World-renowned Russian designer Gosha Rubchinskiy has spent his career staying elusively off-the-grid. Or that’s how it seems. Perhaps more precisely, he is excellent at juggling notions of underground and mainstream, centre and periphery. Rubchinskiy’s FW 18 show was no exception: it took place a few thousands miles away from the fashion industry’s key cities, in wintry Yekaterinburg. In this industrial outpost of the Urals, the designer took over the Boris Yeltsin Presidential Center to deliver the final chapter of his Russian trilogy connected to the upcoming World Cup.
Against a stunning backdrop of bright blue skies with the floating word “Freedom” — a work by renowned Russian artist Erik Bulatov — Rubchinskiy’s squad walked down the runway to distorted noises of drums and electric guitars. The collection was a take on the contemporary global uniform currently worn by youth the world over: Adidas football kits and trackpants, recognisable Burberry beige check, trench coats, denim jackets and big parkas.
Having circled the grand hall a few times, the models gathered in the centre and suddenly started to sing. To melancholic bell chimes, they sang the opening of Goodbye America by Nautilus Pompilius. The song was written in 1985, but became one of the anthems of the 90s when it was included in the soundtrack to Aleksey Balabanov’s cult crime film Brother. Streaming the show in a hotel room in Milan, I suddenly realised that was crying. “Goodbye America,” the boys sang. “Your tattered jeans are too small for me now. We were taught for so long to love your forbidden fruits.” A tender hymn to the promises of the global world, it channeled both romantic hopes and an odd melancholic bitterness — the conflicting emotions of isolation and connection which were incredibly relevant in Russia after the fall of the Iron Curtain, and which are just as relevant now.
Yekaterinburg concluded Rubchinskiy’s tour of Russia as part of his collaboration with Adidas, following previous shows in Kaliningrad and St Petersburg. At the same time, it also returned to his earlier work. The airy, circular Yeltsin Center hall looked similar to the church-turned-Soviet-sports-hall from his second collection in 2009. Erik Bulatov’s work Friend Turned Foe, printed on sweatshirts, sends a similar message to “Evil Empire” from Rubchinskiy’s debut — that of propaganda and media distortion, the intertwining of the political and personal. Over nearly a decade, Rubchinskiy took a slice of emerging youth culture from Moscow, delivered it to Paris alongside his bright-eyed wild crew and developed a successful partnership with Dover Street Market. After the three-part return to his motherland, it looks like the designer has abandoned the exotic appeal of Russians in Paris for a deeper survey of the country’s youth and its winding path in the global world.
Gosha Rubchinkiy’s work is often reduced to the trend which it almost single-handedly brought into existence — the so-called post-Soviet aesthetic. At the height of fashion’s interest in the idea of the poor-but-sexy former East, Kim Kardashian was photographed wearing a Vetements sweatshirt with a hammer and sickle, and T-shirts with Cyrillic letters could be found at mainstream high streets stores. Now the wave has risen and crashed, but Rubchinskiy continues to play his own long game. Before Erik Bulatov, he tapped into the radical heritage of Timur Novikov and the history of the pioneering Russian rave movement, worked with acclaimed director Renata Litvinova and brought emerging creatives from Russia to collaborate on music, video and design. His brand didn’t need this additional layer of deeper meanings — but perhaps they were precisely what made it work.
The collection shown in Yekaterinburg had numerous links to global fashion: trench and duffle coat were a collaboration with Burberry, the shoes were made with Dr Martens and the three stripes of Adidas were a prominent feature throughout. In January, Rubchinskiy’s skater brand PACCBET released a new collaboration with Carhartt WIP — much to the taste of the global streetwear community. Designer Tolia Titaev reimagined 12 of the label’s classic garments, which were then shot in black and white in the dreamy yet desolate setting of the Black Sea riviera. Despite grounding his creative narrative in the idea of “otherness”, Rubchinskiy is very much appreciated and assimilated within the industry. Partly of course due to his exceptional talent, partly due to the fact that such otherness is a valuable commodity in our globalised world.
In the end, Rubchinskiy has changed the global perception of Russia (at least in the eyes of the younger generation), while also redefining the way we speak about the concepts of local and global in fashion. The globalisation of looks, consumptions and aspirations presents its own challenges, which hit the emerging markets harder than the centre. At the same time, gazing at the bright faces of the boys at the Yeltsin Center, there was nothing I wanted more than to find out how they see the world and their place in it. Who knows whether it makes a difference to kids in remote corners of Russia — but Rubchinskiy hasn’t forgotten about them.