“I like this idea of Soviet girls in Berlin in the late 80s to 90s,” said fashion designer JW Anderson after his Fall/Winter 2015-16 show in London. “We were looking at places where women weren’t able to express themselves. You had to find your freedom, put your stamp on something. You put the look together and that’s the character you are, in that room.”
Girls dressing up and going out for a party in East Berlin on the night the Wall fell. It’s not hard to imagine what kind of party that would be: music blasting in a half-empty dark room, multi-coloured lights flickering on the ceiling, rouged lips, lurex and gold sparkling in the night. They’re absorbed in the music, but the city is taken over by another beat — the crash of collapsing concrete. The girls dance as the world they know comes to an end, bringing long yearned-for freedom, and the whole concept of the former East which we still carry with us today.
This vision is pure fiction, of course. For the young designer JW Anderson, who creates four collections a year for his own label and four for the newly rebooted LOEWE, it’s just another world to explore, new aesthetics to toy with and a great tool with which to challenge the idea of taste. At the same time, Anderson is one of the key innovators in contemporary fashion and always senses where the wind is blowing.
The opening look of the show featured a golden dress with a white belt and yellow leather knee-high boots. Something in the way the dress moved and sparkled told you he’d got it right — it looked like a heavy curtain in a Soviet municipal building. Seconds by Human league was blasting out of the speakers. The golden dress was followed by a voluminous powder-pink ankle-length leather coat and red, leather sarong skirt with green tights. The collection was a beautiful and carefully thought-through design statement in which the main theme was bad taste. A combination of green, pink and dusty brown, cardigans with cat motifs, pointy leather boots – not everyone can pull it off. The expensive incarnation of cheap, rough Eastern Bloc style made the models look a bit like the mannequins in Soviet shop windows in David Hlynsky’s recent book: a bit awkward, a bit strange, a bit tacky but unconventionally interesting. Somewhat innocent and brave.
Another designer working in a similar territory this year has insider’s perspective on the matter: Ukrainian designer Anton Belinskiy was nominated for the prestigious LVMH prize with a collection largely inspired by the life of young creative people in Ukraine. Poor But Cool, his garments proudly proclaim. His story is about the present rather than the past, namely the economic and political struggles Ukraine is going through at the moment. But the message was similar to JW Anderson’s: our life is different, and while we don’t have the freedom and stability people in the west take for granted, we have ideas, and our own way to do things.
The emerging generation of creatives from across the post-Soviet world like Belinskiy lived all or most of their lives in a post-Cold War world. Twenty-five years is nothing in historical terms but it’s enough to start asking: why do we keep throwing together these countries which don’t have much in common apart from their traumatic past? Why does the idea of a collective identity for them still linger in our minds? The redundant notion of the Eastern Bloc was replaced, in scholarly circles at least, by the concept of the former east, and more recently, the former west as a riposte to western-centric perspectives on Europe. The territory we’re talking about could also be described as the post-communist world, or, to be less backward-looking, the new east. But it’s not just about what we hear, define or theorise. It’s also about what we see: why is there a certain aesthetic attached to the new east and why does it suddenly it seems so attractive in 2015?
The new east in contemporary visual culture is not a reflection of a real space but more a multi-layered myth. It’s linked to photographic representations of post-Soviet cities and Nineties aesthetics and built on various iconic images, like David Bowie’s wanderings in west Berlin. The perfect context for this would look something like fashion photographers Max von Gumppenberg and Patrick Bienert’s recent editorial for Another Magazine called “New Belgrade”: a combination of architectural shots of high-rises and concrete juxtaposed with portraits of models dressed in oversized blazers and turquoise flares, wearing melancholic, slightly desolate expressions. This world is scattered by Soviet relics such as Lenin busts, and its grim high-rise housing estates are inhabited by pale and beautiful, slightly feral-looking boys and girls. This is a world assembled from various tropes of the new east which, once assembled, form a fictional artistic interpretation.
“When are photographers gonna get bored of semi-erotic, shaved-headed, heroin-chic, pseudo-fascist Soviet youths in sportswear?” was the comment one of the readers left under a recent Dazed Digital story by photographer Sonya Kydeeva, whose main artistic preoccupation is youth and masculinity in Russia. Her boys were indeed skinny, short-haired and dressed in sportswear (a style embraced by Russian designer Gosha Rubchinskiy), but the shots were documentary — that’s simply how it was. The question is how much the definition is in the eye of beholder, and how much the reader’s perception is determined by existing stereotypes. It is also possible that the only stories that make it into mainstream media are the ones that fit existing stereotypes.
The key distinction in the contemporary use of the aesthetics of the new east is perspective — insider versus outsider. This is what differentiates JW Anderson from Anton Belisnkiy. Outsiders tend to deal with the past. Insiders look to the present. The outsider’s artistic exploration is often based on research and pre-existing knowledge while the insider’s is more personal, echoing the geopolitical history of the everyday. Both gravitate to post-Soviet culture: as a tool in a search for identity or as a landmark in the exploration of a foreign land.
Thanks to the rise of digital media the cultural landscape is slowly becoming more diverse. We are hearing more stories from the region, and we are more likely to get seduced by its new face and fearless style. Founder of Marfa Journal Alexandra Gordienko and influential stylist Lotta Volkova come from Russia, and the whole new breed of fashion designers from Gosha Rubchinskiy to Marta Jakuboswki are making their mark in the fashion industry. The creative regeneration of Parisian fashion is being fuelled in part by inspiration from the new east. Moscow’s independent model agency Lumpen casts boys and girls from towns across Russia, and they’ve already been seen in Vetements’ catwalk show during Paris fashion week and fashion magazines such as Re-Edition and Document Journal. The cultural movement is stirring up the dust of the Eastern Bloc and making us revisit the archives of those times.
The slightly trashy aesthetics of the east could be a semi-nostalgic search for something different. But the rise of interest in the region also has political undertones
The slightly trashy aesthetics of the east could be just a semi-nostalgic search for something different. But the rise of interest in the region also has political undertones. With rising tensions between east and west you could suggest that we are returning to the Cold War. But I think there is a different reason behind it. After the fall of the Wall we all ended up in the east. The dream of consumerism has failed us all: according to Oxfam, by 2016 the richest 1% will own more than 50% of the world’s wealth, and it’s harder and harder to make a political statement even in the most developed countries. Generations to come may be poorer than their forebears. We’re looking to those who grew up in the ruins of a collapsed system hoping to get some useful lessons for the future. We are all, to some extent, in the same position as kids by the Wall. We are poor. But cool.