In the last two years we have seen a stellar rise of interest towards the so-called “post-Soviet aesthetic” in fashion. Originally inspired by the attire of Moscow skaters and memories of 90s raves; now, Gosha Rubchinskiy’s style empire is expanding fast, mass market labels frequently use Cyrillic letters, and the poor but cool Soviet Bloc style has finally gone mainstream. Among dozens of fashion writers covering the trend, Liana Satenstein of Vogue US clearly stands out in her endearing interest to the topic and vast expertise which goes far beyond the hype.
Driven by her family’s history to start with, Satenstein has fallen in love with the weird and wonderful world of eastern European style from the very beginning of her career. Her support has contributed to the rise of a great amount of incredibly diverse talents from the region since then. But for Satenstein it’s more than just about fashion; it’s also about unseen cultural histories, like the heritage of national costume of Crimean Tatars; new beginnings like an emerging Russian label joining the feminist struggle; or the architecture of contemporary Tbilisi. For the New East 100, The Calvert Journal talked to Satenstein about the future of eastern European fashion and its prospect after post-Soviet hype.
Your work over the years has exposed so many great talents from eastern Europe. How did your interest in Russia and Ukraine start?
My initial interest in Russia and Ukraine stemmed from my roots. My great-grandparents were from western Ukraine and my grandmother was from Kiev but she didn't speak Russian or Ukrainian — just Yiddish. I was always fascinated by her story: she escaped a pogrom that murdered her father. During my third year of high school, a non-profit exchange program offered a year abroad in pretty much any country in the world. I couldn’t wait to get out of my small New England town and I decided to go to Ukraine — or what was formerly Ukraine — Alushta, Crimea. It was incredibly diverse at the time: lots of Armenians and Crimean Tatars. My grandmother was probably rolling over in her grave when I decided to live there considering she hated the country; but I loved it. I had an amazing host family who took me in as their own and still considers me family.
“Like any sort of wave, eastern Europe has had an effect on the global market: you see collections with Cyrillic, constructivism, and reworked versions of the Hammer and Sickle”
Did you notice any eastern European particularities in terms of fashion back then?
With respect to fashion, this was a small shore town in the mid-2000s. I had never seen anything like it: women would go to the supermarket in hobbly high heels, dressed up head-to-toe in animal prints. Everything was bedazzled, everything had a logo. It was the definition of “warped luxury”. After the Soviet Union fell, people just wanted to glam out but there was only so much they could afford and there is only so much access in an area like that. In Alushta, people would shop at the local bazaars that sold mostly knock-offs. In college, I studied abroad in St Petersburg for a year. There, I was introduced to a more metropolitan-type underground, alternative scene — I guess you would call it “hipster”. With that came another aspect of fashion: vintage shopping. In Alushta, it was considered taboo to shop secondhand, while in St Petersburg, it was extremely popular. We would head to the secondhand market every weekend, eat a fat pie, go shopping for the day, and find all of these relics from the Soviet Union and early 90s. Both settings combined were the catalyst to focusing on this region in my job.
We’ve seen a major rise of interest to eastern European fashion in recent years. What does it bring to the global scene in your opinion?
Like any sort of wave, eastern Europe has had an effect on the global market. It has for a while — although I don’t think there has been such a moment like now. Jean Paul Gaultier has cited the look several times: in his Fall 1986/1987 collection, he themed it around Russian constructivism. And guess what? He used Cyrillic, pre-Gosha! He even included it in his Spring 2007 30th anniversary collection. John Galliano has cited Russia, as well, and Valentino has referenced Ukraine. There's also been JW Anderson for Fall 2015. But now, it's happening more so than ever: this past season, several designers cited Russia in their collections, even Kate Spade. Reworked versions of the Hammer and Sickle made cameos at Stella Jean and Gucci. I’ve mentioned in several articles that Heron Preston, an American label, has produced “Стиль” turtlenecks. The influence has hit the commercial market.
So why do you think the whole “post-Soviet” style blew up?
Fashion is always looking for cultures to explore. For so long, the Soviet Union was cut off from the rest of the world and was perceived by the West as an “exotic”, cold and barren place. Unless you lived there, there was really no way of understanding the nuances and aesthetic of post-Soviet Union. There was a lack of photos online — no one had seen style like this — so when Gosha started he gained traction. When Vetements began to gain notoriety, it was a sort of rollercoaster of this eastern European obsession in fashion. It’s worth noting that these are conflicted countries. Many times, there is a wave of this pent up creative talent that stems from political issues. In Ukraine, the country blew up talent-wise in 2014, right when the country was going through the Euromaidan protests. That same year, both Julia Paskal and Anna October were nominated for the LVMH prize. A year later, Anton Belinskiy was nominated. Now, even with turbulent times in Russia, Vetements is creating communist-themed hoodies and Gosha is collaboration with Adidas using Cyrillic. Politics often attract a global interest, sheds light on a creative wave, and then manifests itself in fashion.
“Fashion is always looking for cultures to explore. For so long, the Soviet Union was cut off from the rest of the world and was perceived by the West as an ‘exotic’, cold and barren place”
What do you think will happen to this style in the future? How will it evolve when the hype inevitably dies down?
The days of people copying Gosha’s early 90s post-Soviet aesthetic are coming to an end and he's even moved away from it himself. And that’s important, he himself is shedding light on different parts of Soviet culture — such as the artist Kazimir Malevich. Each country's history and national dress melds into the whole Soviet rule, so what you’ll find in terms of fashion in a very eastern European country like Ukraine is totally different from what you’ll find in a Central Asian, mostly Muslim country like Kazakhstan. These are individual countries with their own history and their designers are starting to explore that.
Did you see how fashion in Ukraine, Russia, Georgia and other New East countries changed after the rise of this trend? Do you think it impacted designers and industry a lot?
I believe the movement was a turning point for fashion in eastern Europe. People started paying attention to these countries and began to see what they individually had to offer. Most of them have had fashion weeks since the 90s and each country offers their own thriving talents that don’t necessarily include a post-Soviet aesthetic. On another level, the phenomenon is important because it meant that eastern Europe itself was accepting its history in some sense: the early 90s after the Soviet Union was not a wonderful time for these countries and I’m sure most people would rather forget the era. It is a tough history to reconcile with — there was the rise of alcoholism, drug use, children growing up without parents — how can someone turn an aesthetic associated with that era into something beautiful? Who knows. But look at Gosha Rubchinsky — he kind of did that — or at least made it marketable. If you watch Children of Leningradsky, a documentary about homeless Russian kids living in a Moscow metro in the early 90s, some of Gosha’s earlier stuff seems plucked out of that very sad film and that was the overall look in Russia at the time.
Could you name a couple of your favourite eastern European designers?
I don’t have favourites but I have notable names. There are those already established like Anton Belinskiy. He’s started a cool, small collective called One Day Project of young designers like Drag & Drop, Masha Reva, and Shura Gang. Post-communist countries are having a moment. In Poland, I like the direction the label MISBHV is going in, especially their take on luxury, and their reworking of monograms. Other labels are Sandra Kpondonou and Magda Butrym. Young Romanian designer Ancuta Sarca is exciting, too. In Georgia, I’d keep an eye on young designers like Nicolas Grigorian, George Keburia, LTFR, and Bella Hadid's unexpected favourite —Situationist. There is also Maria Kazakova of the LVMH Prize-nominated Jahnkoy. She’s known for her Afro-centric collections but she’s also included Russian patterns as the stripes in trackpants. It’s a fresh take on craftsmanship. They’ve been around forever but the Russian label Nina Donis is great.
Text: Anastasiia Fedorova