Master Class: Gosha Rubchinskiy
Master Class: Gosha Rubchinskiy
- Words Gregory Babcock
- Date July 1, 2016
The fall of the Berlin Wall is one of the most well-known physical manifestations of the end of Communist leadership and, by extension, the USSR. It's so synonymous, it's approached even the realm of on-the-nose overuse. But while the wall came down over two decades ago, unleashing the style and culture of the Western nations amongst the once-isolated in the East, very few have attempted to break down the metaphorical barriers between the former Soviet Bloc and export that perspective back west. Some have tried, few have been felt in a meaningful way; but nearly no one has introduced the world to the nearly-exotic blend of what Russia was (and currently is), quite like Gosha Rubchinskiy.
Rubchinskiy's debut collection was shown in 2008, but his story begins well before that. Just starting school in 1991, Rubchinskiy was uniquely placed to be cognizant of the changes entering Russia after the fall of the USSR. As the nation was still reeling from centrally planned culture, Russia was caught between two identities. One one side, an expressionless and stark uniformity. On the other, the eye-popping energy and consumerism of Western Europe and the United States. The sudden influx of logo-drenched designs may have caused a cultural hangover for some, but for Rubchinskiy, it was an inspiration.
While some may accuse Rubchinskiy of simply regurgitating the designs of the '90s, that's hardly the case. Viewing this aggressive aesthetic from the lens of memory, he's looking for inspiration, not to simply copy the work of others. It's so much more than being inspired by what was en vogue 20 years ago. "We want to catch a moment, and with all the 90s hype, this is the moment," Rubchinskiy told 032c. "[Creating designs inspired by] The Tommy Hilfiger logo is just a game. You take a reference from the past and fill it with a meaning from today. It's not about the '90s." That's likely why his take on the Hilfiger logo—inserting Russian and Chinese flags instead—resonates a rivalry that's dominated the Eastern Hemisphere both in past and in present.
If anything, like Helmut Lang and Raf Simons before him, Rubchinskiy's work focuses on the abstract concepts of "youth" and its energy. The key difference is that, unlike his predecessors, he was cultivated in the crucible of post-Soviet Russia. This unique set of experiences, which fused everything from an influx of European electronic music to skateboarding, is a continuous font of ideas, and the overall unifying aesthetic across all of his collections. In other words, Gosha never forgets where he comes from.
All of Rubchinskiy's collections have that sense of his surroundings, starting with the "Evil Empire" collection in 2008. Taking over the running track at a local sports stadium, the overall environment wasn't just a riff on young men and how they dress daily—it played against Russia's image internationally and the mentalities and aesthetics that that perception has fostered. Think trackpants paired with rigid denim vests, boys clad in black facemasks, but wearing high cut running shorts and baggy T-shirts. These were not the Kremlin's Olympians.
The show would establish Rubchinskiy as a rising star in the Russian design world, even though the collection was more of a project for friends than a fashion label. After a turn in 2009 at Cycles & Seasons—an alternative series of fashion shows, created and helmed by former Vogue Russia editor Anna Dyulgerova—Rubchinskiy became an underground success on an international level. While buyers and editors from around the world were turning him into more than one of Russia's best kept secrets, the fact that he was positioned behind the former Iron Curtain made his global expansion untenable. "I started to receive requests from shops in different countries, but I had to refuse because I only had one piece per size in every collection," Rubchinskiy told The Business of Fashion. Production was difficult and small-scale. Rubchinskiy could not afford to send his clothing around the world.
Even with a guest showing at London Fashion Week shortly thereafter, the entire affair was fueled exclusively by Rubchinskiy’s own bank account; his 12 piece collection was produced exclusively by him and carried to the event in his own suitcase. Returning to Russia without funds and a production team, the D.I.Y. nature of his brand would come back to bite him. "It's very difficult to start a fashion label in Moscow," he explained. "Good fabrics are expensive and customs rules are very strict. I started thinking that fashion for me was over." Defeated, Rubchinskiy took a hiatus to focus on art and his ongoing love affair with photography. Rubchinskiy would eventually reenter the world of fashion design, but it's difficult to divorce today's designs from his personal studies in art and photography.
