In the past few years, post-Soviet aesthetics became one of the keywords in fashion magazines. Beside the emergence of a new generation of designers from places like Ukraine, Georgia, and Russia on the catwalks of London and Paris, one can perceive this tendency in the mainstream as well. H&M, Topshop, Urban Outfitters and other fast fashion brands did not hesitate to put Cyrillic letters on sweaters and T-shirts, recalling the fashion of the 1990s. Vice, BBC, and Dazed regularly report on the events of the post-Soviet region. The London-based Calvert Journal directly calls itself ‘A Guide to the New East’, and The Guardian ‘teamed up with experts on the post-Soviet world’ to expand their coverage of ‘this remarkable region’ in a column called New East Network. According to some, the term New East refers to the generation that grew up in the 1990s, with no history of youth culture behind them. This experience of rootlessness inspired them to create a new identity for themselves through fashion.
The question then arises: How does this new identity relate to the old one? The present text investigates positive as well as less favorable aspects of the growing interest towards the East in regard to the underground art of this region in the 1980s. In the first part of this article I seek to understand the New East phenomenon. The upcoming second part focuses on avant-garde fashion in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Around 1989, a similarly great interest and curiosity surrounded the alternative youth of the former Socialist countries. However, today we don’t know much about the designers whose creations were once featured in the most prominent Western fashion magazines. Therefore, the purpose of this text is also to place the Eastern European avant-garde fashion in recent trends.
A history behind a rootless generation
When the hammer and sickle appeared in Gucci’s Fall 2017 collection and later Kim Kardashian was posing for a Christmas eve Instagram post in an oversized sweatshirt, adorned with the Soviet symbol, many asked: ‘Has the commercialization of Eastern Europe in fashion gone too far?’ Kardashian was wearing a 700 dollar red hoodie by Vetements. The French label, headed by Georgian designer Demna Gvasalia, appropriated the Soviet symbol with the same ease as it inserted the DHL logo, ‘Security’ and ‘Polizei’ on the brand’s T-shirts and baseball caps. A year earlier Gosha Rubchinsky presented his 1984 collection (Spring/Summer 2016), which was similarly dominated by Cyrillic letters, and the hammer and sickle. Later, by the time Swedish H&M started posting fashion tips under such titles as ‘Back in the USSR’, the Russian designer collected inspiration for his Fall 2017 collection from the paintings of Kazimir Malevich. According to Rubchinsky post-Soviet youth is a cliché generated by the media. Yet, the evolution of the trend that evokes the style of street kids from the 1990s, wandering around Communist-era housing estate neighbourhoods, is usually attributed to him.
According to many, Rubchinsky’s first show in 2009 was an important moment in the history of Russian youth culture. The event took place in an Orthodox church turned Soviet gymnasium in Moscow. The models, recruited by Rubchinsky from his own skate crew, were dressed in chains, biker jackets and sweaters decorated with double-headed eagles and non-figurative patterns. The title Evil Empire was a reference to Ronald Reagan’s speech in 1983 about the Soviet Union. As reported by those present, the electrifying power of Rubchinsky’s first collection came from its rawness and authenticity. Anastasiia Fedorova—known as one of the main New East authorities—argues that ‘these badass young Russians were the last exotic Other, the forbidden fruit, a figure completely unknown yet rooted in Cold War fears. In the post-globalization Western world, where everyone dresses more or less the same, drinks Coca-Cola and drives a German car, this new localism looked authentic in its otherworldliness. Like Berlin a couple of decades ago, it was poor but sexy.’
Suburban skinheads, abandoned brutalist buildings and lesser-known cultures of the former Eastern Bloc suddenly appeared on the mood boards of the 2010s. On the one hand, post-Soviet aesthetics in a post-ideological era emphasizes the outdatedness of grand narratives. Therefore the massive obsession in the cultural capitals of the West with the emptiness behind otherworldly and exotic images that have long lost their original meaning is not surprising. At the same time, according to Rubchinsky, the revival of the post-1989 atmosphere is rooted in a certain kind of nostalgia. The 1990s—that is, the childhood of the so-called new generation—was not only about the chaos and the poverty that capitalism brought after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was also the time of hope and euphoria, when, in a period of 10 years, Eastern Europe experienced 30 or 40 years of Western culture. The increasing popularity of post-Soviet aesthetics is not surprising if we consider how it plays with childhood sentiments, while opening doors to the unknown at the same time.
