Tom Waugh, Emil Martyr and Joel Venson–these names do not sound very Russian, but still these three UK lads hold a strong bond to Russia, especially the country’s streetwear scene. Last year they founded the web shop Kollektiv (kollektivmsk.com) which is-as they say-”the first store to promote and sell independent Russian streetwear brands to a European audience.” Right now the offer includes Kultrab, Yunost, Kruzhok, Paradiz, Felix Malikovich and Volchok.
Here, they tell how the project started.
Why your connection to Russia?
We studied Russian at University in England, then spent a year abroad in St. Petersburg and Kazan and fell in love with the country. So we wanted to move back here to work as soon as possible after graduating. It turned out that the easiest way to do that was by coming over to teach, so that’s what we do as our “day job.”
How did your interest in Russian fashion evolve?
During our time in the country we discovered some amazing streetwear designers and brands that are little known outside of Russia, and decided to make it our mission to share this with the world. That’s where the idea for Kollektiv was born.
When exactly did Kollektiv start?
We launched Kollektiv in October 2018 with five brands, and at the start of 2019 we added a sixth. We're planning on expanding further as the year progresses, with more additions during the current spring/summer season expected.
With designers such as Ukraine-based Ksenia Schnaider or Gosha Rubchinskiy it seems there is a big hype about Eastern designers. How come, and do you see this lasting long?
Rubchinskiy pretty much kickstarted the global trend for Eastern Europe: he innovated by making high-quality clothes which drew on imagery from Russia’s recent history and popularized the use of the Cyrillic alphabet in fashion, which people strongly associate with “Eastern Europe” on the whole. While that Rubchinskiy-inspired look and the Cyrillic aesthetic are still popular, Russian streetwear has moved past the “Post-Soviet” cliché of a few years ago, and the scene here now is one of the most creative and diverse in the world. When people think of “Eastern Europe,”they often just think of bleak high-rises and this strange, foreign alphabet–so a monochrome tee or sweater with a bold Cyrillic slogan on it grabs their attention by living up to their expectations of what Eastern Europe represents. Then, though, they go and look at brands’ other designs and realize that they’re doing genuinely interesting, high-quality stuff with no Cyrillic whatsoever. The Russian brands we offer at Kollektiv are constantly evolving, innovating and doing different things: be that Volchok with their dark “Russian Gothic” look, Kruzhok with their blocky, space-inspired designs, Yunost with their unexpected collabs or Mech with their casual, outdoorsy aesthetic.
Also, Eastern Europe as a region is on the rise, with the likes of Rubchinskiy from Russia, Schnaider from Ukraine and Vetements from Georgia gaining worldwide acclaim. The area is “opening up” generally: cities like Warsaw, Kiev, Tbilisi and Moscow are renowned for their nightlife, getting increased exposure in Western press and more tourists as a result. These scenes–fashion, nightlife and youth culture–are all linked and all growing together, which is proof that the hype for Eastern Europe is more than just a passing fad and that the region is only going to become even more interesting.
How would you describe youth culture in Russia? Is it still different from European youth/street culture, and if so, how?
One of the reasons we started Kollektiv was to show how much Russian youth culture actually has in common with youth culture in the West. Most people think in stereotypes about Russia–we wanted to show that it’s more than just Putin, tanks and snow, and that there is a huge creative scene here. Moscow, in particular, has huge skate and techno scenes, both of which have inspired fashion movements; Volchok and Yunost have talked about their love of techno and its influence on their brands, while Gosha Rubchinskiy’s involvement in the skate scene led to the creation of his Rassvet side project and the opening of Oktyabr skate store.
In terms of differences, Russian youth culture has both a mixture of traditionalist and new wave values. Teenagers will study for hours on end, ice-skate to perfection and give chess masters a run for their money. This, too, comes across in Russian fashion–an example being Kruzhok’s recent collaboration with Creepy Crawl, which was dedicated to Russia’s love for chess. However, with the opening up to Western ideologies, the youth are looking to expand outwards from the ideas of their parents who grew up in the Soviet Union. We have seen from the brands that we work with, that many are run by artistic young Russians that have found interesting new ways to portray their identities, not just through streetwear.
What fashion trends/brands are popular among Russian/Moscow kids?
Young Russians are very proud of homegrown fashion scenes, with Volchok, Yunost and Sputnik 1985’s striking designs and affordable pricing making them some of the most popular brands. That said, we shouldn’t downplay the influence of Western brands on Russian style. There is certainly a large streetwear scene where brands such as Supreme and Off-White are extremely popular. Moscow’s middle class has adopted streetwear into their repertoire, sporting the latest brands to symbolize wealth. Moscow’s youth love Fila trainers and the latest releases from the world's biggest brands are being snapped up daily.
What are your favorite fashion stores in Moscow?
We have come across a number of shops in Moscow that all offer a huge range of both Russian and Western streetwear brands. Hlebozavod No.9 (which translates as Bread Factory) is a former factory site in North Moscow which has been converted into a creative center and is home to a number of well-known Russian brands’ stores, including Volchok, Mech and Ziq & Yoni. We also like Dear Progress, a concept store in Moscow’s Tsvetnoy Bulvar shopping complex which is home to a number of Russian brands, from local labels to high-end brands including Gosha Rubchinskiy, Walk of Shame and Glasnost.
As for Western brands, practically all of them can be purchased at KM20 and Brandshop. Both stores offer the latest and most exclusive collections from the world's most well-known brands. KM20 recently released a limited capsule collection with Virgil Abloh’s Off-White, which brought a Cyrillic twist to the brand’s bold image. We also really like OKTYABR, a skate store opened by Gosha Rubchinskiy and Tolya Titaev as an expansion of their Rassvet skate project. The small store just off Moscow’s New Arbat initially opened as a pop-up dedicated to the brand’s collaboration with Carhartt in 2017 but now stocks Rassvet’s collections as well as other big skate brands such as Alive NY, Stüssy and Adidas Skateboarding.
