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Essay: Not Gonna Get Us

by Jana Melkumova-Reynolds on 4 March 2014

Writer Jana Melkumova-Reynolds explores the feelings of speed and escapism peculiar to the work of Russia's young designers.

Writer Jana Melkumova-Reynolds explores the feelings of speed and escapism peculiar to the work of Russia's young designers.

Still from 'The New Times' (2014)

‘Can I grill you about the film when you have a minute?’ – I type a message to Natasha Sych, a Moscow-based stylist-turned-photographer-turned-filmmaker and one of the masterminds behind a retro-futuristic video for the Russian brand Arsenicum, where athlete-model Elena Sudakova performs a set of bizarre robotic movements in a psychedelic kaleidoscope of colourful patterns, bubbles and body parts. A still from the video has become the poster for New Russian Fashion In Film, a collection of 12 visual essays produced as part of the British Council’s Dressing the Screen project. The screening is scheduled for later that day and is followed by a panel discussion that I am part of, so I’m keen to get some last-minute insights from the horse’s mouth. ‘Am in Rio - middle of the night - phone may die,’ she replies instantly. ‘Basically, think acid-fuelled dream of a Korean Olympics champion in 2056…’

Whenever I speak to a Russian creative they never seem to be in Russia. They move through time zones at an almost worrying speed: one day they Instagram from Bali, next I spot their Foursquare check-in in the latest ‘it’-spot in Copenhagen, and a week later they text me from an Australian number. (It is quite normal for a Russian bohemian to have three or more phone numbers – and for none of them to be reachable for at least for a couple of days every month). Yet they are far from being a bunch of idle jetsetters: I receive prompt replies to work-related emails on Saturday nights and Sunday mornings alike (though mornings are generally less favoured), and their efficiency in dealing with last-minute requests and pulling together large projects overnight is nothing if not admirable.

My feeling is that the panel discussion for New Russian Fashion in Film was one of such last-minute projects – at least, I only got asked to participate two days in advance. Which, of course, makes tracking down a filmmaker in Rio for a last-minute interview even more exciting.

‘Why do people in Moscow walk so fast – even faster than Londoners?' – a British historian, whose research focuses on rhythms of life in modernity, asked me recently. 'They are trying to catch up with everything they think they have missed out on during the Soviet years,' – I replied, without thinking. To my surprise, he found this pretentious observation rather profound. And now that I'm thinking about how Russian fashion came to be what it is, I'm beginning to realise he may have been right.

If I were to continue developing my dubious psycho-geographic line of thought I would propose that Russians are not only trying to catch up but also to run away - from their past (that they are still trying to make sense of) as well as their present. As an art form closest to the body, and therefore to the basic instincts, fashion channels such collective anxieties particularly well.

Back in 2007 I was commissioned to write a feature on the emerging Russian fashion scene for Dazed and Confused. After selecting the most iconic designers (half of which are no longer in the business, at least not in the same capacity) – Arsenicum, Gayday, Simachev, Emperor Moth, Vika Gazinskaya and Alena Akmadullina – I spent weeks trying to find a common visual or philosophical underpinning to their work that would allow me to tie them all convincingly into my narrative and present a coherent story of my home country’s new creativity. My attempts failed repeatedly: what could Arsenicum’s Gothic aesthetic, Simachev’s nostalgia for the rogue romantics of the Soviet era and Gazinskaya’s fifties-style couture with a dash of surrealism possibly have in common? How could I persuade my reader that Gayday’s outrageous hats and provocative catwalk shows mimicking mental asylums, Akhmadullina’s enchanted tsarina dresses and Emperor Moth’s quirky embellished sportswear stemmed from the same school of thought? After days of talking to the designers and looking at their mood boards I finally saw a pattern: none of their inspirations came from their everyday life. Russian fashion was a perfectly escapist affair, created in an ivory tower while shutting out all immediate outside influence.

Having been a Moscow-based creative in the late nineties and early-to-mid noughties I myself have lived in that ivory tower, because frankly it was the only way to stay sane for anyone with any sensibilities – even if we never thought about it in these terms at the time. Moscow’s streets were flooded with Muscovites dressed in drably (or, worse still, in cheap and cheerful knock-offs of Italian labels such as Roberto Cavalli) and with tasteless ads that obscured beautiful historical facades. The latter – historical facades, that is – were vanishing swiftly, as a sway of newly built eyesores was taking over the city (the spouse of the mayor happened to own a building company and be one of the richest people in Russia). There were about five places that could remotely qualify as hipster hangouts in a city with a population of approximately 12 million. As late as 2005 there were exactly two outlets (next to impossible to find in the underground passages of the Moscow metro) where one could buy foreign art, design and fashion magazines, which cost about £25 a copy. There was, of course, also a war in Chechnya, the Beslan school hostage crisis and the Moscow theatre siege. There was the Kursk submarine that was left to drown and pensioners living beyond the breadline. But if you asked any of us, the fashion crowd, to comment on any of it, you would have encountered either an awkward silence or an absurdist joke. I genuinely believe most of us would not have been able to tell you the name of our prime minister.

