on beliefs and values Fascination with style and image
- Self-perception as authentic Celebration of the inauthentic” (2000, 52)
The four examples are chosen to prove how the post-Soviet aesthetic is a postmodern subculture. As Rubchinskiy says, “It’s good when people from different worlds meet each other. This is the Gosha look,” the boundaries of the subculture are weak, meaning it is not reserved for a specific nationality or ethnicity, allowing many in. Having multiple stylistic identities allows members to be diverse and free, not having to define strictly as a ‘skateboarder’ or ‘raver’, instead style defines who is in the post-Soviet subculture. While modern subcultures tended to thrive on political resistance, postmodern subcultures are more about reproduction of style and image, largely enabled by the Internet. Posting a look on Instagram can be a gesture of opposition to dominant fashion. Rubchinskiy says, quoted above, that skating unites people, and a method of unity is dress, thus fashion contributes to binding the subculture together. Authenticity, is not as important as before, instead imitation is embraced. Imitation could refer to imitation of activities from past times, for example, raves, as well as imitation of designer goods like counterfeit fashion.
Russian journalist, researcher and guest lecturer at Humboldt University of Berlin, Ira Solomatina supports these arguments, “The designers who are now reviving the Soviet visual lexicon are mostly in their late 20s to early 30s – meaning they were born to witness the last years of the Soviet Union, but they also experienced the inflow of western culture in the early 1990s. They grew up on the verge between two epochs, and among the remains of the Soviet culture. […] For this generation, the Soviet Union has always remained a mythical past, the traces of which still invade the everyday existence. This aura of a cultural myth is what stirs the imagination of young creatives and gives the region’s contemporary fashion the identity it lacked before” (2016).
“As the region’s first generation of creatives influenced by global culture as much as the local one, their work thrives on the attractive and mysterious myth of the Soviet Union” writes Solomatina (2016), ultimately making a young creative like Rubchinskiy a story teller. Although today’s youth never experienced the decades of the Iron Curtain (Bartlett, 2010) between the east and west, Eastern Europe is largely untouched territory in popular culture, sparking curiosity in the ‘mysterious myth’ that Solomatina describes. Both Eastern and Western youth romanticises the past through this myth, experiencing a nostalgia for the 1990s, and especially the fashion.
“That remarkable surge of contemporary fascination with nostalgia”, writes Muggleton (2000, 44) is topical when discussing the fashion of the 2010s. Every season, historical decades are revisited. Recently, 1990s nostalgia is evident in youth fashion, which Fedorova mentions in an interview with Rubchinskiy (2016a). Although Rubchinskiy denies that his work is about a specific time, it evokes a nostalgia in consumers, for styles that they missed, feeling confused in a decade when styles are dissolved and mixed.
However, this is not unique to today’s youth. An “accelerating tendency in the 1980s to ransack history for key items of dress, in a seemingly eclectic and haphazard manner” (McRobbie, 1989, 23). “This instant recall on history, fuelled by the superfluity of images thrown up by the media, has produced in style a non-stop fashion parade in which ‘different decades are placed together with no historical continuity’” (McRobbie, 1989, 40). This recall on history coming from media images that McRobbie observed in the late 1980s, is now multiplied 30 years later with social media. Back then, images came from advertising, magazines and TV, compared to now when youth is constantly exposed to images on their phones and computers, where advertising, entertainment and online magazines appear infinitely more than when McRobbie made her observation. A flow of images is especially pertinent in fashion, as a visual and appearance obsessed practice. Someone interested in the post-Soviet aesthetic can easily access it through Instagram and websites.
Kotarba argues, “The significance of styles need go no further than the immediate affective effects they elicit. Culture is merely cognitive and symbolic veneer [a decorative cover]” (1991, 46) What he says supports the importance of style in subculture. In regards to ‘multiple stylistic identities’, “Choosing is the operative word here, for post-subculturalists [today’s youth] revel in the availability of subcultural choice” (Muggleton, 2000, 47).
