NEW YORK, United States — Things that take hold as a novelty in the fashion world often feel at once new and entirely familiar. The phenomenon of the three Russian creatives who have recently captured the industry’s attention — Gosha Rubchinskiy, Demna Gvasalia and uber-stylist Lotta Volkova — is a case in point.
The three, who come from very different backgrounds — Rubchinskiy, the street-smart Moscow outsider; Gvasalia, the schooled Georgian-turned-European fashion disruptor at the helm of Balenciaga; and Volkova, the Vladivostok internationalist — are collectively seen to represent an aesthetic sensibility that the West has never considered before, a uniquely “post-Soviet” take on fashion.
But the work this sensibility has produced — an aggressively anti-statement amalgam of purposeful awkwardness, knock-off construction and brand re-appropriation — is also seen as a modern reflection of beloved fashion traditions. It has been referred to as the present-day incarnation of ’80s punk contrarianism and the latest fashion evolution in the great chain of artistic self-commentary that began in Duchampian modernism and continued through postmodernism, irony and the pseudo-nihilistic post-irony that has characterised trends of recent years.
Some critics place their genesis in sources even further back: a recent New York Times article cast the “new Russian aesthetic” of the Rubchinskiy, Gvasalia and Volkova as a realistic counterpoint to the folk-fantasy motifs and elaborate costumery of the Ballets Russes, a harsh but understandable wake up from the aesthetic dreaminess of a Soviet past.
What these comparisons all have in common is the presumption that fashion is at bottom referential; that there is some reality prior to and outside of it that fashion exists, at least in part, as a commentary upon. Punk, so the thinking goes, was a referential reaction to the political realities of the ’70s and ’80s; similarly the work of Rubchinskiy, Gvasalia and Volkova is often perceived as a referential reaction to the current political climate. The Ballets Russes referred to a fantasy Russia; Gosha and Vetements refer to a real one. And this presumption is entirely in keeping with the new Russian ethos; for if their peculiar post-ironic take on commercial fashion is one pole of their revolutionary appeal, their brand of so-called Russian realism is the other. The look is most often described as an image of urban life in the Russia of the post–Cold War ’90s where the designers grew up: a world of danger and poverty, only cautiously beginning to open up to the West; of stoic, no-nonsense toughness and making do with nothing; and — most relevantly for the new aesthetic — of cheap fabrics, loud colours, knockoff brands and ill fits.
Whether or not this ideal is in fact expressive of all three of their separate experiences as Russians (they come from very different parts of Russia, and different upbringings both inside and outside of fashion), or of contemporary Russian life in general (all three emphasise the fact that Russia has changed greatly since the era they draw on for inspiration), is beside the point, because what’s made the new aesthetic popular is not its expressiveness, or any other quality intrinsic to it. It is, rather, its realism as such: a referential vision that has emerged to a world more than ready to accept it as the truth, plain and simple. In short, what has sold Gosha Rubchinskiy’s clothes around the world, granted It status to Lotta Volkova’s work and put Demna Gvasalia’s Vetements collective on the map — and Gvasalia himself at the head of Balenciaga — is a vision of Russian life that the three designers have successfully conjured up in the minds of non-Russians.
In large part, the success of this conjuring has been due to the fact that the Western world currently happens to be as eager to experience Russian reality as it is unable to ascertain that reality clearly for itself. Taking part somehow in Russian life — sealed behind the “Iron Curtain” until two and a half decades ago, and since then only tenuously revealed — has become very attractive to Westerners lately, for two reasons that have more to do with us than with them: it appeals to our old romanticism, which is drawn to the strange, mysterious and forbidden; and it appeals to our somewhat newer sense of globalism, which would very much like to understand and get along with everybody on our own terms — especially those who we sometimes suspect may hate us. The Russian designers neatly satisfy both of these attractions. In presenting us with a strange, openly antagonistic new idea, they appeal to our curiosity. In presenting it as a unified aesthetic — and more importantly, as a look that we can buy in London, Paris and New York — they make that idea as commercially available to us as an iPhone or a Louis Vuitton bag.