In the search of understanding the growing attention that Eastern Europe has received recently, we can also examine how the capitalist crash in 2008 brought Marx and the communist project back in the center of discussion in intellectual circles. The events of 2014 on Maidan square have also increased the international visibility of the region. Even though, magazines like i-D and Vice slowly changed their focus from the revolution in Kyiv to suburban raves. It is also remarkable that a year after the events at Maidan, following the implementation of the controversial decommunization law—the removal of Soviet monuments and communist-related names from public space in Ukraine—, local artists became more interested in the remnants of the past. This influence can be seen in the works of Yulia Yefimtchuk whose garments are reinterpretations of Soviet uniforms and workwear, or in the works of Anton Belinskiy, who was one of the exhibiting artists in the Ukranian Pavilion in 2017 at the Venice Biennale.
The past few years show how local circumstances can shape and interact with global aesthetic trends. Moreover, the international success of Rubchinskiy and Gvasalia paved the way for artists coming from lesser-known places. Earlier, for instance, a Vogue journalist would hardly have traveled to the Georgian capital to report on the best street style at the Tbilisi Fashion Week. Young designers are aware of the West’s enthusiasm for the exoticness of the place they come from, and they respond to it with irony, not only about the emptiness of obsolete symbols, but also about their current position on the market. Yet, the question remains as to whether post-Soviet aesthetics ‘can act as a gateway that allows this youth to admit, analyze and ultimately rid themselves of this outsider gaze’—as thought by Fedorova.
Although post-Soviet culture gave rise to new perspectives globally, in many cases the way it represents Eastern Europe isn’t necessarily precise and authentic. In the Western gaze, this region invariably appears to be a landscape built from the most obvious tropes of Eastern Europeanness—Lenin-busts, brutalist ruins, grey jungles of blocks of flats, and their gloomy inhabitants. Just as in the case of 1970s pop culture when the curiosity about the Socialist Bloc ended where the Berlin Wall began, today’s the red stars and seemingly incomprehensible Russian words become the sites, where dreams and fantasies are being generated. The fearless and wild figures, typical in post-Soviet fashion, can be interpreted as expressions of freedom and recklessness. However, the street urchin with messy family background, or the alcoholic with a vodka bottle in his hand can easily change the focus to a certain kind of danger and poverty—contrary to the safe and civilized West. When Western photographers hit the pike as ‘Columbuses of the counter-cultures in Eastern Europe’, and their pictures reveal a high level of astonishment simply because they find the local youth having fun, the homogenizing myth about peripheric Eastern societies is strengthened. Therefore, the extreme and superficial fetishization of the post-Soviet vibe is often just another way for the West to define itself as opposed to societies hit by the capitalist shock therapy after the collapse of the USSR. No better than ruin porn and similarly instant as HBO’s new Chernobyl series: We don’t have to go to Pripyat anymore to see the toxic remnants of the Soviet Union’s big failure—it is nonetheless possible, through different agencies, to visit the post-apocalyptic ghost town lying only 2 km away from the nuclear power plant that exploded 33 years ago.
Assume that the term New East is an attempt to get out of the colonizing Western gaze—a label that generates new meaning as opposed to post-Soviet, a term that simply refers back to the past. However, some theoreticians raise questions concerning post-Soviet, too: Does it make sense at all to call the present like this? Their argument, in short, is the following: Soviet ideology, which was the foundation of the Soviet Union did not collapse at the end of the 1980s. It had been exhausted long before then: The Brezhnev Era of Stagnation was a slow and painful retreat from idealism. As Samuel Goff puts it, ‘by the time perestroika came around, there was little meat left on the bones of Soviet ideology.’ Following this logic, it seems more appropriate to describe primarily the 1980s as post-Soviet.
