Abzal Issabekov stands proudly, a ball of energy, next to his portfolio and mini exhibition in the MA studio. His ribbed, fisherman style hat, goes with his casual, street look today: all black, a bomber slung over his shoulders. But, as always with Bekov, the key is in the details. A small, silver ring pierces his septum, two rings hang from his left lobe. A large, clip-hook peeks from his back-right pocket, his house keys jangle when he reveals them. “It’s for practical reasons, but it is also a look,” he laughs. Much of his design concept comes from the book Gay Semiotics by Hal Fischer (1977). “In the 70s keys were a small note to flagging. I tell you, I love all this queer culture. Everybody should know their roots.”
These roots were certainly apparent in his final collection – a monochrome affair of sharp, 70s Italian tailoring, met with latex and bondage. It was a hit at London Fashion week Autumn/Winter 2016; Dazed and Confused have named Bekov one of the ‘Central Saint Martins graduates to look out for.’
Born in a Kazakhstan under USSR rule, Bekov lived through the aftermath of the country’s liberation in 1991. His mother, a seamstress, taught him to sew from an early age. “Everyone’s waiting to hear that I’ve been this poor boy – I wasn’t. We were a poor middle-class.” He appreciates memories of a more simple childhood. “We had soviet teaching books. I made a little lion aged three. Where do you find a toy-making book for a three year old? People would rather buy something from China! This is a lost thing.” Bekov didn’t pursue fashion until 2011, by which time he already had an accounting degree under his belt. “Growing up like that, you never realised you could study fashion. It never occurred to me, since, you know, my family, we still had that communist feeling. We would still worry ‘oh, what does my neighbour think?’”
Later in his life, as the communist grip faded, re-runs of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano (at Dior) catwalk shows aired on TV, exposing Bekov to the world of fashion. But it was still a slow process. “When I went to university in Kazakhstan, I finally went to the big city and saw that people were wearing fashion.”
“It really started like this: I like to go to techno clubs. I met designers there that are so sharp, and beautifully elegant, and dandy. At night they enter the Berghain, then they change from these suits into latex fetish pieces.”
After his degree Bekov applied to Parsons, winning a full scholarship. “It was offered to poor CIS [The Commonwealth of Independent States] countries, the ‘stan’ countries Louise Wilson called them.” Humbling this achievement, he adds, “Not many people from the arts applied. Arts were non-existent in Kazakhstan. People do business or travel, or the service industries. It is only just starting now.”
Whilst in New York, Bekov interned with designer Antonio Azzuolo, where he discovered the techniques he now deems his trademark. “He was an amazing person. He gave me my first taste of tailoring, the old Italian way which was so popular in the 70s – like the rope shoulder.” He sweeps his hand over the curves of the shoulder seams in a black double-breasted jacket, the piece looks all the more powerful with that extra half-inch of height.
Toying with tailoring has enabled Bekov to use the power attached to a suit. “For me it’s about the masculinity, this power. Especially in homosexual men that possess it, but they don’t show it.” His aesthetics have always explored “the queer” and bondage as empowering men’s dress. Two years at CSM have streamlined this inspiration to become elegant and sexy, departing from those sleazy or gimmicky odes to bondage. A return to tailoring has enabled this sophistication in his graduate collection, subverting the cultural constructions attached to the men’s suit.
While going against the 2016 zeitgeist, he is being true to himself, steering clear of the current trend of androgyny in fashion design. “There are great designers in this class that do androgyny really well, but I’m just not that person.”
The MA Menswear students have been a talented bunch this year, receiving ample media attention after London Fashion Week. “The beauty of it, is that no single collection looks the same. It’s a family here, we really care for each other in our class. Anyway, if somebody copies you, you’re going to see it!” The high expectation of CSM tutors is no myth, and reactions can be very unpredictable. “We have been through some harsh times together here because of ‘crits’ [tutorials]. You can have good or bad days. Sometimes it is about the tutor’s mood, sometimes it depends on everything you do – or don’t do.”
“My first project? Oh…My…God,” he drawls. “That was a disaster.” Fabio Piras, who took over the MA course in 2014, when looking at his final looks being modelled, said: “Abzal, why are you trying to be trendy? It is not you. Would you shag this guy?”
Bekov laughs, “And I am like, ‘I would never shag this guy!’”