That said, because our real attraction is ultimately not to those funny colours and odd fits, but to the idea of Russia itself, it has been crucial to the new aesthetic’s success that it be taken as truthful — as Russian realism — and not just as the design idiosyncrasy of one or two isolated people. Mysterious as Russia remains to us, this part of the new aesthetic’s appeal has had to rest pretty heavily on an assumption that is common to all referential art today: namely, that the more unpleasant and disordered a reference is, the more real the thing it refers to must be. Beauty, order and proportion (so the assumption goes) are artificial qualities, the presence of which, though enjoyable, always connotes a certain falsehood in a thing, and the absence of which can commend the truthfulness of a given depiction to us, even in the absence of any direct experience of the thing it depicts. It is entirely on the basis of this assumption, for example, that the aesthetic of the new Russian designers is favourably compared with that of the Ballets Russes: as simply another referential vision, the costumes of the new aesthetic may be every bit as fantastical (or realistic, for that matter) as folk costumes; but since the fantasy they represent is grittier and more overtly chaotic — as today we assume reality itself to be — it strikes us not as fantasy at all, but real.
This quality of realism seems paramount in the minds of Rubchinskiy, Gvasalia and Volkova, all of whom, whenever they talk about their work — whether discussing the commonalities or differences between their separate approaches — consistently refer to their sensibility as authentically Russian. And with good reason: authenticity is an extremely powerful idol in the design world, as in every other corner of the world today. By evoking it, however purposely, these designers have added considerable force to the not particularly groundbreaking novelty of their work, while at the same time arousing the feeling, so crucial to the success of many an avant-garde trend, that whatever faults may inhere in their work are after all authentic faults, and whatever misgivings the high-fashion world may feel about embracing it are only the incidental failures of that world to recognise a new real thing when they see it. By thus satisfying the referential art¬-lover’s desire for conspicuous disorder, along with the romantic globalist’s desire for a confrontational yet intelligible Russian identity, Rubchinskiy, Gvasalia and Volkova have proven more appealing to the high-fashion world than anyone — perhaps including themselves — imagined they would.
This success has been especially striking given the nature of the aesthetic itself — a design sensibility that, under circumstances any less post-ironic or Putin-Trumpian, would seem to have little more than faults. As Gvasalia has said, it embraces ugliness as a principle. Its gratuitous shoddiness, its emulation of the poorly made and out of place, coupled with its re-appropriation of barrel-bottom brand consumerism and crass factory aesthetics, would ordinarily be distasteful to conscientious designers, even if it weren’t being sold at couture prices. (How much for a DHL T-shirt?) Its rip-offs of uncool corporate logos and styles, and incorporations of Cyrillic lettering and the word “Russia” in its garments, are unmeaning negations of their Western counterparts: the logos are used only for reference to commercial blandness, and the use of the word “Russia” — in pointed contrast with, say, “Paris” or “Made in Italy” — seems meant only to emphasise the non-distinction and un-quality of the clothing emblazoned with it. In this sense the new aesthetic presents a critique without a point, a patriotism oddly lacking in any definable national character. At best, it is thrift-store haphazardness presented as high fashion, with the sheer brazenness of that presentation being its most noteworthy feature.
Nor is it difficult, within the “realistic” framework, to draw other associations between the new aesthetic and certain more infamous aspects of Russian life that, even in the name of novelty, the Western world is not quite able to romanticise. Its open acceptance of brand uniformity as an in-clique signifier is nothing new to fashion, but when the brand uniformity in question takes unremarkability and non-individuality as valuable for their own sake — and when the in-clique cultivates many of the referential signifiers it shares with skinheads and soldiers — it’s hard not to see a militaristic and thuggish core at its centre. (Similarly with its use of skinny and unprofessional models, who are nothing new to fashion either, but who come to embody celebrations of misery when their sallowness is presented referentially, as a correlate to actual poverty.) Its repudiation of the femininity and racial diversity prevalent in Western fashion, combined with its idolisation of the pared-down, macho ethos of Russian street-youth style, goes handily with the social repression and authoritarian overtones we also think of when we think of Russia, as does its glorification of factory plainness. What punk character it possesses is decidedly more post-apocalyptic in appearance than the ’80s British version — and the contrast runs deeper than appearances. In attitude, it seems to have all the confrontational orneriness of punk, with none of its convictions.