Now that I think of it, I imagine this was part of our resistance strategy: we did not want to be part of it all. We travelled abroad at any opportunity. We never watched TV nor read newspapers, opting instead for Western art house films and decadent fin-de-siecle literature. We spent most of our time indoors, at our own or our friends’ places, and, since clandestine taxis were ridiculously cheap, we hardly ever travelled by public transport or even walked the streets. Simachev and Emperor Moth’s designers both opened bars ‘for friends’ where the whole bohemian crowd would gather every night as there was virtually nowhere else to go (Simachev Bar has since become a cult establishment and has long outlived the eponymous fashion label). Of course, there was no room for connection with Russian reality, and fashion reflected this.

I argue that this kaleidoscope of influences from various cultures is precisely what modern-day Russian-ness is about: rootlessness, constant flux, bricolage, endless deconstruction and reassembling of meaning.

At the panel discussion a few hours after my exchange with Sych, which was chaired by SHOWstudio’s Marie Schuller, someone raises this question of the lack of local inspiration in Russian fashion. Natasha Turovnikova - journalist, consultant and one of the very few Russians in the world who has worked in the fashion industry for over 15 years - remarks that this is a huge downside: Russian designers would have been more likely to succeed abroad had they developed a distinctive Ruski identity. I argue that this kaleidoscope of influences from various cultures is precisely what modern-day Russian-ness is about: rootlessness, constant flux, bricolage, endless deconstruction and reassembling of meaning. With the political and economic turmoil of the last 25 years that has shaken and challenged pretty much every paradigm and left no certainty about anything in anyone, Russia has become a perfect polygon for all things postmodern.

There was a song by an underground Russian singer from the late nineties called Tree Without Roots. The image stuck with me: I thought it coined my generation perfectly. When collective memory suggests that your roots are somehow linked with oppression, when you are not sure what to make of your country’s baggage (which any visual reference to anything Russian brings up, even if one is not aware of it), the safest thing to do is distance yourself from them as much as possible – for instance, by creating stunning films referencing Timothy Leary and Wong Kar Wai while galavanting between Rio, Berlin and god knows where else.

Then another expert on the panel, Calvert Journal editor Anastasiia Fedorova, mentions one more rising star of the Russian fashion scene: Gosha Rubchinskiy, whose designs are now stocked by Dover Street Market, Opening Ceremony, LN-CC and Oki-ni and who regularly collaborates with street and sportswear giants such as Vans and Nike. Fedorova articulately postulates that in his work Gosha talks about the current Russian reality in a visual language that the West understands: most recently, delinquent youths and skaters in Moscow's suburbia. We agree that, in order to gain international attention, a collection from a place like Russia needs to make a statement about the said place.

When I get home I watch the films again. Most of them are superb, but two particularly stand out for me: the splendidly spooky tale of liberation in black-and-white by designer Sasha Wider and director Danya Dubovskaya and the home-made, Super 8-style snippets by Chaos Reigns and Forget Me Not. Both are very strong visually and conceptually – and, at least to my eye, unmistakably Russian: the focal point of the latter, for instance, is a typical, gloomy-looking currency exchange counter that is evocative for all my compatriots who, like me, started their careers in the late ninties when salaries were paid mainly in hard cash and most commonly in American dollars. The felt, mohair and heavy knit sweaters that Forget Me Not is famous for are reminiscent of those one could buy from grannies in markets until a few years ago but have a rougher, contemporary edge to them. Wider’s intriguing narrative is set against an equally evocative backdrop of a typical Soviet modernist building; in her collections, she incorporates the aesthetics of traditional Russian dress, constructivism and neo-futurism that her clean and sharp cuts render modern.

I like to think that these two, as well as Rubchinskiy, are representatives of a new generation of Russian designers that, as opposed to my own - undoubtedly talented - ‘ivory tower’ generation described earlier, is looking for inspiration in their immediate surroundings, not in faraway places and tales of yesteryear. It’s been ages since I last spoke to Gosha or to Artur Lomakin of Forget Me Not but I suspect they would have no problem remembering the name of the current prime minister; they would probably also have a thing or two to say about contemporary Russia. Maybe the new wave will bring something ‘real’ and ‘raw’ (as LN-CC’s John Skelton once described Rubchinskiy’s work to me in an interview), less escapist, less quirkily pretty. Embracing your roots, like reconciling with abusive parents, may force one to face one's anger, despair, frustration and fear – but is this not how true beauty is born?

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