Polaroids by Anton Gottlob
“At the back, if you put a bit more tension to one side, you cannot bend. You have to have this posture. It forces the beauty of old elegance.”
Fabio’s guidance has been crucial in his growth. “I became who I am as a designer because of Fabio. I know now, you just have to make something personal. My design has to be about myself and what I do, it is not about grades here.”
“So it really started like this: I like to go to techno clubs. I met designers there that are so sharp, and beautifully elegant, and dandy. At night they enter the Berghain [a nightclub in Berlin], then they change from these suits into latex fetish pieces. My first look, the black look, says, ‘I am the master, I’m elegant, I’m powerful, I’m chic.’ Maybe he [his muse] doesn’t have money.” He pauses, rethinks, and laughs, “But for this kind of suit – he has money!”
The fetish reference is not skin deep, it is in the DNA of the collection. The black suit, “is all about restraint too, making parallels with the fetish world. The collar is so stiff it really restrains your neck. All the models were like, ‘Oh My God you have to hold your neck so straight.’” Bekov traces the silhouettes, spinning the jacket around on the mannequin to demonstrate “At the back, if you put a bit more tension to one side, you cannot bend. You have to have this posture. It forces the beauty of old elegance.” The concept carries through to every detail, of every piece. “Not many people realised that, obviously, they just think, ‘oh it’s like a classic menswear jacket.’”
The AW16 line is impeccably made. It is even better in person than on the runway. All suit jackets are beautifully lined, complete with the four traditional inside pockets. The trousers – wide leg, paper-bag waist, or severely pressed, slimmer, classic styles – have internal jockstrap elastic detailing reminiscent of Helmut Lang’s signature strapping (Bekov also interned there). “I wanted to bring a bit of kink into it. Nobody notices obviously, nobody sees that.” All these little details show his dedication to the clothes.
A wrap coat, belted, with oversized lapels, in a monochrome gingham wool, is a stand-out piece. Bekov tries it on with no prompting, and catwalks through the studio, humming his own cabaret song, “It is insane, I love it, obsessed! It makes you so loungy chic. I am like that playboy guy…Hugh Hefner”. He throws his head back, emitting that infectious laugh of his.
The collection was commended by the press. “The most rewarding thing is that after the show, people said things that I thought I only knew myself. They look at it, and they get it –there weren’t any show notes or anything. I was like ‘wow’, that is so worth it. But he hasn’t let the praise go to his head: “I was so surprised when I read what Dazed said about me! After the show, when the lady at Dazed said she liked my designs, I was hugging her, saying, ‘Thank you so much!’”
“I’m not stopping. I don’t really like breaks, I get bored.”
Bekov tells a story with such animation. “I started drinking shots of espresso backstage – a lot of them. There was this amazing techno-house mix playing, and it was going insanely fast. I was so nervous, but then after, it was just like, ‘POW’ – serendipity. By the end, when the press were asking questions, I couldn’t speak, I was shaking. It think it was probably the coffee! And the rush of adrenaline.”
The show was a huge success for Bekov, who has received job offers since, although he won’t disclose where. “I am so lucky to have heard something back. Everyone hopes on the first day after the show that they will hear from a brand they love. I’m still fighting for it.”
What he does know is that he won’t stay in London. “I don’t know how people survive here, it’s extremely expensive. How do young people do things? You can see the creativity is moving from the city. People are going to Milan or Berlin.” A less profound reason to leave is, “In New York you cannot be a king, but you can have a quality of life. You can go to brunch every week. Here? No. I went to brunch maybe once every two months, because it is so expensive. I love me brunch.” He grins.
Clearly driven, Bekov wants to get to work right away. “I’m not stopping. I don’t really like breaks, I get bored. I had a bit of a break after the show but I was frustrated. I had a fashion comedown. Then after three days I was like [he clicks his fingers] – back on it!”
Bekov is brimming with ideas and energy, but for now, he is more than happy to immerse himself in someone else’s world, “I want to learn more.” What about fetish and latex? “The kink and stuff, that is about me. For a luxury brand, they have their own heritage.” Although his dream would be to have his own label, Bekov puts the clothes before his own ego. “I don’t want to make something that is so beautiful and so nice, cheaply – I would never compromise the design.”
Words by Abigail Southan
All images courtesy of Abzal Issabekov