But again, all of this is more than acceptable as a corollary to the new realist aesthetic. Far from being criticised for their embrace of the vulgar and confrontational, its proponents, particularly the Vetements collective, have been hailed as representing a kind of fashion world Robin Hood, selling working class brands and motifs to the rich consumers at a premium and giving a much-needed kiss-off to stuffy notions of beauty and propriety. That this anti-heroic stance in favour of fashion ugliness seems to require the associated romanticism of other sorts of ugliness, too, is no less acceptable to its audience, because the vision of Russian reality that these designers are putting forward is just that — a vision, dwelling largely in the minds of fashion-forward people who have nothing to do with that reality beyond dabbling in it referentially. As long as the reference is seen as an authentic one, even those darker associations only contribute to its alluring edginess; they are, at worst, ugly reality held at arm’s length and made harmless by being dressed up in. They arouse no objection to the aesthetic itself; or rather, whatever objection they do arouse can simply be answered with a shrug and a “That’s just the way things are where we come from.”
Now, it may well be that this is the way things are where Gvasalia, Rubchinskiy and Volkova come from. But assuming that it is, what then? Accustomed as we are to taking referentialism and realism at face value, it’s easy to forget that we also have the ability — we might say the responsibility — to look past the claim to authenticity of this new aesthetic, upon which its widespread acceptance rests, and do something that realism on its own never asks us to do: namely, evaluate the content of what is so realistically portrayed and say whether we like it. Authenticity, we might say, is indisputably a good thing — just as it’s indisputably a good thing for someone to speak his mind honestly. But beyond that, if we care about more than simply the honesty or dishonesty of a person’s speech, we find there’s also the question of what he’s saying when he speaks honestly.
What, then, is this new realist aesthetic saying?
It seems most accurate to say that the new aesthetic is very forcefully and persuasively saying nothing. It makes a point of making no point; it raises non-statement to the level of a conviction. The feeling it conveys most strongly seems to be that the distinctions that express such convictions — distinctions of beauty and ugliness, good and bad proportioning, tasteful and tacky combinations of colour or material, high and low fashion, brand use and brand re-appropriation — are outdated and overly precious; that, indeed, to make any such distinction of meaning and unmeaning is to subscribe to an old-fashioned and ridiculous illusion. But even this manifests not in any new assertion of value, but in negations of other established values: purposeful ugliness and awkwardness of construction, meaningless brand signifiers and empty re-uses of existing brands and so on. It is the guiding irreverence and anti-stance at the heart of the work of the new Russian realists, an assertion of negation as an aesthetic principle that we might call cultural cynicism. Its various idiosyncrasies, seen this way, are rejection for rejection’s sake, the kind of upending of aesthetic norms that designers, especially fashion designers, are constantly (sometimes successfully, sometimes ridiculously) striving for. Contrary to its hype, Vetements isn’t actually a Robin Hood figure, because it doesn’t give to anyone. That would require that it take a stance on things, one way or another, and it refuses to do that. It’s more accurate to say that Vetements flips off the rich and the poor alike. Its costly re-appropriations don’t say anything concrete about the relationship between rich fashionistas and the working class, much less do anything to change it. What they do is simply present an inversion of the usual appearance of that relationship, and profit from the surprise the new appearance elicits — from anyone, poor or rich, who is willing to pay for it. What matters to Vetements, as to the other proponents of the new aesthetic, is the flipping-off itself.