Gosha Rubchinskiy as subcultural capital
French sociologist Bourdieu’s theory on cultural capital (2010) which means acquiring the knowledge, tastes and social competencies that provide a marker of social taste, is the foundation of Thornton’s theory on subcultural capital. She defines postmodern subculture as ‘taste cultures’ (Thornton, 1995, 3), meaning they are built om similar tastes in music, but equally dress and media consumption (Thornton, 1995). This theory is highly applicable to today’s subcultures, where social media is used to show what one likes and belongs to, by follow certain people, like certain pictures, post certain outfits. These cultures “embrace their own hierarchies of what is authentic and legitimate in popular culture – embodied understanding of which can make one ‘hip’” (Thornton, 1995, 3). Subcultural capital, an aspiration and desire to be on trend, ‘in the know’, is ultimately about being ‘hip’.
Thornton defines three “overarching distinctions” (Thornton, 1995, 15) to study subcultural hierarchy, where the desired distinctions of a subculture are ‘authentic’, ‘hip’, and ‘underground’. An example is raving, an activity that emerged among youth in post-Soviet Russia. Electronic music plays in large venues, welcoming youth into freedom, an escape, for over 24 hours at the time. One does not have to be good at dancing, it is about collective experience for the individual, listening to music, possibly taking drugs (Rhythm (that always stays with me), 2017). One of the first raves to take place in Russia in 1991, was the Gagarin raves, “In one night, Soviet heritage was rendered defunct by a wild, undefined energy” (Fedorova, 2016a). The Gagarin raves are an example of subcultural authenticity. Will any rave be as hip and authentic again?
The distinctions applied on the brand Gosha Rubchinskiy: it is authentic because it comes from the post-Soviet region, and is designed by a person who is from that generation. It is hip because it is not mainstream fashion, although elements of the style are increasingly picked up by the mainstream – which will be analysed on the next page, looking at fashion diffusion theory. Media reports on the brand and post-Soviet style, which means it is no longer underground, although Gosha Rubchinskiy [the brand] remains relatively underground. The fact that the brand is distributed by Comme des Garçons is ambiguous in terms of subcultural capital. CDG is a hip company in fashion, yet, it is not related to post-Soviet other than through Gosha Rubchinskiy, which weakens its authenticity.
Once a subculture grows popular in the mainstream, it is arguably no longer cool, it is no longer underground. A subculture intends to resist the mainstream by having its own singular tastes. “The problem for underground subcultures is a popularisation by a gushing up to the mainstream,” (Thornton, 1995, 5). Post-Soviet aesthetics and Gosha Rubchinskiy is nearing the mainstream, as it has bubbled up to become a fashion trend.
Theory on fashion diffusion, how fashion and trends move in society, can be looked at through the terms ‘trickle down’ and ‘bubble up’. In history, fashion trickled down from designers in high places in society, to form the population’s view on dress. In a nutshell, trends were set by the upper classes, to be imitated by lower classes according to Veblen’s (2016) trickle-down theory, first formulated in 1899. With increased dismantling of a class society, mass-produced fashion and the reduced status of high culture, in favour of popular culture due to increased media in everyday life, this theory has been challenged. Instead, in contemporary fashion, trends bubble up from other spheres of society, and onto the catwalks of high-end designers (Polhemus, 1994). Streetstyle lecturer and writer Ted Polhemus, looks to the street to prove the bubble up theory, “Styles which start life on the street corner have a way of ending up on the backs of top models on the world’s most prestigious fashion catwalks” (Polhemus, 1994, 8). The post-Soviet trend is an example of bubble up into high fashion. Three arguments for this are:
Firstly, Gosha Rubchinskiy is sold at Dover Street Market. Dover Street Market is a store where fashion lovers pilgrimage to hang out and buy everything from Gucci to Vetements and Nike. Lynette Nylander, previous editor of British magazine i-D says the store “has completely revolutionised what a retailer can be” (Nylander, i-D, 2016), hinting at their innovative approach, as well as saying that it is “the world’s coolest store” (Nylander, i-D, 2016). Having arguably a highly representative designer of the post-Soviet aesthetic sold there, next to Gucci and Balenciaga, manifests the status of the trend in high fashion.
Secondly, the tracksuit as luxury fashion. The tracksuit is a significant piece of clothing in this aesthetic, and a trademark of Gosha Rubchinskiy. From being associated with undesirable types such as the unfashionable ‘gopniks’, to being shown on the catwalks of Milan and Paris, the tracksuit has climbed to higher status, as its sports-to-street origins has bubbled up to high fashion. Two examples are Italian luxury house Gucci and French luxury house Givenchy, both selling tracksuits. In Figure 2.3, British streetwear influencer Leo Mandella, poses in a Gucci tracksuit, matched with Nike sneakers and a sweater from Heron Preston, embroidered with Cyrillic lettering on the neck, evidence that the tracksuit is now fashionable.
