Growing up in Siberia, Maria Kazakova was obsessed with sewing from her elementary school days onwards. The day she first saw John Galliano’s explosively theatrical shows for Dior, she knew what she wanted to do. From Siberia to Parsons’ New School MFA Fashion Design and Society programme, via Galliano’s alma mater Central Saint Martins, Kazakova made the switch from womenswear to menswear, and found her voice. A voice that, actually, aims to speak for a lot more than simply her own experiences. Perhaps this is the reason why Kazakova has decided to abstract herself as Jahnkoy, a word meaning ‘new spirit village’, and self-describes as a visual artist rather than a clothing designer.

Presented in collaboration with Puma, Jahnkoy’s collection ‘The Displaced’ followed on from her graduate show and knocked the figurative socks from New York Men’s Fashion Week. (Please do not worry, the literal models were immaculately shod.) Partly due to her concern for sustainability, Kazakova was pleased to align her work with Puma due to their research into their environmental impact, and a dedicated sustainability strategy.

Inspiration for The Displaced taps into the shared cultural connection that exists between human beings regardless of their nationality, the spiritus mundi. Rather than being items simply to cover the body, these garments are a practice in being connected, for Kazakova they represent “a mode of human togetherness.”

This connection, a particularly important one in turbulent political contexts, is writ large across Jahnkoy’s collection. Sometimes literally. While all clothing carries some sort of message, Kazakova uses The Displaced to spell out some points she thinks we should. “Don’t bring that shit to me, don’t bring good shit to Africa” reads one slogan, borrowed from Nigerian musician Seun Kuti, drawing attention to the fact that 70% of donated clothing worldwide ends up in the African continent, and has resulted in the destruction of an indigenous clothing industry. From the 1980s to the modern day, the textile workforce in certain countries, Kenya for example, has fallen by as much as 96%. Clearly we need to renegotiate our ideas of charity. Clothing drives in 90s had good intentions of extending a helping hand, but we risk perpetuating an unnecessary cycle of dependence.

Coming from a Russian designer, living in New York, it’s easy to be cynical about a collection that focuses so much on African culture, but the intention is far from mining the value of someone else’s heritage. For Jahnkoy, this is a bricolage of identities, permitted by globalisation and a sense of cultural responsibility. Growing up in Siberia, the artist was fascinated by her father’s collection of homemade masks, and was even more intrigued when she started to research their relation to mask shapes across diverse world cultures. The shapes this man felt came from within were reflected in Russian cultural practices, but also had a significant overlap with African aesthetics. It’s hard to deny the positive aspects of the commonality of the things that groups of people create in exclusion from each other. Indigenous and folk culture most often highlight the human experiences and emotions which draw us together. In fact, the collection owes its existence as much to Russian techniques and aesthetics as African ones, a fact we overlook to our own detriment. To understand the meaning behind this collection is to truly value it.

As for the clothing itself, there is an impressive level of embroidery, beading, fringing, and colour amongst the pieces, while still maintaining a versatility that is hidden when we view the clothing as a whole. Examining each piece individually, there is a lot of potential for even those with the least politically vocal of wardrobes. Ostensibly a menswear collection, the streetwear factor keeps it relatively gender neutral, and I predict the originality-meets-practicality of the folky cool sportswear blend will prove universally popular, gender be damned.

 

Rather than heralding an outright rejection of high culture, this is sportswear that clearly has the potential to take on the future of craft and tradition, with the goal of its preservation in a way that feels natural to youthful urban consumers. There is a curious subversion of stereotypical urban youth-wear through its infusion with the beauty of ancient cultures that we can all feel a primal, almost visceral connection to.

Despite a strong message borne out by strong pieces, the collection has not escaped criticism. While Women’s Wear Daily described the collection as “a vivid line that stood out among the mostly commercial shows that take place in New York”, they also mentioned, unfavourably, that it was reminiscent of Gypsy Sport on the basis of their both being “culturally inclusive” brands. The assertion that the line is somehow derivative of Gypsy Sport seems a facile criticism, surely the industry should be encouraging cultural inclusivity to the point that any two brands modelled by people of colour aren’t automatically compared to each other?

“Don’t bring that shit to me, don’t bring good shit to Africa”

To read into Jahnkoy’s aesthetic is to sense the power of shared human experience, of the potential of our shared cultures and roots in folk art and practices that speak of common histories amongst separated peoples. We can read into each colour, pattern, or cut, looking for their creator’s message. Or we can just read the message cut into her inspiration images. 

ALL WE GOTTA DO IS MOVE AS ONE.

Words Elizabeth Brauders All visuals Courtesy of Jahnkoy