On that evaluation, it could be said that the new aesthetic is empty, but briefly enjoyable for its sheer impertinence — especially against the predictable backdrop of the commercial fashion cycle. Seen that way, it’s ultimately nothing too threatening: just another frivolous, expensive novelty in an industry that revolves around them. But in its claim to a referential characterisation of reality, the new aesthetic takes this cynicism a step further. Beyond rejecting meaning in design, and as a critical part of its realist basis, it presents Russian life as a life lived in the absence of such meaning in general; and in keeping with the same realist ethos — which, again, takes chaos and unmeaning as signifiers of authenticity — it glorifies this life as better, as more authentic, than the life that takes itself seriously. By doing this, it promotes its “realist” cultural cynicism not as a corrective to the values it opposes (like satire, with which it is sometimes conflated), nor as an honest search for a new form of meaning in a world in which the old ones no longer work (like Duchampian modernism, with which it is often conflated), but as a more believable alternative to culture as we know it. In this context, its negations become something more openly hostile than simply fashion-world contrariness. They become politically tendentious: the fashion of a youth set that not only is rudderless, but has come to value its rudderlessness as cultural substance, and cultural currency, in the international world in which it has found itself a participating outcast. Its reversals and confrontational formulas, in this light, mean more than simply reversals for reversals’ sake. The “Made in Russia” labels applied to characterless garments, the purposely off manufacturing, the ugliness and mismatching and misfitting embraced as design principles, are specifically aesthetic value-reversals of the fashion world of the West.
The political impetus behind this stance is easy enough to understand; the commentators on the “new Russian aesthetic” have all come close to describing it. It lies in the fact that, having grown up after the Cold War officially ended, these young people inherited all of the longstanding Soviet defiance of the West, but none of the Soviet policies explicitly preventing the West’s commercial products from filtering through to them. Left without that means to express their defiance toward the encroaching influence — not quite an enemy but not quite their own, either; someone else’s dream of prosperity, presented in secondhand form to the children of parents who’d rejected it outright — some of the Russian youth came up with their own way of both accepting and rejecting the alien culture that had accepted and rejected them, in a re-appropriation of its motifs in piecemeal re-orderings and reversals that replaced its cohesiveness with chaos and upheld that chaos as superior in spirit to the original. But as understandable as the genesis of this particular “Russian identity” may be, the unconsciousness of its cause — the mere fact of having grown up in a cultural climate both integrated with and hostile toward the Western world — makes the stance in which it culminates a fundamentally nascent one. It does not represent a real political position, any more than it does a real aesthetic one. It represents an acting-out. If its products appear to have all the edge of punk with none of its convictions, it’s because they partake of its adolescent rebelliousness, but fail to embody any adult perspective on what it is they’re rebelling against.
The real problem is that in this case, what’s rebelled against also amounts to more than the rebels — or those acquiescing in the terms of their rebellion — are conscious of. Underneath its tongue-in-cheek rejections of Western fashion norms, what this new cynical-realist aesthetic is really rebelling against, with all the blind energy of adolescence, is conviction in design — the sincere conveying of any meaning in fashion that is not anti-meaning. Again, if its cynicism were aimed only at those parts of the Western fashion tradition that can be sincerely criticised — the vulgarity of brand consumerism, the persistence of outdated mannerisms and clichés, the creative stagnancy encouraged by the commercial cycle — it might be culturally productive, or at least culturally harmless. But passing unconsciously from these individual factors to the structure underlying them, and from a critique of certain sincere or insincere design particulars to a rejection of sincerity altogether, results not in culture, but pseudo-culture: a sensibility based not on a substantial creative impulse — even a flawed and imperfect one — but on the wholesale negation of such impulses.
The fashion world, and the design world at large, is especially prone to this mixing-up of culture and pseudo-culture. In part this is a natural byproduct of its openness to new ideas — a great quality, generally worth whatever harm is caused by its missteps. But there’s a deeper reason that today’s design world is apt to confuse real and spurious culture, and that is that the referential interpretation of art that prevails there isn’t able to distinguish the two.
Let us briefly distinguish them. Real culture — the term, as in its scientific use, means growth — contains its principle of motion in itself. It moves forward and expands the world of our perceptions and ideas through sheer force of belief in its own objects. Being self-motivated, it’s fundamentally creative: it sees reality as something that it must bring into being, with paintings, poems, clothes, music, buildings. Pseudo-culture, on the other hand, always comes by its energy derivatively. It corresponds to the part of us that has to see to believe, the doubtful self whose creations are copies and whose risks are calculated. The referential take on art is an offshoot of this part of ourselves. In its estimation, all artworks are simply novel pointings-out of things that already exist elsewhere, to be differentiated only along lines of what they point at, and how. Aesthetics, in the true sense of the word, makes a different kind of distinction, the distinction of culture: it looks beyond the appearance of the thing to ask whether or not it has its own reason for being, its own energy, its own reality within itself. But the referential sensibility, whether in producing art or judging it, always stops at appearance. For that sensibility, as for all forms of pseudo-culture, reality is something to be mimicked, not made.