Lastly, American reality star Kim Kardashian West wore a communist symbol hoodie by Vetements. Paris design collective Vetements’ head designer is Georgian Demna Gvasalia, a key figure of the post-Soviet aesthetic next to Rubchinskiy. To say that Kardashian West’s style is influential is an understatement. Selected examples of her influence are her 108 million followers on Instagram (2018), where she frequently posts what she wears, she appears in various media content, from Vogue.com to Daily Mail, all over the world, and has a leading role on reality show Keeping up with the Kardashians. Kardashian West’s outfits are carefully selected because she is regarded as a fashion influencer, as she is widely seen. That she and her stylists chose the hoodie arguably proves that it is a piece of high fashion, bound to be desired by her millions of fans, bringing it into the mainstream.
Polhemus’ evidence for the diffusion of a street trend goes: genuine street innovation appears, followed by featuring in mass media, such as on TV or in magazines (1994). Now, featuring on social media suffices. In time, the expensive version of the street innovation appears on a high-end catwalk, such as Gucci or Givenchy. Since post-Soviet influence is a relatively new phenomenon, punks are another, older example to illustrate the bubble up theory. Punk style, such as the leather jacket bubbled up to high fashion, and is now visible everywhere in fashion.
Rubchinskiy and Gvasalia’s success and the bubbling of the aesthetic, has opened doors for other, smaller designers from the region. Statenstein says, “They’ve given a huge platform to small, smaller, up and coming designers” (Highsnobiety, 2018), like Russian Nina Donis, Polish Misbhv, and Georgian Situationist to name a few. “Fashion is forever hungry, as shown in the current interest in young Russian designers and the ex-Soviet republics,” says Bartlett (Foreman, 2017). Post-Soviet aesthetics have been picked up by Western designers too, like American Heron Preston who prints his utilitarian streetwear with Cyrillic lettering. H&M owned chain Monki has had Cyrillic prints in its collections. The use of Cyrillic script is partly due to Russians embracing their heritage and strengthening their identity, but from a foreign point of view, more founded in the fascination of the ‘myth’ of Soviet, referring to Solomatina’s words.
Vinken supports Bartlett’s words about fashion’s hunger for newness. Fashion rapidly transforms, new trumped by the newest (Vinken, 2005), with fashion delighting “in the evocation of the kind of distant exotic fairytale lands that provided the selling” of fantasies. Fashion feeds on inspiration from new regions, foreign, minority and subcultures. With Eastern Europe being unexplored territory in fashion, was the rise of the post-Soviet aesthetic inevitable?
As Thornton argues, when distinctions of a subculture reach mainstream fashion, the destruction of the subculture begins (1995). When commercialised, as in Kardashian West wearing the ‘communist hoodie’, not only is the hammer and sickle symbol commodified, but possibly the whole aesthetic and its heritage. Commodification deletes symbolism and meaning, and mangles entire subcultures into mass culture. As Vinken puts it, “Fashion is one of the most effective filtering mechanisms of forgetting, a method of effacing the past through its reanimation” (2005, 68).
The problems of commodification
Eastern Europe plays the role of the ‘other’ in the West. Othering is a process of giving a group the role of the ‘other’ and building the own identity through opposition and often vilification of that group. Postcolonial academic Edward W. Said argues that Western, white identity is built on an othering logic that devalues other people (1994), like blacks, women, non-believers and communists. A result is that the other is denied the opportunity to speak for themselves, and instead attributed with qualities and attitudes. The West vilifies Russians, they are often portrayed as dishonest, criminal, poor, uneducated, drunk, grumpy, corrupt and stuck in gender roles. These are stereotypes implemented in the West, but while Eastern and Western Europe integrate more, the East has become “familiar enough to be recognisable, and strange enough to be amusing. The appeal of ‘poor but sexy’ […] continues to persevere’” (Eshun and Fedorova, 2018). It is problematic when fashion takes inspiration from subcultures and styles of minorities or vulnerable groups, such as black hip-hop culture or working class culture like British football hooliganism. When elements of a minority culture is appropriated to suit dominant culture, the mainstream, it is known as cultural appropriation (Young, 2008). If a white European designer takes, without giving back to the culture they borrowed from, or pays credit, respect and understanding, power abuse comes into play, especially if there is money to be made. While racial, ethnic and religious tensions are most sensitive to cultural appropriation, the case of the post-Soviet aesthetic arguably lies in a zone of cultural appropriation too, when adapted by non-Eastern Europeans. They might not be aware of the style’s origins, experience lack of money or access, instead they pick and choose the elements they like, without experiencing the difficulty that Eastern Europeans endure or endured, for example how it feels to be Russian, where issues of political oppression or discrimination occur. The country has discriminative laws against women (Human Rights Watch, 1995), (Amnesty International, 2017) and people who identify as LGBTQ (Human Rights Watch, 2014).
