The sound of Ich bin meine maschine by Atom reverberates through a dimly-lit concrete box in a residential neighbourhood of Kiev. This is the newly opened Jugendhub club, but tonight it’s going back to its industrial roots — thanks to the creative presence of fashion designer Yulia Yefimtchuk. Raw concrete pillars are covered with bright red banners emblazoned with the words “technical aesthetics” in Russian. With their hair neatly parted, models walk briskly down the runway: their moves are robotic, and they’re oblivious to the presence of the show’s guests. A lot of outfits are clearly inspired by uniforms, Yefimtchuk’s design staple, with boxy geometric cuts and an abundance of pockets. But there is earnest elegance here too, as seen in the elongated blazers or flowing pleated skirts.
“Technical aesthetics studies the principles and methods of artistic design,” reads one red banner, and somehow it seems fitting. On the course of her career, Yulia Yefimtchuk has brought the fruits of her research into socialist ideology and Soviet material history to people in Tokyo, Seoul, Paris and New York. She owes her success not only to the unique cultural history behind her garments — but also the plain irresistibility of good design.
In Ukraine’s burgeoning fashion scene, Yefimtchuk is the sole designer addressing the Soviet past
The phrase “technical aesthetics”, present throughout the collection, is in fact the title of a magazine published in the Soviet Union from 1964 to 1992. Edited by the All-Union Technical Aesthetics Research Institute, it covered topics such as the history, theory and practice of design in the USSR and abroad, art and design education, and even published reviews of design exhibitions and books. The magazine regularly featured Western design trends and innovations, which were often compared with their Soviet counterparts. Looking through the covers of the magazine (the digitalised archive from 1987 can be enjoyed here) takes you on a fascinating journey into an unknown slice of the past.
“I first came across magazine on the website of the Moscow Design Museum,” Yefimtchuk recalls. “I especially loved the covers and their graphics. The garments I make are inspired by workwear, and bringing in the magazine somehow tied it all together. I think whatever the context, every person can relate to day-to-day or technical aesthetics — it’s just part of existing within modern society.”
The fashion community first heard of Yulia Yefimtchuk in 2014, when she received special recognition from international retailers Opening Ceremony at Hyeres Festival, established to promote young creative talent in fashion and photography. In her collection, Yefimtchuk used propaganda slogans from Soviet posters – “Every day it becomes happier to live” (“С каждым днем все радостнее жить”), “Labour” (“Труд”) and “Peace to the World” (“Миру Мир”) — printed in original font on black, white and bright red garments. It radiated the stark force of Constructivism, and evoked Malevich paintings — in a fresh, contemporary and globally relevant way.
The appearance of Soviet slogans has shifted considerably since then. In the past few years, fashion has seen the rise of the so-called post-Soviet aesthetic, with Cyrillic script quickly turning into a must-have design staple. Soviet iconography has made it into the mainstream, at times as a sign of prized authenticity, like in the work of Gosha Rubchinskiy, at other times as a meta-joke, like the Vetements hammer and sickle sweatshirt worn by Kim Kardashian, and finally, as an ornament stripped of meaning on a sweater in a fast-fashion store.
For Yefimtchuk, however, it has always been about the message as much as the medium. “Back in 2014 I was very inspired by Soviet posters, and they are still a big influence in my work. But I think you need to understand why are you using a slogan, what is it you want to communicate. It’s very important to me. Other designers might favour hype and popularity,” she deadpans. “I’m a socialist, I strive for justice and equality, respect people I work with, I am fond of the ideas of Marx and Engels.”
The commodification of Soviet references in the West might feel like a particularly violent process for the generation born in 1980s, which Yefimtchuk is part of. “I grew up surrounded by artefacts of the late Soviet era, and am still surrounded by them now. In that respect not many things have changed, particularly in small towns,” the designer says. “From childhood I remember the parades with a lot of coloured balloons, and then red dolls in the stores. I grew up in western Ukraine, and my family followed Ukrainian traditions and was not judgemental of the Soviet past. I think thanks to that I have desire to learn more about this period.”
At the same time, Soviet history is as much about erasing memories as it is about remembering, which is particularly poignant in contemporary Ukraine. In Ukraine’s burgeoning fashion scene, Yefimtchuk is the sole designer addressing the Soviet past. Her counterparts pick various other pathways: Paskal, Litkovskaya and Bevza consciously use a more global aesthetic, while Anton Belinskiy is trying to lead the search for the new Ukrainian identity. The rejection of the Soviet aesthetic has been a conscious choice for the new generation of Ukrainian designers. After the revolution of 2014, Ukraine is working towards an independent identity in the global context, affiliated much more with the so-called values of the West than its ties with former Soviet republics. The controversial decommunisation law, which was implemented in 2015 and involved removing communist monuments and communist-related names and themes from the public space, was part of this process. “I am very upset by this idea,” Yefimtchuk comments. “Firstly, a lot of funds are being used towards it. The country is in a terrible state economically, but for many the decommunisation reforms seem like an escape from everything that’s happening. I am also concerned that a lot of unique works are being destroyed.”
Yefimtchuk does draw from the past, but deep down her work is much more about the present, and about the future — an artistic projection of what the future could be. In a film titled Dedicated to the Youth of the World, made for the designer by Yarema and Himey, we see a bunch of youngsters idling in the fields by an unknown city. Dressed in Yefimtchuk’s garments, they look like a new breed of dreamers free from borders and nationalities, an embodiment of the hope for peace in the world on the brink of collapse. In today’s world, this kind of utopian vision is perhaps just what we need.