Rubchinskiy's photography began during his introduction into the world of clubs and fashion while studying makeup and hairdressing in college as fashion design was not an option. But his most well-known work was created after he turned his lens from his college projects towards his friends. When he met artist Slava Mogutin around 2002, he was introduced to point-and-shoot cameras, which opened him up to the spontaneity found in the work of photographers like Terry Richardson and Wolfgang Tillmans. Those hallmarks have clearly influenced his artwork for several years now, with the designer creating a distinct style in photo books, like 2010’s Aglec, 2012’s Transfiguration and 2015’s Youth Hotel, and in fashion editorials for Grind, Topman and Supreme.
Anyone even tangentially familiar with Rubchinskiy’s work knows that skateboarding has become a signature inspiration behind his collections. But, really, those details are actually rooted deeper in Rubchinskiy's art than in his fashions. Seeing kids skate along Novyi Arbat in Moscow around 2003, Rubchinskiy was immediately drawn to the boys' energy. "I loved the combination of sport and style," admitted Rubchinskiy to 032c. "For me, skateboarding is always connected to art and fashion. Some skaters dress like classic skinheads, some have long hair, and I was very attracted by it."
Noticing that skaters embody a youthful nonchalance and rarely ever worry about the future, it became clear they mentality mirrored Russia's own uncertainty about what the future would bring. In a way, this similarity found in both disheveled wardrobes and reconstructing ex-Soviet cities is a theme that’s at the very core of what Rubchinskiy delivers on the runway.
However, this visual, psychological and emotional aesthetic would be trapped in Putin's Russia if not for the support of Comme des Garçons and Dover Street Market President, Adrian Joffe. Initially introduced by Dyulgerova, Joffe met Rubchinskiy while he was focusing on photography and assembling images for his Transfiguration book. Impressed by Rubchinskiy and inspired by his uniquely post-Soviet creativity, Joffe insisted that Dover Street Market stock the young designer's label. While many designers would look at this offer as a golden ticket moment, the decision would ultimately lead Rubchinskiy into financial ruin.
"We made the collection for Dover Street Market especially because Adrian ordered," Rubchinskiy admitted to The Business of Fashion. "It was hell. I spent my own money to produce it in Serbia. Not only didn't I get any profit, I spent everything on customs, logistics, production and ended up in debt." With all of the headaches, Rubchinskiy attempted to end the arrangement when he and Joffe eventually reconvened. Fortunately, Joffe had other ideas.
In something more akin to a gentleman's agreement, Joffe proposed a unique solution. Instead of having Rubchinskiy design, produce and ship his collections to stores like most designers, Joffe suggested that Rubchinskiy should simply handle design process, and Comme des Garçons would handle practically everything else. To be blunt, this agreement is arguably the sole reason that you can buy Gosha Rubchinskiy's designs in stores today. It's actually quite remarkable. Aside from a few basic design parameters, Rubchinskiy is free to create practically whatever he wants on Dover Street's dollar. That said, the "Gosha Rubchinskiy" trademark is owned and run through Comme des Garçons.
Since the first collection of this partnership launched in 2012, Rubchinskiy's notoriety has only blossomed. While he has continued to tackle the iconography of Russian and Eastern Europe, he's also played with brands and logos that he's inspired by. He's flipped the logos of Thrasher, Fucking Awesome and, perhaps most notably, the aforementioned Tommy Hilfiger flag. He's also created sneakers for Camper, Reebok and Vans. His most recent collection at the 90th iteration of Florentine trade show Pitti Uomo was more than just a showcase of his designs, it was de facto revival of retro Italian sportswear, featuring Fila, Kappa and Sergio Tacchini.
Yes, Rubchinskiy may be inspired by the designs of the past, but each is filtered through the many layers of his personal experience: the fall of the USSR, the sudden swell of Western culture in the '90s, Moscow's skate scene, European nightclubs and, well, global fashion. It's a fusion of cultural influences that's barely been explored and certainly not in the way that Rubchinskiy has harnessed it. Simply put, it's not just hype that prompts an entire collection to sell out at Dover Street Market in less than two days.
This blend of nostalgia and the exotic unknown has created a brand that thrives on a sense of 'foreign familiarity.' Like the opening of a long-closed border, it seems that for Gosha Rubchinskiy, in style, art and culture, he's fashioned his own brand of Glasnost.