While designers from the region are reinventing the style, consumers can have an awareness of where it comes from. “It isn’t unusual for capitalism to break history down into easily-marketable symbols, but what this process often leaves behind is the people who lived through real traumatic events,” explains Fedorova (2018). Fashion is a capitalist mechanism, and elements of the post-Soviet aesthetic such as hammer and sickle symbols, flags, and Cyrillic lettering risks being commodified, turned into a product that is merely bought and sold (Commodification, no date), which risks erasing meaning and history, as Vinken wrote (2005, 68). Journalist Aleks Eror grew up in socialist-era Yugoslavia, at a time a Soviet satellite state, and thinks the post-Soviet aesthetic as a trend is ethically problematic. “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” (Eror, 2017). This is a voiced concern over the consequences of the post-Soviet aesthetic bubbling up: is fashion flatteringly imitating – or – exploiting a subculture? The mass-reproduction of subcultural ideas undermines the value of the fashion and aesthetic for those who originally created them.
Chapter 3: Visual analysis of case study Gosha Rubchinskiy’s design
On his Menswear Guest Designer profile on Pitti Immagine Uomo’s website, Rubchinskiy is described as “Russian designer whose creativity has succeeded in attracting the international fashion community’s attention,” (Pitti Immagine Uomo, June 2016). Pitti Immagine Uomo is an Italian fashion trade fair, known for its focus on menswear (Spear and Donati, 2009). While Rubchinskiy usually shows in Russia, he was invited to Pitti Uomo as a special guest, contributing to the designer’s status in fashion. Lapo Cianchi, Pitti Immagine director of communications and events, says that Rubchinkiy’s “research combines the hard and tormenting aesthetic of post-Soviet youth culture in Russia”, continuing, “with elegant notes of sportswear and artistic concepts that come from photography and movies – true passions and essential points in his training and development” (Pitti Immagine Uomo, 2016). Rubchinskiy’s photography captures Russian youth. His multimedia approach to fashion and style, is a method to connect to his audience, who are young fans of streetstyle and street culture. By existing as more than just a clothing designer, but also an influential fashion industry person, and image maker, he reaches his audience on many levels with references that have been unusual in fashion. Cianchi says, “It is precisely this vibrant system of references and languages that allow him to express profound social commentary in his creations” (Pitti Immagine Uomo, 2016).
While Rubchinskiy plays with Russian stereotypes, he allows the stereotype to be desirable. He puts the stereotype of the ‘gopnik’ in a context where it has never been before; in fashion. The image in Figure 3.1, realized through the medium of photography (Lister and Wells, 2001), is chosen because of the outfit’s representation of Gosha Rubchinskiy as a brand, its representation of the clothes as, simultaneously, fashionable, stereotypical and typical of Rubchinskiy and the post-Soviet aesthetic, as well as a person of the postmodern post-Soviet subculture. The red polyester tracksuit and sporty details are typical of his design. Furthermore, this look is the result of a collaboration, many of his designs incorporate elements such as logos from other brands. The emblem on the chest and bottom of the trousers is Italian brand Sergio Tacchini’s logo. About the Italian reference, Fury wrote on Vogue.com, “Each [Italian] iteration, combining classic elements of the brand with Rubchinskiy’s own signature branding, had the feel of black-market counterfeits” (2016). Rubchinskiy adds his post-Soviet aesthetic to Italian sportswear. The tracksuit is worn with black sneakers, a chain bracelet, and sunglasses. The sunglasses are a product of another collaboration with eyewear brand Retrosuperfuture, founded in Italy and based in Los Angeles. The tracksuit encapsulates post-Soviet style; casual, sporty and androgynous, but is socially and culturally charged, in Russia, specifically to ‘gopniks’.
