Nationalism on the rise in Russian fashion

Russia has been experiencing an unexpected boom in nationalistic fervour. As with all societal trends, this is being reflected in the country’s fashion industry. Tom Bailey explores the shift in Russian fashion

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Fashion and nationalism share a strange and oscillating history. When nationalism – and the idea of the nation – first emerged, around the time of the French Revolution, patriotic revolutionaries saw fashion as the preserve of the aristocracy and ancien régime. As Alexander Maxwell, a historian at Victoria University of Wellington and author of Patriots Against Fashion, noted: “Patriots in that period – both in France and elsewhere – universally opposed ‘fashion’, and most wanted people instead to dress simply and thus not waste money on imported frivolities.” Later in the 19th century, however, fashion and certain styles became a means by which to promote the nation.

Russia, according to many political commentators, is seeing a resurgence of nationalist sentiment. Although many nations in Europe are seeing the rise of nationalistic political parties, from the Swedish Democrats to the Britain’s UKIP, overt displays of nationalism often seem to be on the wane. In contrast, Russia is said to be seeing a rising tide of explicit nationalism, coalesced around the presidency of Vladimir Putin. This nationalism is making an impact on the Russian fashion industry, on the business side and in terms of the aesthetic of the clothing produced by leading fashion designers.

Sartorial subsidies
The last few years have not been good for Russia’s economy. Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, the US and several European nations imposed sanctions on the country, while the value of the rouble has taken a tumble. All of this has meant that importing goods from the outside world has become more costly. As a result, Russians have been able to buy less, at higher prices, when purchasing goods produced outside of Russia. As a result, Russians have increasingly opted for domestic brands, including when it comes to fashion. Added to this has been a feeling of being attacked by outside forces, with the Russian media regularly talking of a concerted effort by western powers to weaken the country’s power. As Alexander Shumsky, President and founder of the Mercedes-Benz Moscow Fashion Week, recently told Business of Fashion: “Due to the political situation, consumers here are more eager to buy something produced in Russia…it’s a strange type of patriotism applied to consuming goods.”

Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, the US and several European nations imposed sanctions on the country, while the value of the rouble has taken a tumble. All of this has meant that importing goods from the outside world has become more costly

Within this, the state has recognised an opportunity. Russian authorities have, of late, unveiled a number of plans to help develop domestic fashion houses and designers. This has primarily been carried out through providing spaces to work and platforms to showcase for young Russian designers, as well as providing subsidies and cheap loans, particularly for those who produce and source within Russia’s borders. Authorities in St Petersburg are at the forefront of this. For instance, the city government rents a space in a shopping centre located in the city’s main shopping boulevard, Nevsky Prospect, for use by 35 Russian designers.

Costing millions of roubles, the project (named Showroom #35), is aimed at promoting these designers and encouraging the increased use of Russian textiles in fashion. Elgiz Kachaev, who works for St Petersburg’s city government as chairman of the committee for entrepreneurship and consumer market development told Business of Fashion that, while St Petersburg has always been something of a centre of fashion, “recently we have been supporting the industry in a number of [new] ways…including supporting local designers and providing a range of subsidies”.

The look and inspiration of Russian fashion is also said to be increasingly drawing upon patriotic nostalgia. “In Moscow”, fashion website Refinery29 noted, “the dominant trends as seen on red carpets, in store windows, and on runways have been nostalgic and patriotic.” One such example is Maroussia Zaitseva, a new Russian designer who’s debut at the Mercedes-Benz Moscow Fashion Week in 2015 included a collection that “mixed a 40s communal apartment vibe with athlete-hero nods to the Sochi Olympics in 2014”.

At the same time, the 2015 collection by Alena Akhmadullina, one of Russia’s most famous designers, is based on “inspiration from Soviet-era folk illustrator Tatyana Mavrina”, and celebrates “distinctly Russian landscapes, like the snow-covered Taiga”, according to Business of Fashion. Other designers, such as the much coveted Gosha Rubchinskiy, who has collaborated with the UK’s Dover Street Market, also make use of national symbols and nostalgia. Many of Rubchinskiy’s streetwear designs feature the current tricolour Russian national flag, or are plastered with Soviet symbols. Models showcasing his outfits in lookbooks often also have a nostalgic, 1980s feel to them.

Nationalist inspiration
However, it would be mistaken to view all this as some sort of concerted nationalist takeover of Russian fashion. Firstly, rising nationalism may have made Russian brands more popular, encouraging the state to make use of this opportunity to boost domestic industry. But boosting such industry, in and of itself, is the behaviour of all nation-states, even ones that, in the 21st century, shy away from explicit displays of overt national sentiment.

Therefore, the attempt by Russia to boost its domestic fashion industry should not be seen as an example of an increasingly nationalistic Russian state – although there do exist plenty of non-fashion industry related examples to support such a theory. States regularly prop up and support domestic industries. Economists may call this ‘economic nationalism’, but it is really just a state doing its job of advancing national economic interests. In a world based on the idea of the nation-state, things could hardly be any other way. Whether it’s the US subsidising corn growers or car producers, or French defence of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, state strategies that privilege domestic industry are not uncommon.

Secondly, fashion designers drawing upon national symbolism or nostalgia should also not be seen as a unique nationalistic turn in Russian fashion. Designers draw inspiration from the culture around them – and with Russian displays of a more assertive nationalism now more prominent in the country, it is inevitable that this will feed into fashion designs. As Maxwell explained: “Fashion designers take their inspiration from whatever’s lying around…so, if there’s nationalism floating around, or chauvinism or militarism, you’ll find it in the fashion designs.”

Furthermore, we should be cautious of reading such inspiration by designers as some sort of overt nationalist turn in Russian fashion. British designers regularly draw upon British heritage, yet are not deemed to be in succour to any sort of resurgent British nationalism. Taking inspiration from a bygone age, whether it’s drawing upon the Soviet era in Russia or the Mad Men 1960s style in the US, is not inherently nationalistic.

It perhaps only seems significant in a world where resurgent Russian nationalism, which also laments a lost past in which Russia was stronger, is having real-world consequences, from Ukraine to Caucasus migrants on the streets of Moscow. Nonetheless, any nationalistic or nostalgic inspiration in Russian fashion should not be lumped in
with this.