Gosha Rubchinskiy is without a doubt the most internationally recognised fashion designer to have come out of Russia. He has admirers all over the world from New York to Tokyo and stockists in all the major world capitals. He has had a runway show in Paris, collaborations with Supreme and Vans and the production support of Comme des Garçons. Rubchinskiy hasn’t earned all this through his skill as a designer: he never had a professional education and started with a couple of sweatshirts and a show in a former Soviet sports hall. He owes everything he has achieved to his artistic vision. He came from a country that barely had any youth culture before the 1990s and managed to created an irresistible image of youth that was universal, but completely new. And as a photographer and filmmaker as well as a fashion designer, he is a rare example of a multi-disciplinary storyteller.
This August, the London-based Idea Books published Rubchinskiy's new zine Crimea/Kids. It’s already sought after — all 300 numbered copies sold out at his recent talk at the ICA. The zine opens with a black and white photo of two kids with skateboards, barely 13 years old, thoughtful expressions frozen on their faces. Their facial expressions are so pure that, minus the sweatshirts and vans, they could be two young philosophers resting on the porch in ancient Athens. The image is followed by breathtakingly cinematic landscapes: blue sea and graffiti-covered piers, high-rises towering by lean cypress trees, blossoms and Soviet relics. All this fading melancholic glory serves as a playground for Rubchinskiy's kids: friends, boys and girls from his campaigns, skaters, all forms and shapes of youth, smoking, falling over, idling and posing — captured with a clarity he’s never achieved before.
Raising the topic of Crimea during the Russia-Ukraine crisis is far from jumping on the bandwagon of the news agenda. For Rubchinskiy it’s a deeply personal matter. He’s been in love with the Crimean resort of Yalta since 2011, frequently shooting the local street art scene. A lookbook for his Autumn-Winter 2013 collection was also shot in Yalta, with local kids as models. Last summer he wrote about Crimea for the Russian edition of Interview magazine: "Crimea has a unique atmosphere. On the one hand, it is full of the right kind of nostalgia, like in Tarkovsky films; on the other hand, sometimes it looks like LA.” For many Russians born in the 1980s, a journey to Crimea, which was a thriving holiday destination during Soviet times, is a way of discovering their past. This ended abruptly earlier this year when the past suddenly became present again. Rubchinskiy’s Crimea/Kids is a deeply personal love letter to a place that will never be the same, an artefact preserving something fragile and ephemeral, like adolescence itself. It’s not just sad, but infinitely reassuring, as it suggests that youth will always have the power to prevail over what is old and evil.
Rubchinskiy first got interested in photography while still at school, where he was influenced by the new Russian magazines OM and Ptuch, which were similar to the underground style bible Dazed and Confused. “I was reading OM and Ptuch after school and I really wanted to be in these magazines. So I was thinking about ways to get into the pages, and started doing styling and photography. Then I met skateboarders and they became my heroes. All I did since then is for them and about them,” he explained. Like many photographers who defined the 20th century on film, such as Larry Clark and Nan Goldin, Rubchinskiy started by photographing his friends. Later he moved towards finding new interesting characters who then inevitably became his friends too. His photographic approach is about establishing trust but also, somehow, about removing yourself from the image. Juxtaposed with statues and classical paintings, his boys and girls quite often gaze somewhere else, oblivious to the fact they are being photographed. This creates invisible distance, bringing the space and weight of their unknown thoughts into the frame.
Rubchinskiy often emphasises that photographic practice and design have always been equal parts of his creative process. In 2011, frustrated by the difficulties of fashion production in Russia and not yet supported by Comme des Garçons, he took a break from fashion for a year to work on photography and video. The break resulted in a film and a photography book, both called Transfiguration. The original print of the book sold out ages ago, and the new version printed in Japan costs $130. The film was screened during Rubchinskiy’s talk at the ICA, and although he confessed that he would do it completely differently if he were to do it again, it still gives a great insight into his world — one that he both captured and created.
In recent years Russia has seen a great rise of independent designers setting up studios in their bedrooms and incorporating bits of Rubchinskiy’s design DNA: from Moscow underground stars like Panika Derevya and Standard Deviation, to DIY streetwear makers like Anton Lisin and Sputnik 1985, to London-based label ZDDZ which is currently conquering New York. The guys making socks with names of Moscow suburban districts like Yasenevo on them got the message: you can do it too. Rubchinskiy’s impact on Russian visual culture was equally crucial: young photographers, lots of them children of the 1990s, started exploring the desolate landscapes of their adolescence, knowing that the world would be interested. Through Rubchinskiy’s lens, teenage boys hanging out in a skate park in St Petersburg suddenly got a full house at the ICA.
Transfiguration was filmed in summer 2011 in St Petersburg, at the newly opened New Holland. At the time the future building site for Dasha Zhukova’s ambitious art project looked like a giant patch of grass surrounded by water and the decaying remains of brick military warehouses. There were a few metallic storage containers for pop-up shops and art residences, and there was one with a skating ramp meant for Rubchinskiy. He shot plenty of material around that ramp: tricks, falls, impromptu gigs. It's easy to spot Rubchinskiy's visual signature: skating, the sea at Sestroretsk outside St Petersburg, classical statues and paintings, close-up video portraits. But there is something personal which would never be visible in stills: Rubchinskiy's voice from behind the camera and the awkward dialogue of the film's 14-year-old protagonist. And when the kid asks the designer what was your dream at 14, Rubchinskiy confesses: “I forgot. My dreams are changing all the time."
Rubchinskiy's success as designer and visual artist definitely had to do with his artistic output but it was also about being in the right place and the right time. In Russia, Rubchinskiy is a pioneer of youth culture, and his impact could only be compared to that of Raf Simons with his The Fourth Sex: Adolescent Extremes. They both captured and legitimised something about being, looking and acting young, something of the special moment of adolescence in relation to culture. Rubchinskiy did it in a more localised form: he captured the emerging post-Soviet youth against the backdrop of a crumbling empire — something the world had never seen before. He did it, at the same time, in a universal visual language: his kids, even if they're clutching a Lenin bust, are cousins of Hedi Slimane's California surfers or the Copenhagen punks in Lust for Youth videos.
But above all, Rubchinskiy’s work talks to everyone because it is largely about capturing the ephemeral. He met one of his favourite subjects, Tolik, when the latter was just 14, and this year he opened and closed Rubchinskiy's show in Paris. In Rubchinskiy's visual work you could see Tolik growing up, getting rid of his beautiful hair and shaving his head, maturing, changing. Sadly, Tolik will never be 14 again. But in a way he always will be. In Rubchinskiy's photographs kids always have faces as timeless as museum statues. Transforming the ephemeral into the timeless is what he does best.
Text: Anastasiia Fedorova