From Cyrillic script slogans on oversized hoodies, to the popular use of brutalist buildings as photoshoot backdrops, we are witnessing a revival of soviet aesthetics. Whether it’s a simple sense of nostalgia or a more deeply-rooted form of trauma re-enactment, designers are looking into their cultural identity.

In a recent ICA panel, fashion historian Djurdja Bartlett and journalist Anastasiia Fedorova were joined by two emerging Moscow-based designers, Artur Lomakin and Asiya Bareeva, and fashion photographer Turkina Faso, to unpack and question what the post-soviet aesthetic in fashion might be now, and in the future.

“It’s both strange and unfamiliar – unseen in the mainstream western culture, which renders it refreshing.”

When asked about a post-soviet aesthetic in fashion, Demna Gvasalia and Gosha Rubchinskiy immediately come to mind. But to define it pictorially, in a single image, seems a lot harder. Anastasiia mentioned Gosha’s second fashion show back in 2009, which took place in an orthodox church-turned-gym (during post-soviet times) in Moscow as characteristic of what this elusive aesthetic might be: “His deliberate gesture in putting skater dresses and sportswear in complete conflict with such a historical site creates that collision between the rough, edgy street culture and solemn heritage we’ve become somewhat familiar with.”

Gosha Rubchinskiy

While local identity is in some respect dissolving as we witness a homogenization of fashion culture in an increasingly global world, the desire and pursuit for excavating and preserving a local identity remains ever present. The latter still feels real in its most raw and authentic sensibilities, contributing to our persistent fascination with it and maybe the reason for the rise of Gosha and Demna’s popularity. “It’s both strange and unfamiliar – unseen in the mainstream western culture, which renders it refreshing.” Anatasiia terms the post-soviet aesthetic as one that embodies a “forbidden fruit” type of energy as its seductive appeal.

However, despite the emerging craze about the post-soviet fashion, there seems to be a deeper structural crisis within the post-soviet countries, as the Moscow-based designer of ‘Forget Me Not’, Arture Lomakin shares with us. “It’s like a desert. There is no institutional support for young designers. So if you decide to do fashion, it might be difficult and complicated.” Lamenting on the small market, a lack of institutional funds and business advice, Artur and other emerging designers are therefore looking outwards beyond their own national borders, into the western market.

Asiya Bareeva

Even with the Ministry of Culture in Moscow, there seems to be gap left unaddressed. There is a dichotomy between those involved in Moscow Fashion Week and the creatives who are actually producing good work. “They pick the wrong designers. In Moscow fashion week, there is not one interesting designer in the line-up and nobody goes there – there is no international press. Why is that when I can name you some sixteen good designers from there?” Designers, stylists, photographers who are producing work that should be given recognition do not necessarily have the financial backing to participate in Fashion Week that the wealthy players in the fashion market do. Fashion week seems more of a game and show put on for those who participate in it. “It’s still very much a symbol of status…about looking good and nice dresses, which is not entirely relevant today.” Nevertheless, young designers like Asiya and Artur are able to get in touch with their audiences online, telling their stories through film or short presentations, which are much more effective than the clumsy, dated fashion week in Moscow.

“I am totally Russian, and not in a bad way. I realized that I love my culture, I love my language. We have all these books and films; why should we be ashamed of it, or hate it?”

For Turkina and other Russian designers, there is a notion of trauma re-enactment that seems to be woven into each of their creative narratives. “Working through old symbols that are somewhat painful create the most innovative, engaging works.” But strange enough, this nostalgia for a Russian identity is shared amongst the generation that was brought up in a hybrid culture – the ones who hardly remember the soviet period of a closed, monoculture Russia. The generation of designers before had strived to veer away from Russian influences, where a totally escapist mindset had been predominant. Even the early issues of Vogue Russia had close to no national pride, adopting a very western outlook until much later on around 2005/6 where a sudden wave of nostalgia was ushered in.

Turkina Faso

There is also a privilege of distance that some of these designers enjoy, being able to observe their own culture from afar for additional insight. After coming to London, Turkina realized “I am totally Russian, and not in a bad way. I realized that I love my culture, I love my language. We have all these books and films; why should we be ashamed of it, or hate it?” Likewise, Demna Gvasalia has become more articulate about the Soviet Union, having only spoken about Germany in the past. It seems almost fashionable now, to tap on these personal and national histories.

Under Putin, the current Russian identity appears to be making a return to pre-revolutionary ideas and values. While that might be propagated by the government, as one of the audience members observed, Anatasiia speaks of a ‘double-gaze’ amongst the younger designers on their ‘Russian-ness’: “they look at themselves but also the way the West perceives them. They often have this notion that the West sees them as evil and weird, which perhaps corresponds to them not being afraid, just quite alienated.”

“The most interesting narratives in fashion come from politically conflicted places.”

There is a culture of second-hand shopping in Russia, many of which are imported from UK/EU. Youths are refashioning these second-hand clothes to aspire to what they see online from the West, which is in turn admired by those from the West even though the clothes used to belong to them, generating a humorous, ironic exchange between the two. “A lot of times, the people in Ukraine are buying these second-hand stuff to clean it and then resell it back to the UK on ebay.”

Artur Lomakin

While there might not be a straightforward definition to a post-soviet aesthetic, there is certainly an energetic desire amongst the younger generation of artists, designers, stylists and photographers to rediscover what their cultural identity means. Though one might ask, have the whole post-soviet aesthetic and Gosha-esque graphics already become a fashion cliché? And if it is, what’s next? “I think the next big step is for post-soviet, post-communist countries to bring their lesser known national identities and culture forward. Open a dialogue and add to it. The most interesting narratives in fashion come from politically conflicted places. It always comes from challenging times.”

“It was an unconscious amassing of red. I feel it has its own power. I didn’t consider it to be a post-soviet motif from the start; but obviously red for me is a signature. It’s a part of my culture, part of the Russian ethnic. In Russian, red means beautiful. You say ‘red girl’ which means ‘beautiful girl’. So you could say the colour of Russia is red.” – Turkina Faso

“Can you be Russian in a bad way? It is seen as a dangerous country now, but do you think it helps? Because let’s be honest, good guys are never that sexy – it’s the bad guys who are.” – audience member

Words Keoy Wan Hui