I’ve always had a kind of fascination with Eastern Europe. I’d like to think it’s because I like Swan Lake and the painfully emotive poetry of Anna Akhmatova, the cultured Woman (with a capital ‘W’) that I am. But while I do like those things, it may also be because I like eating caviar, and that I’m attracted to the taboo vibe that surrounds Eastern Europe, at least in the Western (the U.S. and Western Europe, for the purpose of this comparison) mind.
I don’t seem to be alone in my infatuation. In the past three years, the fashion-forward of Eastern Europe are catching global attention, making appearances in Vogue, the New York Times—even the culinary style of former Soviet Republics are getting noticed, with Saveur featuring Georgian cuisine on their homepage a few weeks ago.
What is the dynamic between the West and Eastern Europe, really? What does it have to do with fashion? Here’s my interpretation, based on no merit other than googled research, talking to my boyfriend’s father over Skype (he, living outside of Moscow and only speaking Russian; I, bombarding my boyfriend with questions to translate) and my own musings:
The lingering impacts of Cold War propaganda, a slew of Russian Bond-Villains, and recurring Western/Russian political controversies have all made interactions between the West and Eastern Europe not scandalous, but…attention-grabbing. Meanwhile, Eastern Europeans often wonder why Westerners say things that they don’t mean (there are multiple posts online of people asking why Americans ask strangers “how are you?”, jokes are made about this in Eastern European films, I’ve heard this a lot from people I know). The way that each party perceives the other makes for a prickly friendship.
When dealing with art, though, there has always seemed to be more wiggle room—in a way, the arts have been the mutual language between the East and the West. Russian ballet, paintings and literature have all been flowing westward since Aleksandr Pushin published the “first great Russian novel” Eugene Onegin in 1833, but Eastern European fashion made its first major appearance on Western runways in Yves Saint Laurent’s 1976 Russian Collection.
Today, the general consensus among fashion publications (judging by their headlines) is that Eastern European fashion is on the rise because of the popularity of Vetements—a brand started by Balenciaga’s creative director, Demna Gvasalia— and Gosha Rubchinskiy (with his self-titled clothing line, ГОША РУБЧИНСКИЙ).
Both brands are headed by men who grew up in the late/post-Soviet era, and they both use this background to create a particular theme in their work: clothing inspired by the popular knock-off clothing of the late/post-Soviet era; clothing that was born because of late/post-Soviet people wanting designer clothing but being closed off by strict trade policies.
Vetements and Rubchinskiy make intentional knock-offs and release them under a real designer label, putting a twist on the meaning of “designer” and exhibiting some classically wry Eastern European humor, imitating everything from DHL to Thrashermagazine. The clothes have exploded with popularity worldwide, both because they are relatively affordable (compared to other name-brand designers) and because, among Westerners, the clothes have developed a different meaning.
The Cyrillic letters and cultural references of Gosha Rubchinskiy and Vetements are usually lost on Western buyers, and have instead ascended to high-hipsterdom: to wear clothing that you can’t even read or explain; clothing that is, to a certain extent, made to look cheap—but isn’t—what could be more ironic? In this way, the brands have developed a strong cult following of people who are happy to be a part of the exclusive Russian Irony club–even if that irony is coming from a different place, depending on the wearer’s background.
So since it’s possible that these Vetements and Rubchinskiy fans have nothing more than a surface appreciation for these brands, I can’t help but think this isn’t that great of an inside joke. It makes me a little sad.
While these two brands are the most attention-grabbing Eastern European names at the moment, something that makes me happy is that there also many Eastern European designers making clothing that is beautiful by any standard.
Two designers that I love are Ulyana Sergeenko (who is Russian, but was born in Soviet Kazakhstan) and Olga Vilshenko. Both designers are highly influenced by Russian fairy tales and folklore, with Sergeenko spinning traditional culture into couture fantasies, and Vilshenko blending classic Eastern European imagery with modern, Western silhouettes.
I feel it’s important to point out that since all of the designers I’ve mentioned are culturally Russian, they don’t represent the whole of what “Eastern Europe” is often used to mean (arguably): the Baltics, the Balkans, the Caucasus, even parts of Central Asia if you consider all former Soviet republics. The cultures of these places intersect, but they each have their unique qualities, and it’s much more interesting to look deeper into their differences than to blend them together as Russia.
Foreigners aren’t alone, though, in this blending. From my experience with Eastern European people, there is sometimes a degree of shyness explaining where you are from, if it isn’t Russia–especially if their mother tongue is Russian. Some of this is due to politics, other times because of a feeling that saying they are Russian will be easier to understand for outsiders. But since Lady Gaga’s newest merchandise collection is the product of top Ukrainian talent, and Bella Hadid has been spotted wearing Georgian designers, I hope that the success of the Gosha Rubchinskiy’s and Vetements’ are an invitation for the West to explore all of Eastern Europe’s fashion capitals.
There is so much worth learning after, “how are you.”