The early works of Russian photographer Sergey Borisov sensitively document the erosion of Soviet ideology. Take for example his picture of a woman wearing high heels, and a Soviet propaganda flag as a dress, and adorned with the red star and the hammer and sickle, while standing in front of a Stalinist skyscraper (Catwalk, 1987). From the second half of the 1980s, the total exhaustion of such symbols becomes apparent also in the work of the Moscow-based alternative fashion designers whose iconoclastic dress performances were often photographed by Borisov. Gosha Ostretsov’s War collection (1987), inspired by 1920s revolutionary aesthetics, playfully banishes communism to another planet, for instance. Katya Filippova reinterprets Soviet military uniforms found in flea markets in punk tsarina style and by applying Orthodox icons on them. Andrey Bartenev, known for his sculptural body objects made out of papier-mache, is also remarkable. Think for example of the photo, where the artist poses on the side of a crane in downtown Moscow in a red rabbit costume with CCCP (USSR) written on his chest (Timur Grib: Perestroika on Manezh square, 1995). Hungarian fashion designer Tamás Király fits perfectly into the company of these artists. From the end of the 1970s, Király became known by his extravagant fashion walks and theatrical dress performances that popped up like vivid bursts of color in the grey reality of socialist Budapest. On an iconic photograph, taken in 1989, he appears as a blind fortuneteller with a woman on his side, wearing a hat, modeled after the dome of the Hungarian Parliament with the emblematic red star (with the Parliament building in the background).
Considering that these artists were often too unusual and outrageous in their own context, and that they could only briefly enjoy the attention of the West—the reasons for this I will explain later—, today we don’t hear enough about them in the fashion discourse. In fact, compared to their non-conforming fashion performances in the 1980s and 1990s, the present generation should rather be called ‘post-post-Soviet’. Undoubtedly, New East is a more apposite name. It also raises questions. First of all, where should we put in the narrative of this reportedly rootless generation those artists, who reflected on the emptiness of Soviet symbols and Eastern Europeanness with a similar irony, but more than three decades earlier?
There are more and more publications and photo albums about the counter-cultures and alternative styles of the 1970s and the 1980s in Eastern Europe, writes Agata Pyzik in her book Poor but Sexy. It seems like the research is being done. Still, the Polish author thinks that many of these works add only to the long list of cultural products aestheticizing the Socialist past. Although in some cases I agree with Pyzik, it is not that simple in my opinion. In this book, she implicitly puts an end to the discussion on the role of fashion and style in the fight against the system, by referring to the few existing publications as ‘glossy, coffee-table punk albums’ so characteristic of contemporary times.
The discourse on alternative fashion has not yet started in many Eastern countries, and profound research is often carried out by individuals or smaller institutions. Take for example the case of Tamás Király’s oeuvre in Hungary. The research project Tamás Király ‘80s—that culminated in an exhibition and a book—was initiated in 2013 by tranzit.hu, a cultural organization that stands out with its distinct profile even in the art world, and targets a specific audience. Although Király gained international recognition as early as the 1980s, none of the Hungarian art institutions showed interest in his work until recently. More than three decades, a non-state funded research project, and the thirtieth anniversary of 1989 was needed for the Ludwig Museum in Budapest to present Király’s retrospective exhibition this year—with the title Out of the Box (sic!). Similarly, it took ten years for the Russian researcher, artist, and curator Misha Buster to be able to launch his book Perestroika Fashion (2018), the most comprehensive album on Soviet alternative fashion (only in Russian). The volume introduces artists—some of them mentioned above—who were important and internationally recognized figures in the underground art scene of the era. Their subversive visions they expressed in theatrical fashion shows and street performances were in stark contrast with the everyday wear of Soviet times.
