There’s a joke by Stewart Lee on the first season of his Comedy Vehicle TV series where he laments the success of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books amongst adults, swatting away constant inquiries as to whether he’s read them with, ‘No I haven’t read them, because I’m a forty year-old man.’
A few seconds later, he directs his eyes straight into the camera and asks back, ‘You know those Harry Potter books… you know they’re for children, don’t you?’ I’ve always enjoyed that joke as an expression of those Emperor’s New Clothes moments where we find ourselves surrounded by people going crazy about something, but we just don’t get it ourselves, with or without good reason. I have it whenever I meet somebody who likes Jeff Koons, but that’s for another article. He is trash though.
And this is kind of where I am right now with Comme des Garçons’ Wunderkind of late, Gosha Rubchinskiy. At a time where the majority of people can’t get enough of him, I’ve definitely had enough. I’m really beyond the point of trying to justify or intellectualise about his stuff anymore, even less so in light of his blessing from/incorporation into the house of Kawakubo in the past few years. I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore.
It’s not even like I’ve never liked his stuff. I’ve written on this blog about previous collections and been very enthusiastic about it. I was really positive about the general pricing of the product, occupying a middle ground between high and low fashion that seemed to provide something for everyone. There was a lot of unique and interesting product on show.
But recent seasons, to me at least, have really started to stink of something I haven’t quite put my finger on yet — laziness, cynicism, deception, obnoxiousness, dead horse syndrome? When I appeared on a SHOWstudio panel last year to discuss his Fall/Winter 2016 runway show, I made some comments about Rubchinskiy perhaps trying to share elements of the Russian identity on his terms, and I stand by that, but the way that the product is presented on the runway versus the product that eventually hits the shelves reveals a stark contrast that’s pretty hard to ignore.
Gosha Rubchinskiy’s designs are inherently interwoven with both the pre- and post-Soviet Union narrative of Russia. As I said on SHOWstudio, however, whilst the Iron Curtain supposedly came down at the end of the 1980s, one often gets the feeling that it’s still there in terms of culture. How much can we genuinely say we know about Russia these days, honestly? There’s tertiary glances and news reports, but how is that any different from the murmurs and rumours of the Cold War era? I’m 24, so feel free to tell me to shut the fuck up Donny, you’re out of your element.
These narratives of the Eastern Bloc, then, are so often mythologised in the hands of the West. When Gosha’s collections first started to really appear in stores at the beginning of 2015, so much of it was terribly made, poor quality, ill fitting and tacky, and people went crazy for it. There’s something about that which seems really patronising to me, and there’ll always be questions hanging over my head about whether the product was shit because that was the intended aesthetic or because CDG sent the production to Turkey to secure a decent mark-up on cheap (in the context of CDG) clothing.
My suspicions were aroused further as we went into Fall/Winter 2015, a collection that was awash with shearling jackets, wool overcoats and fleece sweats. Not actual shearling, though. Synthetic. Oh, and not real wool either. Acrylic mostly. Same with the fleece. I probably sound like a total anal pedant, and I am, but I’m pretty sure they had sheep in Soviet Russia. I don’t buy that making all the product from “cheap to the point of feeling cheap” materials is some sort of artistic statement. Vetements barely gets a pass for the commentary on capitalism in contemporary fashion that is a £600 hooded sweat, so don’t expect me to lap up £450 for a jacket that would literally melt if I sat too close to a bonfire.
I’m far from the highest authority on the politics and inner-workings of fashion. I stand by a statement I make regularly that in reality, I’m a guy that got into clothes and likes writing about them. But I have a theory about what Gosha generally is and it’s closely connected to Adrian Joffe, husband of Rei Kawakubo. As is generally known in the scene, Joffe is the guy that introduced a lot of ideas of commercialism to Comme des Garçons, and very successfully. Before Joffe, CDG did not release fragrances, as it’s a well-known fact that 99% of fashion-label fragrances are produced on license for no reason other than that the ridiculously high markup they provide and the fact that people will buy them. Fortunately, Joffe convinced CDG to do them, provided they did them in a way that was distinctly CDG. Translation; a couple ostensibly avant-garde scents to begin with, followed by business as usual. To their credit, CDG’s fragrances are for the most part made in-house, and they were one of the first fashion labels to eschew the traditional sales model by stocking their fragrances in fashion stores instead of traditional fragrance shops, which was genuinely very clever, but it still sits uneasily with me.