The image is approached in the circuit of culture (du Gay, 1997 in Lister and Wells, 2001), looking at how moments contributes to the meanings of the image, how “they are socially produced, distributed and consumed” (Lister and Wells, 2001, 64). “While recognizing the material properties of images, we see these as intertwined with the active social process of ‘looking’ and the historically specific forms of ‘visuality’ in which this takes place” (Lister and Wells, 2001, 64). Therefore, a combination of studying the material properties and socially studying the image is used, meaning that information (location, time, etc.) about the image changes what the viewer sees. The expectation of Rubchinskiy’s design is that it fits into an ethnically white, post-Soviet aesthetic, rather than a high-fashion European, or Western mainstream aesthetic. Looking at Figure 3.1 of the look from Rubchinskiy’s spring/summer 2017 collection, the fashion is inspired by a post-Soviet aesthetic. The look is for young people, with little disposable income who disregard elegant taste. A sporty tracksuit is worn by someone who is expected to exercise, or, by someone who does not have to dress for professional work. There are connotations that a person in a tracksuit, who is not intending to exercise, is unemployed. Not dressing for traditional notions of ‘work’, looking unprofessional, in comfortable clothing, is associated with unemployment, which is linked to poverty and to low social class. The model looks Russian; his features fit a stereotypical Russian, for example skinny body type, close shaved head, heterosexual male. While none of these stereotypical features are true of all Russians, nor them being applied to this model, they contribute to assumptions the designer conveys.
Decoding the practices in the image (van Leeuwen and Jewitt, 2001), as in the activity taking place when the image was captured, it is at first a simple practice. A model is walking down a catwalk, other models are walking behind him. The camera angle, full body medium close-up frontal, and the bright lighting hints at this. The subject, a model in designer clothes, is walking on a catwalk at a high profile, global men’s fashion event for luxury design. The context is associated to connoisseurship of taste and sophisticated lifestyle. It is not a practice associated with wearing a tracksuit. If the practice is removed from a catwalk setting, the image changes notion to unemployment. A man, not dressed for work, walking, wandering. This hints that the clothes are inspired by a source outside the world of the connoisseurship of Pitti Uomo.
Reading the codes of the image, its place in culture (Lister and Wells, 2001), the designer is officially inspired by the original look that the tracksuit imitates, possibly the ‘gopnik’, but reinvigorates it with new social, cultural and economic meaning. By designing a tracksuit and showing it in a privileged, desirable environment, to a fashion audience, its status is elevated into a new socio-economic status. From poor taste to good taste, from an unfortunate and undesirable look to a desired look, from cheap rags to expensive clothes.
The limitations (van Leeuwen and Jewitt, 2001), of this image is that it is a staged moment, which affects the viewer’s interpretation of the outfit and model. A catwalk show’s purpose is to show clothes, and therefore a catwalk is expected not only to be watched in real life, but also online in the form of video photographs, such as the one in Figure 3.1. The fact that this is a catwalk image changes the interpretation of the clothes and the model. The clothes are in a fashion context which lets the viewer know that what is being shown, is a desirable way to look. At the same time, the staged moment helps the viewer read the image, and place it in the socio-economic context described in the previous paragraph. Because this look is on a catwalk, the viewer can conclude that the look is a result of a bubble up trend (Polhemus, 1994).
The location of the image appears to be industrial, as the model walks through what appears to be a spacious arch, by a brick and concrete building, with a partly smashed window behind. The industrial surrounding provides an uncluttered scene for the clothes, but also move the thoughts to an industrial Soviet setting, playing further with Russian heritage. Russian stylist Lotta Volkova, who styled the show, says Rubchinskiy found “the only Soviet-looking building in Florence,” (Volkova in Fury, 2016), which was an abandoned factory of rationalist architecture from the 1930s (Fury, 2016). In terms of the image’s circulation and consumption (Lister and Wells, 2001), it is available on Vogue.com with a review (Fury, 2016), a website that archives collections with relevance in fashion. It is available on Highsnobiety (Leach, 2016), a streetwear bible online, and Grailed, (Li, 2017) a curated menswear marketplace, for “fashion-conscious individuals” (Grailed, no date). These three online sources reveal that the image is viewed by fashion conscious people.