Stopping at appearances makes it very easy to mistake things for what they aren’t. The cynical-realist aesthetic is not a more realistic version of the world the Ballets Russes reflected in fantasy. On the contrary, the aesthetic of the Ballets Russes, being an expression of Russian life based in an affirmation of a uniquely Russian artistic and folk heritage, was real in the sense of having its own organic substance, its own energetic cultivation; whereas the new aesthetic, in basing its representation of Russian life on the negation of Western values, is entirely unreal. Cultural cynicism is not a new artistic point of view, equivalent to the others it spends its time and energy refuting. It’s pseudo-culture, and as such it is empty and derivative in a way that real points of view, of all kinds, never are. Yet to the sensibility that values art and design only as referential, the qualities that make for actual aesthetic substance — for reality as art and design creatively deal with it — might as well be invisible and these distinctions are lost.
To that sensibility, what tend to matter most are two equally non-aesthetic qualities we’ve touched on already: the apparent authenticity of the thing’s reference to something else and the apparent novelty of that something else. Apparent authenticity and apparent novelty, because for something to count as “real” or “new” in a referential sense, it has to be recognisable as new and real — that is, it has to satisfy someone’s pre-existing expectations for what a “real” or “new” thing should look like. On the surface, the cynical-realist aesthetic does that, for many of us. But — and this is the ultimate reason that, like all pseudo-cultural fads, it should simply be picked up and put down again — outside of its referential basis, it is in fact neither real nor new. Its take on Russian life appeals to us as real, not because it introduces us to an honestly worked out Russian cultural reality, a new kind of Russian self-motion, but because to our post-Cold War sensibility it is recognisably bleak, combative and partial. In other words, it jives with the view of Russia we’ve come to expect. Its embrace of ugliness and banality strikes us as new, not because it is new — it’s derivative in every way — but because to our already-existing post-ironic sensibility, rejection and reversal in any form look fresher and edgier than the things they reverse and reject. In the name of a new point of view, the new aesthetic perpetuates our prejudices. In the name of novelty, it leaves us exactly where we are.
Fashion’s greatest weakness, its willingness to embrace newness for newness’ sake, has often come into conflict with its better lights. The same can be said for its embrace of referential realism, for the sake of which it, like much of the art world, seems ready to throw over virtually everything else that matters to it. But fashion has a profound strength too, in its commitment to beauty; and that commitment, if we choose to act on it, is more than equal to the task of redeeming fashion from any pseudo-cultural impulse it happens momentarily to follow.
The only substantial quality of the new cynical-realist aesthetic is its commitment to its cynicism. Having gotten that cynicism accepted as culture on referential grounds, it is now rather powerfully pushing the alienation of fashion from its better self. Finding it as hard as ever to create new forms of beauty and order, these designers have embraced the purposeful avoidance of that challenge as a legitimate solution to it, and presented a lot of gratuitous distortions to the world as a new Russian aesthetic. Whether that aesthetic represents a uniquely Russian point of view or not, it is a cultural dead end. An aesthetic is a kind of conviction, and an aesthetic based on the denial of convictions is a bad aesthetic. It teaches us to rest satisfied with the ugly, dull world as we already know it, and content ourselves with making snide commentaries on a reality we would rather remake entirely, if we could only see our way to doing so.
Fashion does give us a way of doing so. Beauty, the light of fashion that the new aesthetic makes such a point of turning away from, offers us something infinitely greater than what cynicism offers. Beauty teaches us to believe, to want more, to look for better and brighter than we have already. In this sense all beauty, the beauty of fashion included, is more than simply the sum of the superficial prettinesses of the world, the paper tigers our cynics gain shallow credibility for defying. Beauty is the striving for perfection, made visible; and in its numberless forms, it is evidence — tangible, sometimes wearable evidence — that the world can be, and is, better than we find it. It is by that kind of guide, and not the other, that we come to culture.
The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.