Soviets and celebrities destroyed Russia’s fashion industry. This project is building one from scratch

With fashion’s post-Soviet moment long consigned to last season’s scrapheap, Russia’s designers are looking to the future. But in a country brimming in design talent, why are so many struggling to make their mark? The Calvert Journal caught up with industry insider Aleksei Bazhenov to find out how the fashion scene today is failing Russia's young talent — and what happens next.

13 February 2019

Asked to pick out Russia’s best fashion brands, forum organizer Aleksei Bazhenov struggles to choose less than ten. He opts for the billowing silhouettes of Nina Donis, the urban bustle of ZDDZ, and the vibrant globalism of Jahnkoy. He names Ssanaya Tryapka, Inshade, OMUT, NASHE, Roma Uvarov Design. Then he sends a list of 20 more.

“There are 15,000 clothing manufacturers in Russia,” he explains. “There are thousands of designers, retailers, fashion journalists and magazines. We have a wealth of culture as inspiration.” Bazhenov, however, is preoccupied with another question: if the country is brimming with design talent, then why doesn’t it have a fashion industry?

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When you look at the latest offerings from Outlaw and Yunost, this might sound strange. But fashion isn’t just good photos: it’s a complex collective process. Even a few ground-breaking designers cannot make up for a lack of partnerships, supply chains and retailers.

Bazhenov wants to revolutionize the fashion scene. He’s at the forefront of a new movement dedicated to transforming Russian fashion into a coherent business community. Known as BE IN OPEN, the project started life in 2014 as an independent art and culture magazine reporting on Russian fashion. The more reporters dug, the more they were confronted by the industry’s severe structural problems. Bazhenov’s response was to found the BE IN OPEN forum: a place where industry icons and upcoming talent from all sectors of the fashion world can meet face to face. “We were so scared [before the first event],” he says. “We were journalists creating this conference to try and change a whole language, a whole industry.”

Aleksei Bazhenov

The concept was simple. The team wanted the annual event to be a space for communication. They asked fashion professionals to give talks and workshops. Young brands displayed their work in a pop-up showroom. And, most importantly, they connected designers with suppliers, manufacturers and buyers.

“Our role isn’t just to introduce professionals or coach teambuilding, but to communicate a new system of values; a philosophy. We need to show what contemporary fashion is, because we don’t have that in Russia,” says Bazhenov. “Not everyone understands the value of working together.”

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Fashion may be a creative pursuit, but moving ideas from the sketch pad to the shop front takes a small army of manufacturers, buyers, and investors. In London, Paris or Milan, a well-trained legion of fashion professionals exist to keep the catwalks moving: they turn creativity into a viable business. The digital age has helped designers to overcome some of these issues in Russia by giving them the ability to connect with larger audiences. But while fleeting social media connections can build a loyal fan base, real, face-to-face meetings are also a vital cog in the fashion machine. “Russia’s biggest problem is that we don’t understand that creative professionals need to collaborate and integrate with producing and manufacturing,” says Bazhenov.

Predictably, many of the longstanding problems of Russia’s fashion scene can be traced back to the Soviet era. Fashion was not a priority for the Soviet state and designers had little freedom. Things did not change overnight with the collapse of the Soviet Union: budding designers were forced to play catch up against global brands hungry to capture a new market. And for Russians entering a world of mass pop culture, everything foreign was simply better.

“Our fashion weeks are PR events, not business events”

“We had one system, one mentality and everything changed. Russian brands then lost out,” says Bazhenov. “In the 1990s, the first Russian brands were created by artists to become famous. They got a lot of money from investors and the nouveau-riche, but they didn’t have a business plan. But they didn’t organise business practices.”

This mentality is still present. Many prefer not to buy Russian brands, while Bazhenov believes an emphasis on celebrity over substance continues to blight modern events such as Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Russia. “Our fashion weeks are PR events, not business events,” he says. “It’s full of bloggers and celebrity designers who can show whatever they want. There’s no curation.”

With its concept of industry-creation, BE IN OPEN is already making an impact. The forum took place for the fourth time in 2018, while the project continues to expand: it is running its own education programme and has founded a fashion film festival that will showcase young brands and artists. Of the 50 or so brands working with BE IN OPEN, about half have begun selling in European shops and outlets, including Selfridges, SSENSE, Harvey Nichols, VFiles, Le Bon Marché, KaDeWe, Rare Market.

Bazhenov believes the future is even brighter. For Russia’s youngest generation, born after the fall of Communism and unable to remember the turmoil of the 90s, attitudes are changing. Western culture no longer has the allure of the forbidden and they are far more willing to embrace local designers. “Russia’s emerging brands are still in competition with the foreign mass market, but they now have advantages compared to London designers. Russian designers understand Russian culture better,” says Bazhenov.

But Bazhenov goes one step further, arguing that fashion is more than just an outlet for creativity. “It is an important form of self-expression. Two centuries ago, that form was literature. Now it is the clothes we wear,” he says. “Russia is huge and there’s a diverse culture with lots of talented people. We just have to renew it and reorganise it.”

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