New East Digital Archive

The post-Soviet aesthetic: how a fashion trend became the most relevant way of confronting the past

10 April 2017

I go up the stairs of a disused factory building. It’s cold, and I can smell wet concrete emanating from the walls awaiting major renovation. This building in the centre of Tbilisi will soon become the new Intercontinental Hotel. On the top floor, daylight pours through the sea of green behind large windows still missing both frame and glass. For now, it’s not a building site, but a strange playground.

Hardly anyone else in fashion has tackled Soviet history through the experience of its materials

A few objects are scattered around: old tin toy cars and plastic toy guns, defunct arcade games and other artefacts of material culture as if washed ashore by an unknown tide. A few Tbilisi youngsters are around — sitting or standing on industrial relics which look like strangely-shaped vases. Their attire is perfectly suited to this fictional cosmic shipwreck: thick leather jackets, reworked martial arts kimonos, sweaters with colourful appliqués. Here the artefacts of the past meet the future: Georgia’s emerging creative generation in the setting of a hotel yet to be built. The architects behind this strange collision is the Georgian collective LTFR run by Maxime Machaidze and Iri Tordiashvili.

Machaidze first started designing and printing T-shirts to make ends meet after he dropped out of school. He was mainly making clothes for himself and his friends, and after meeting his girlfriend Iri they continued together. It’s very apparent that LTFR is not your usual clothing label: it’s not really about fashion weeks and buyers — most of the pieces are one of a kind — and the cloud of meanings and symbols surrounding the collective reflect the diverse creative pursuits of its founders. “From the start I got interested in designing everything around me: sound, clothing, interior, like designing and working on the concept of everything which exists around you,” Machaidze explains. “I became a member of a music gang called KFJ which stands for “Kung Fu Junkie”, I think that has played a big role in what I am doing, we played at drug decriminalisation events, events against homophobia and against police violence.” It was his involvement in music production, particularly funk, and the creative community surrounding it that gave LTFR its title. The acronym stands for “Let The Funk Ride”, originally used for a track Machaidze mixed from funk classics he was obsessed with.

What makes LTFR stand out immediately is the fact that they use existing materials, mainly old clothing — a stance highly relevant in our times of overproduction. For Machaidze, however, the main reason he’s drawn to old materials is the unique tactile and emotional experience. “I look for materials everywhere, mainly in vintage shops, flea markets and thrift shops,” he says. “There are two main reasons I use old materials: one is that things that last are better in quality because they survived to this point; the second thing is the small damages that make them unique. These things help you understand that everything will turn to dust at some point, and that we are alive and real. Perfect and unscratched things annoy me, I like when materials are in dialogue with the earth and the cycle of life and death.”

A major shift is happening in what fashion can and should talk about

LTFR’s work definitely triggers an emotional response but what kind of response might depend on where you come from. Most of the 20th century for Georgia passed under Soviet rule; bits of inherited material culture would look very alien to someone from the outside, but might trigger memories in someone who also comes from a Soviet country. It’s the small things: a broken relic of some toy your older brother used to have, the particular kind of painted tin a toy spaceship would have been made of. LTFR are working with collective memory in a unique way — hardly anyone else in fashion has tackled Soviet history through the experience of its materials. At the same time, they are part of a larger cultural trend. For the new generation in the New East, fashion has somehow become the most earnest and most relevant way to speak about the past.

Over the past two years the fashion world fell in love with the post-Soviet myth. The work of Gosha Rubchinskiy turned the experience of growing up in 1990s Russia into a new subculture, and the Vetements hoodie adorned with the hammer and sickle generated a heated debate on the topic of modern values. But it also started the inevitable conversation about the past and its artistic interpretation. Among Tbilisi designers, LTFR is not the only example of excavating ruins — although they usually tend to be spiritual rather than physical. Tiko Paksa channeled the trauma of the post-Soviet transitional years, and Aleksandre Akhalkatsishvili called his collection The Losing of Origins, playing on the idea of ties to one’s culture and heritage. Both designers’ garments were beautiful in their own right — but these stories added weight to their vision.

For the burgeoning fashion scene in Ukraine, complex issues of history and national identity today are more pressing than ever. For FW2017 Anton Belinskiy re-appropriated the red and blue satin fabric of traditional Ukrainian sirwal trousers and, at the same time, based his knitwear pattern on the currency exchange index, hinting at the lingering economical crisis.

Svetlana Bevza was inspired by the archival flower headscarfs found in Kiev’s Ivan Honchar Museum — these were scanned and turned into digital prints. Collective memory for her is closely intertwined with the personal: the collection is built on ironic references to her mother’s wardrobe of the 90s, with shoulder pads and leather bags made to look like plastic shopping bags — a desired rarity at the time.

Despite the fact that communist and socialist iconography is one of the key elements of what’s perceived as post-Soviet aesthetic in fashion today, hardly any Ukrainian designers are keen to use it. Yulia Yefimtchuk is a rare exception: she is no stranger to bold shapes, a lot of red and black and references to avant-garde art — but for her it’s more about utopia rather than a history of oppression. “I don’t see anything bad in the idea of socialism which is based on social justice and equality, the system that would eliminate exploitation and oppression which is very important today in our very material world,” Yefimtchuk explains. “In the Soviet Union where most of my generation was born these ideas didn’t work out because of corruption but I want to believe that in the future perfect utopian world these ideas could finally come true.”

LTFR is not your usual clothing label: it’s not really about fashion weeks and buyers

In the video Dedicated to the Youth of the World directed for the brand by filmmakers Yarema and Himey, we see a bunch of youngsters asleep or wandering through the tall grass, a patch of urban wilderness. An unknown voice talks of utopian cities and of peace on earth, and the camera gently examines Soviet vases adorned with hopeful scenes of a bright future. Yefimtchuk’s work is clearly not about the relics of material culture, but about the relics of hope, and of hope much needed when peace on earth, and even in Ukraine, seems tragically unattainable.

The emerging generation of designers from the New East perhaps don’t have a choice over whether or not to deal with historical traumas — after all they exist in close proximity to the past. But the truth is, the times when fashion was just about clothes are long gone. Today fashion involves powerful interdisciplinary storytelling, and a major shift is happening in what fashion can and should talk about. One example is the stellar rise of British designer Grace Wales Bonner whose work tackles the history of oppression. Unsettling messages delivered through desirable objects is definitely a paradox but perhaps that’s why it’s suitable for our era. Perhaps this is why the post-Soviet myth has become fashion’s big obsession — it has enabled the industry to find a new language. Where would this journey lead us is yet to be known, but there is definitely no way back.

Text: Anastasiia Fedorova
Top image: Tornike Aivazishvili