Viewing the image’s representation of social life and history (Lister and Wells, 2001), a “language-like activity – conventional systems which, in the manner of codes, convey meaning” (Lister and Wells, 2001, 64), it is a product of the post-Soviet aesthetic, with roots in 1990s Russia, a region long deprived of fashion as a free practice, and as a result the few branded products available became the popular fashion, for example, Adidas tracksuits and trainers. “For decades, Adidas has been a significant part of the hidden history of material culture in Soviet and post-Soviet Russia — and of the Russian national psyche itself” (Fedorova, no date b). Adidas was one of the few brands widely known in the Soviet Union, as the brand made the kits for the USSR’s 1980 Olympic team (Fedorova, no date b). The Olympic Games in 1980 were hosted in Moscow, and the Soviet Union won the most models by far (Sports Reference). Notably, the 1980 summer Olympics were boycotted by several nations including the United States (Orman, 1982), possibly facilitating the USSR’s success. Regardless, the success made the Olympic team national heroes, and sports had a high profile in Soviet. Soviet and, now Russia’s dominant (and controversial) role in sports, is a cause for a sporty aesthetic being favoured by young Russian. It is on trend with fashion’s sportswear and streetwear trends, a result of bubble up diffusion.
Another reason for Adidas’ high status in Soviet was that Adidas shoes were manufactured in the USSR (Fedorova, no date b). “The first and only model of trainer available – blue with three white stripes and ochre sole – had a cult status for decades after it went out of fashion in the West. All over the USSR, Adidas trainers have become a prised artefact of status, connections or simply luck. Trainers were hard to find in the late Soviet years – only a few Chinese or Czech options were available – yet Adidas trainers were much more than that, so precious and rare that they could be worn to the theatre or a restaurant” writes Fedorova (no date b), supporting former Russian counterfeiter Larisa Prima’s account from Chapter 1 (Highsnobiety, 2018). “Adidas was the only sellable symbol present in Russia throughout the recent historical transitions” (Fedorova, no date b), desired and counterfeited, Adidas pieces are still popular in modern day Russia, a reason why it made sense for Gosha Rubchinskiy to collaborate with the brand.
However, the meaning of the Adidas tracksuit is ambiguous; from national pride, sports stardom, exclusivity, status, but also poverty, counterfeiting and – ‘gopniks’. “A black Adidas tracksuit became the uniform of ‘gopniks’ – […] dwellers squatting and drinking beer on the estates – and remains at the core of lingering stereotypes of eastern Europeans” (Fedorova, no date b). “Charged with the troubled dark history of the 90s, sportswear, and Adidas in particular, remains a crucial part of the idea and the aesthetic of ‘Russianness’” (Fedorova, no date b). Despite the post-Soviet aestehtic representing a Russianness associated with poverty, crime and failure, Rubchinskiy has created modern designs emulating the look, and put it on a catwalk. His embrace of the look made it popular and desirable in the West.
Having analysed the post-Soviet aesthetic from its origins to its entrance into mainstream fashion it is apparent that it can be, in part, viewed as a postmodern subculture. While the authentic, hip and underground (Thornton, 1995) elements of the aesthetic contribute to this conclusion, it is also backed up the fluid definition of postmodern subcultures, as primarily centred around a dress code. Muggleton puts it, “Subcultures become no more than the sum of their representations, an interpretation not so far from postmodern theories of subjectivity where subcultural identities can have no substance beyond the endless succession of styles through which the self is constituted” (2000, 92). Regardless of the wearer’s nationality or background, if they skateboard and rave or not, their dress can enter them into the postmodern subculture of the post-Soviet aesthetic.
Although commodification of the aesthetic, through bubble up diffusion, is not without complications, Gosha Rubchinskiy himself has played a role in its mainstream appearances, taking the trend out of Russia and into the Western fashion, with help from fashion media and the fundamental business partnership with Comme des Garçons. What Rubchinskiy as its poster boy, has done, is to present the aesthetic as a new theme in fashion, freeing it from an othering perspective (Said, 1994) and a Western gaze. This is evident in representations of the aesthetic, such as the shaved head model in the red tracksuit from Rubchinskiy’s spring/summer 2017 collection, and can be seen a wider range of post-Soviet art and fashion.
Originally submitted as my dissertation in completion of BA (Hons) Fashion Journalism at London College of Fashion. The essay has been modified.