How do you discover new talent?
We follow the scene very closely: we are very active on social media, regularly visit streetwear shops and attend parties and events in Moscow as often as we can. We owe a lot to Faces & Laces, an annual streetwear festival where Russian brands show off their latest collections.
Ultimately, though, we just look at what people are wearing–if we see something we like, we’ll investigate and see if it’s something we could offer on the Kollektiv platform.
What makes Russian streetwear/creatives different from European/Asian or American streetwear/creatives?
The main difference is that Russian brands tend to draw very heavily on specifically Russian history and imagery for inspiration. Although inspired by international streetwear trends, Russian brands are proud of the fact that they are Russian: somewhere between European and Asian, with their own unique history and culture as a result. These influences manifest themselves heavily in Russian brands’ designs, from the stark, Soviet-influenced prints of Gosha Rubchinskiy and Sputnik 1985 to the Russian Orthodox Christian imagery used by the likes of Anton Lisin and Ssanaya Tryapka.
In fact, there has been an interesting trend recently with certain Russian brands gaining popularity in and directly tailoring their designs to the Asian market. Anton Lisin and Ssanaya Tryapka, as well as T3CM, have been at the forefront of this, regularly appearing in Japanese fashion magazines and at events in the country, while Sputnik 1985 and Volchok have promoted heavily in China and released collections with strong Chinese influences.
Which brand(s) is/are next on your list?
We’ve recently added Saint Petersburg’s Mech to our site, with their collection dropping on May 1. We don’t want to name any more names, but we’ve got plenty planned, so keep an eye out!
As for the practical side: what are the difficulties in exporting/shipping from Russia?
Russian Post is infamous for its level of service, and our first few trips to our local post office certainly brought some interesting results! Thankfully, though, we haven’t experienced too many problems since then and are used to the system. Delivery times can be unpredictable, as can prices, which vary drastically based on weight and destination country, but we try to account for these things with a reasonable, staggered delivery pricing structure.
Is Brexit a topic for your business?
While we’re an apolitical business, we love Europe and are strong supporters of increased collaboration between countries–one reason why we started Kollektiv was to improve UK-Russia links via youth culture. We deliver all over Europe, but, as we’re based in Moscow and therefore not in the EU anyway, Brexit shouldn’t affect us too drastically. We just hope that it doesn’t prove a step backwards for UK-Europe relations, and that people from both the UK and the rest of Europe can continue to interact with each other.
How about censorship in Russia (you mention this when introducing the best Russian songs in 2018)–how does it affect fashion, how do creatives handle it?
Here, it seems that censorship can actually foster creativity. Brands such as Volchok and particularly Kultrab are actively anti-censorship and use clothing as an outlet for their social message. Censorship in Russia is not as big an issue as many think; the mass surveillance and widespread censorship of the Soviet era are long gone. Nevertheless, as we have touched on in our Features, it is still a problem, particularly with regard to music and the Internet, where conservative politicians often feel the need to “protect” Russia's youth from what they consider corrupting influences. Streetwear, though, has remained relatively unaffected and therefore young creatives are increasingly turning to it as a way to express themselves.
Kultrab are a particularly interesting case, as they have close ties with Mediazona–a Russian alternative media source that is critical of the country’s leadership and support the protest group Pussy Riot. They express their discontent with the Russian political system through their designs, with one collection offered by Kollektiv based around the phrase “We Are So Fucking Surprised” as a response to certain events in the country over the last year. The fact that such a brand not only exists, but is also becoming increasingly popular, shows that dissent is more widely tolerated in the country than is often portrayed in Western media.
What are your further plans for Kollektiv?
2019 is an exciting year for us; not only are we starting to bring in brands’ spring/summer collections, but we’re also looking to bring more brands on board. Having recently introduced Europewide delivery, we’re also looking to expand our ties with Europe and become the leading European platform for Russia streetwear. Finally, in the next couple of months we’re planning on collaborating with local British DJs to put on events and give Kollektiv more of a physical presence. We can’t say much more on this front just yet, but we’ll have some news in the coming weeks!
There is still this Western prejudice against Russia, Putin and everything connected–how do you deal with that?
As we’ve mentioned, a big reason we are doing this is to show a different side to Russia from what you see on the news and to help overcome people’s stereotypes. Having lived here for a few years now, we have witnessed the growth of this incredible local scene and realized that youth culture in Russia is just as interesting and progressive as what’s happening in Europe–it’s just because of unhelpful media portrayals and the language barrier that it doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Russians themselves are very open people, proud of their culture and want to share it with the outside world–and we want to give them an English-language platform to do that.
How about the cliché "Rich Russians" and their style–is this still dominant or how is it changing?
That image of the extravagantly rich Russian oligarch is very much a thing of the 1990s and early 2000s, when a small group of people got very rich very quickly and didn’t know what to do with all their money, so started showing it off in the most garish way possible. Of course, that style does still exist, especially in Moscow: the city is home to some beautiful high-rises, and we’ve seen more Mercedes-Maybachs in one year here than we have in the UK in our entire lives. Some richer Russians do still like to flaunt their wealth through material goods, but it's a dying breed and the vast majority of Russians hate being associated with that image. Upmarket Moscow shops like Tsvetnoy Bulvar, TSUM and KM20 are tasteful and in line with leading world fashion, featuring collections from Russian designers alongside more typical high fashion brands. On the whole, rich people in Russia are increasingly well dressed, following the global trend towards streetwear as part of high fashion, rather than flashy for the sake of it.