A brave campaign fooled Tbilisi’s fashion crowd — and raised awareness for homelessness

The clothes shot by a new Georgian ‘brand’ actually belong to Tbilisi’s homeless. We find out more about the mysterious Georgian project, Dze, and the social cause behind it.

18 June 2019

Twice a year, all eyes are on Tbilisi’s top designers. The fashion press is obsessed with finding the next Demna Gvasalia, and Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Tbilisi, with its offering of cutting-edge talent, never disappoints. Gvasalia’s work for Vetements and Balenciaga, fearlessly reworking the same everyday garments he grew up with into aspirational products, has been a source of great pride among Georgians — even if, for the average local, a $700 hoodie is a distant, unattainable luxury. That means when one mysterious new brand — Dze — appeared at MBFW Tbilisi in May, vowing to do more than change the way we dress, all of the right people took notice.

Dze’s promo video isn’t unlike a typical fashion film. Models pose in various outfits against a bright studio background, playing with accessories to an upbeat tune. But then the camera pans left: revealing that the studio is located in a homeless shelter in the suburbs of Tbilisi. Soon after, a text appears on the screen: “For the people who live in the Dzegvi shelter, it’s not fashion, it’s reality”.

Dze isn’t a fashion label, but a collaboration between an NGO, American Friends of Georgia, and advertising agency Windfor’s. Its mission is to help bring attention to Dzegvi — a homeless shelter on the outskirts of Tbilisi. The video’s models, as it was revealed at MBFW Tbilisi, are the shelter’s residents. They are also wearing their own clothes, which only coincidentally look like Gvasalia’s Vetements creations. The shelter is home to around 80 people, aged 0 to 90; roughly 20 percent of them are under 18.

Since an excerpt of the video was launched at the end of April — a week before the biannual fashion week began — the brand has been selling bracelets, proceeds from which go entirely to the shelter community, and collaborating with fashion brands to raise awareness and funds.

We spoke to Nino Gordeladze, Executive Creative Director at Windfor’s, about their decision to make a fashion film to support the community at Dzegvi and help change the face of charity in Georgia.

How did the idea of this project come about?

It was the American Friends of Georgia who first approached us. They work closely with people of different backgrounds who are vulnerable, marginalised, and in need of support. One of their initiatives is the Dzegvi shelter. They asked for our help to draw attention to the cause. We known that fashion and fashion people get a lot of attention, especially in the age of Instagram. But there are also the people who wear these 90s designs — not garments inspired by the decade, but the originals. Nobody talks about them. Our thinking was: if a coat, a jacket, or a pair of trainers can generate attention, I’m going to first show you the garments and then I’m going to draw back the curtains and reveal the bigger picture — that this jacket is worn by a person who needs your help and I’m going to tell you about them.

How did you structure the campaign and why did you decide to keep it a secret?

We needed to create a buzz. To do this successfully we decided to give the impression that somebody recognisable was producing an exciting project in Georgia. We didn’t say who, but we wanted people to guess that it might be Demna Gvasalia or Gosha Rubchinskiy. That’s why we gave it the elusive name Dze: “dze” is short for the Dzegvi shelter but is also a typical ending for Georgian surnames. The campaign centred around a fashion video that we released alongside posters which were spread around the city. A week later, we held a brand presentation at MBFW Tbilisi, where we showed the fashion video in full, with the real ending showing life at the shelter.

Why did you decide to make a fashion campaign and why do you think this worked so well?

Because it was relevant: you don’t use anything in advertising that isn’t relevant. Demna is a very popular figure. Even outside of fashion circles, he’s an icon here. His approach to fashion has always been very ironic. He’s doing something that is already very close to the concept of our campaign. He takes familiar everyday items and turns them into desirable, luxury products. As a Georgian, you see these things that you might have worn in high school but now costs a lot. We decided to launch the video at Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Tbilisi for this reason. But the actual video and the story itself were meant for a larger audience.

Your project links two areas that aren’t usually associated together high fashion and homeless people. Vulnerable people are usually invisible, while fashion is the complete opposite. Is there a deeper meaning behind this?

It’s a heavy topic, not just in Georgia. Charity needs to be ingrained in our culture: giving money to those who depend on us shouldn’t be a spontaneous act of kindness you save for Christmas. The long term goal of all this is to make charity a more popular subject or custom.

What inspired you?

The community at Dzegvi. We visited the shelter and from then on we knew that we had a responsibility to show that its residents are no different from you and I.

What has the response been so far?

I know that the majority of bracelets have been sold and we’re adding more and more stock across Tbilisi. Our list of partners is also growing but we’re not planning to stop. The campaign and bracelets are just a start. Dze will remain as a brand. The imperative isn’t just to sell bracelets or encourage people to donate: we want to connect the Dzegvi community with locals. We want people to run workshops [at the shelter], put on concerts, or just socialise.

What’s next? Are you going to produce more products that people can wear?

Actually, that’s a secret. But we are certainly planning to evolve. Now that everybody knows who we are, we want to use this brand to raise awareness. We want Dze to support other initiatives. We’re concentrating on Dzegvi for now, but we are ambitious. We cannot solve universal problems, but we want to do the most that we can by the people who need our help. Social projects are our labour of love. I believe in human stories. When you work in advertising, it can sometimes feel too commercial, too project-based, too service-oriented, and I always like to work on projects that will resonate with others as much as myself. That’s a real luxury.

You can buy a Dze bracelet and make a donation on the project website here. The Dzegvi shelter also welcomes food, clothes, furniture, and other everyday objects, as well as enthusiastic, talented people to organise events and engage with its community.

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