Being alternative obviously had a different meaning in Western consumer societies and in the East where fashion was not dictated by the capitalist beauty industry. Oddly enough, Pyzik’s book suggests that the initial amateurism and freshness that characterized alternative fashion in the Eastern Bloc turned shortly into professional designs and profitable ideas—as if these artists had attempted to attract the West’s attention from the beginning. She brings Bronya Dubner as an example, who won the 1998 Alternative Miss World in London. However, she doesn’t mention that this 70-year-old lady was the muse of Alexander Petulra—Russian artist known for his dress performances—with whom she lived and worked together in the Petrovsky squat in Moscow. The beauty contest they were invited to by British sculptor and performance artist Andrew Logan, is pretty far from capitalist fashion. From the 1970s, iconic figures of queer art, fashion and cinema appeared on its catwalk, among them Derek Jarman, Leigh Bowery, and Divine. Logan was a frequent visitor in Moscow and Leningrad in the 1980s already, this is how he got to know the underground circles there. In the 1990s he performed several times at the Untamed Fashion Assembly, too, which was an avant-garde fashion show, organized yearly in Riga by Latvian designer Bruno Birmanis. So, it appears that Bronya—in a wedding dress, flowers hanging from her mouth—on the stage of Alternative Miss World leads us rather to places and events where informal connections between the alternatives of East and West unfolded.
Compared to the current situation the main difference is that the exchange of information took place in semi-public, unofficial and often hidden circles and was based on personal relationships. Consequently, post-Soviet aesthetics in the 1980s could never have a global impact on the fashion industry. The alternative youth of the time was far from the typical Western fantasies. It slowly became apparent that the Iron Curtain was hiding much more than old and ugly workers. The avant-garde creations of Tamás Király or his Soviet contemporaries, designers and performance artists, were progressive and radical interpretations of fashion, even despite the scarcity of money and proper materials. The Eastern European traits that appeared in their groundbreaking collections seemed unusual, and obviously aroused the interest of Western glossy magazines. This enthusiasm, however, as the thrill of discovery passed away, did not last more than a couple of years.
Cover image: Anton Belinskyi in id-vice.com, photo: Sasha Mademuaselle
 Gosha Rubchinsky: Inside his Vertically Integrated Youth Universe. 032c, 2016. június 15., https://032c.com/Gosha-Rubchinskiy-interview, last accessed: 15 May, 2019
 Gathering of the National Association of Evangelicals, May 8, 1983, Sheraton Twin Towers Hotel, Orlando
 Anastasiia Fedorova: Post-soviet fashion. Identity, history and the trend that changed the industry. Calvert Journal, 2018. február 23., https://www.calvertjournal.com/features/show/9685/post-soviet-visions-fashion-aesthetics-gosha-demna-lotta-vetements, last accessed: 15 May, 2019
 Rubchinsky: i. m.
 Fedorova: i. m.
 Patrick Dooley: What Is new in the ‘New East’?. The New East and the Western Gaze. Postpravda Magazine, 2017. november 5., http://www.postpravdamagazine.com/what-is-new-in-new-east/, last accessed: 15 May, 2019
 For example, Chernobylwel has different packages from 119 EUR up to 429 EUR. Their most expensive trip is the one to North-Korea that they advertise with the motto ‘Can you imagine living in a country under the leadership of a dictator?’ See more at: https://www.chernobylwel.com/our-tours, last accessed: October 2, 2019
 Kirill Kobrin: Welcome to the post-post soviet era. Open Democracy, 2016. október 26., https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/odr/welcome-to-post-post-soviet-era/, last accessed: 15 May, 2019
Pyzik mentiones Generacja in Poland (2010, edited by Michał Wasążnik and Robert Jarosz) and Hooligans80 in Russia (2010, edited by Misha Buster)
 Agata Pyzik: System to fight the SYSTEM. In: Poor But Sexy. Culture Clashes in Europe East and West. Zero Books, Alresford, Hants, 2014. Apple book version
 The exhibition Open Doors: Tamás Király ‘80s was curated by myself and Andrea Soós in 2014 at tranzit.hu in Budapest. This exhibition was followed by the publication of the book Tamás Király ‘80s in 2017.
 The Ludwig Museum announced Tamás Király’s retrospective this year as the first major solo exhibition of the fashion designer in Hungary. Besides ignoring the research that has been done in tranzit.hu in the past few years Király’s show in 1992 at the Szent István Király Múzeum in Székesfehérvár remains unmentioned, too.
 Pyzik: i. m.
 The Assembly was the biggest international fashion show in the former Eastern Bloc between 1990 and 1999. The organizers aimed at establishing connections between East and West, therefore they invited fashion designers and performance artists from various places in the World.