For decades skateboarding has been a major youth culture obsession and a source of unifying global identity. But still, the contemporary Georgian skate scene is like no other. In the acclaimed documentary When Earth Seems to Be Light, which came out in 2015, one scene is particularly memorable: a bunch of skaters hang around the relic of an unfinished hippodrome in a vast landscape drenched in sunlight. There is something epic and surreal about kick flips and grinds against the deserted ruins of the past which never truly came into existence. Two years later, one of the directors of the film, Tamuna Karumidze came up with her own continuation of the story, co-written in real time by Tbilisi’s skaters. It takes an unexpected foray into fashion, but delves even further into the reinvention of mythical heritage and the young generation’s quest for identity.
“I was always inspired by skateboarders’ movements when working on the film”
“I started making clothes a few years ago, although I never thought of doing fashion,” Karumidze recalls. “The garments were inspired by nomadic tribes, Mongolian people, eagle hunters and falconers. The first time I was truly mesmerised by clothes was in Mongolia about 10 years ago — I loved the coats tied around the waist with a belt. They have this brilliant timeless way of dressing, which is also very functional, designed to keep them warm or cool, and to have everything they need at hand.”
Comfort is what Karumidze truly appreciates in clothes, and she began by making a few coats for herself. The patchwork approach reflects the way she always wanted to dress: the garments look like fascinating collages of the most beautiful, strange and exquisite textures. “Materials are a combination of new and vintage. The very first collection of fabrics I used was from my grandmother, I discovered three or four suitcases at home,” Karumidze recalls. “In the Soviet Union you couldn’t really buy a lot of things so it was common to buy fabric and make clothes yourself. I’ve used them up already, but I obsessively collect fabrics. The market for beautiful textiles in Georgia is quite limited, so when I go somewhere like Berlin or Paris, I always go to the special fabric stores and districts.”
Karumidze makes almost all of the TAMRA garments herself — it’s a significant part of the creative process but also a necessity for keeping her creative vision intact. “In the beginning I would go to an atelier and say that I want this fabric put together with that fabric and they would say it’s not possible — but I knew it was possible. So then I decided to learn pattern making and seamstress techniques. Sometimes at the very end I do bring it to somebody to add the final touches — but mostly I get something very different back and have to take it apart and put it back together again,” she explains.
In recent years fashion has seen an unlikely rise of interest in craftsmanship, celebrated both in large fashion houses like Chanel and bright newcomers like Craig Green and Jahnkoy. In what might be defined as a reaction to both the global expansion of fast fashion and the increasing awareness of the environmental and ethical issues it brings along, both consumer and designer today crave garments that are tactile and physical experiences in their own right — artistic, durable and unique. For Karumidze, craftsmanship is a necessary part of the process, but also the way to create a narrative for the characters she first discovered while working on When Earth Seems to Be Light with co-directors Salome Machaidze and David Meskhi. The meticulous craft is co-dependent on the free-flowing motion. “I was always inspired by skateboarders’ movements when working on the film,” she says. “What made them so charming was the freedom — of course they’re not free but they were trying to be free. The way they move through spaces on a skateboard reminds me, in some ways, of riding horses. When they’re wearing these coats they look a little bit like warriors, or nomads, but still a bit like skaters — this is their nature.”
“The very first collection of fabrics I used was from my grandmother, I discovered three or four suitcases at home”
The universe where TAMRA garments belong seems to lie very far from the day-to-day existence in Tbilisi — it could be deserted dry plains of some dystopia, the city depicted in Bladerunner or Wu-Tang Clan’s New York. The Asian influences, at times bordering on exoticism, contribute to the mysterious appeal. Curiously, TAMRA is not the only project on Tbilisi’s fashion scene with eastern influences: there is also LTFR who rework Soviet garments, and artist and performer Gipsy Samurai. The pull of the East might seem natural for Georgia, the multinational country with a multitude of ethnic backgrounds, but at the same time it feels far removed, representing something urban, fast and futuristic, free from the patriarchal customs of the past. The example of Wu Tang Clan comes to mind: visual iconography of an estranged culture becomes a way of forging a completely new identity, something different to what you’ve been given by your immediate context.
The air of voluntary alienation created by clothes plays a significant role in the story of Tbilisi’s skate scene. In When Earth Seems To Be Light, a lot of skaters are shown dressed in heavy-metal T-shirts and baseball caps and wouldn’t look out of place in California. They do, however, look out of place in Georgia, and skateboarding itself becomes an activity which places them in a marginalised position in the country’s patriarchal society.
TAMRA garments go even further: with bright colours and gender-fluid designs, they are explicitly out of sync with traditional Georgian ideas of what a man should look like — but also, they don’t follow the conventional dress code of the global skate scene which still remains relatively homophobic. But according to Karumidze, her collaborators were incredibly open and enthusiastic about the clothes. “They didn’t mind the gender element at all, even the boys who were wearing skirts or very tight jackets were absolutely comfortable with them, and just put them on. They were choosing their outfits as well, participating and claiming things, they really got into the process of creating their warrior figures,” she says.
Georgian youth is still in the midst of its search for an identity, perhaps as unpredictable and lengthy as crossing the mountains and plains on the back of the horse. Fashion has its role to play. “Do we express ourselves with our clothes? Or is it like pretending to be somebody else and wearing a disguise?” Karumidze asks. “It’s always been a key question, and at times I still don’t know.”