And so is the case with other interesting little ventures such as PLAY Comme des Garçons. It’s not that they’re not necessarily good, it’s just difficult to look at this in the context of the shining light of fashion’s Avant-Garde and then confront the transparent commercialism that created it. In the same way that CDG fragrance enabled the original rule-breaker to get in on the status quo, so too did PLAY enable CDG to sell lower tier branded t-shirts. Again, not a criticism, just a measured dose of realism about what these things actually are.
But the co-sign to Gosha really felt more extreme than those, because of the product that coupled it. It feels like Gosha is just an avenue for CDG to sell really badly-made clothing at a high markup under a gossamer-thin veil of conceptualism. I don’t buy the narrative that Soviet Russia was this hyper-impoverished sea of synthetic fabrics, fake sheep and complete obliviousness as to the basic shape of the human form. If fashion has taught me one thing, it’s that almost every culture places value and importance on things such as craft and identity.
That cynicism was brought to its head when I saw Rubchinskiy’s Spring/Summer 2017 presentation at Pitti Uomo. Well, I say presentation. It was more just a skullfuckery of crass, cynical collaborations whose underlying concept seemed to be, “Is your brand a bit naff and corny? Excellent. Do a Gosha collab and then everyone will think you’re being self-aware and ironic”. Is this really a representation of the Soviet identity? Or is it a representation of a Western conceptualisation of the Soviet identity as “anything cheap and tacky that we wouldn’t be seen dead in, so they’d obviously love it”.
Spread out over the course of several seasons, perhaps one or two collaborations a collection, I might have been able to swallow it. There’s something in there about everything being fashion, and about brands that have at one point in time fallen in and out of favour with the general consumer. Hell, at a time in the UK when the Air Max 95, adidas ClimaCool, shell suits and trackies are making a comeback, why the hell shouldn’t Kappa be making a comeback? But even then, the most significant cultural presence Kappa had in the UK in the last fifteen years was on Little Britain’s Vicky Pollard, a character who was herself a problematic and condescending parody of the working class created by two public school educated guys. So I don’t know.
But slamming all those collaborations out in one collection is just overwhelming. Fila, Sergio Tacchini, Kappa, Levis, Reebok, Camper and God knows who else. It really felt less about Rubchinskiy, and more about those brands bobbing their hands up and down going, “Oooh! Oooh! We’re naff too! Be ironically poor with us next!”
I’m just really disenchanted by this whole movement that’s epidemic throughout fashion — at least in the mainstream context, which is important — right now, that making cheap and tacky product is some sort of an artistic or academic statement. Yes, there are amazing designers like Grace Wales Bonner and J.W. Anderson doing really cool and inspiring things with fashion as craft right now. But that speech in The Devil Wears Prada about fashion trickling down into the mainstream is true, and now that big name fashion labels are themselves more mainstream, I think it’s a really crap message to send out there that you can make shit product with a high markup and that’s all that matters. I’d much rather there were mainstream labels doing something to educate about how craft informs value, and how well-made product is better for all of us in the long run.
Finally, a point that was made by the excellent resident writer over at Style-Zeitgeist. I just don’t see any longevity in any of this, from the designer to the customers. I don’t think the people who are fueling Gosha right now are going to be here in a few seasons’ time when the hashtags move on, and I don’t think the product that’s being released is going to be dug out of an archive in years to come as an example of great fashion design of the time. I was interviewing somebody recently who said that these days timeliness is more important than timelessness. And isn’t that the truth? Right now the name of the game seems to be creating something that will grab people’s attention for long enough to get a few headlines and satisfy the PR department, rather than trying to actually make something that really engages people and pushes the movement into new and exciting territory. How depressing, written in Cyrillic or otherwise.