Tbilisi, Georgia: a new fashion capital?

22 February 2019 | Posted by Zackary

In 1989, Rei Kawakubo settles in Georgia. As the Soviet bloc is just beginning to crumble, the designer chooses to set the scene for the next SIX shooting (biannual published by her label Comme des Garçons between 88 and 91, e.g. six issues, editor’s note).

The magazine is known for containing almost, if not absolutely no words. The creator’s vision is expressed visually, without language barriers. The name itself refers to a sixth sense, a kind of universal emotion based on the richness of the universe created by the photos. Immortalized by Brian Griffin, the Mother Georgia series is no exception.

In a country still attached to the USSR, where every demonstration is repressed in blood, no one knows the Japanese designer. Let alone her brand. In the rural surroundings of Tbilisi, the capital, the pieces of the latest collection are worn by the inhabitants, blending with their own clothes. Shots of visceral beauty, as never before seen on glossy paper.

Georgia will only obtain its independence in 1991, followed by a violent civil war. Who would have thought that less than 30 years later, the city would be at the origin of one of the most exciting movements in current fashion? That it would turn into a real underground gem, with an innovative effervescence? While some people are even calling Tbilisi “the new Berlin”, how did it establish itself as the epicentre to look at?

(© Brian Griffin for SIX, Comme des Garçons, 1989)

Demna Gvasalia, Tbilissi beacon

It all begins around 2015, when the label VETEMENTS takes Paris fashion week by storm with its alternative aesthetic. No more laid-back glamour, models invade the runway in XXL sweaters with satanic patterns.

The brand divides the fashion sphere, its style is controversial… but its aura fascinates, which is perfectly maintained even in the choice of a generic name. A form of mystery, admittedly dissipated since then, surrounds it when it appears. We simply know that it is a collective of several designers, led by a certain Demna Gvasalia, a Georgian who studied at Margiela‘s.

VETEMENTS pushes streetwear to the extreme, letting itself be largely influenced by post-Soviet culture. The craze is such that “Demna”, as the underpaid PRs familiarly call him, is appointed head of creation at Balenciaga just one year later. Inexorably, his ascension and his work draw attention to his country of origin. The surprise is enormous because, if he does indeed make it possible to shine the spotlight on Tbilisi, we discover a scene teeming with talents, with a way of expressing themselves in their very own way…


The designers of a new youth

In the wake of the end of communism and the conflicts that ravaged it, a real youth culture has developed in Tbilisi. Marked by the dark years, the new generation experiences a mixture of nihilism and revolt. They find refuge in the nightlife, where clubbing occupies a prominent place, and have a notable interest in skateboardingChaos, the city’s first concept store, has even installed a ramp in its premises.

In this context, the frivolity of clothing allows to forget the austerity of the past. Like a search for freedom, which could explain why no gender fashion is so present. Overall, collections are largely influenced by the 80’s, the time when current designers were born. In their own way, each seems to want to exorcise his demons with the thread and the needle. Soviet references are omnipresent, whether they hint at the military or borrow from the popular uniform.

Western bling, typical of those same years, is also a recurring theme among those who have been deprived of it. It is ironically put forward, some use counterfeiting codes… These designers have a strength, a rage that cannot be applied to fashion without having been through this kind of ordeal.

Among the leading figures, we have already mentioned Situationist and AZNAURI, but we can also cite Babukhadia or Janashia. Each label has its own touch, its own vision, but all share the same ardent desire. An intense feeling, which gives all its fashion power to the city of the Caucasus.

(© George Keburia)

A still burgeoning scene

If Tbilisi has no shortage of potential, it is its lack of infrastructure that is missing. An essential step: it has had its own fashion week since 2015, sponsored by Mercedes-Benz’s big money. More than just a succesion of shows, the organization offers a platform to these isolated creators, who also gain support in elaborating their development strategy. This assistance is all the more valuable when many are self-taught.

Over the seasons, the event has gained increasing notoriety and is now supported by the government. For these small labels, visibility is the cornerstone of success: in a region like their own, it will be difficult to maintain themselves without arousing interest beyond their borders.

They then have to multiply their operations, hold a showroom in London or Paris in addition to a catwalk in Tbilisi, which requires more money than they make. Conversely, production is also a problem. Most have a craft workshop, unable to meet a high demand, while there is no large-scale operating unit available in the country.

Thus, several limits remain before Tbilisi can fully achieve the influence it deserves. Yet, it remains animated by an unprecedented energy, a post-modern version of the 60s Swinging London, which has everything it takes to overcome the obstacles blocking its path. Without a doubt, we have not finished seeing it on our radars… •

Hugh Hefner's and Donatella Versace's love child, I am the visible half of the duo behind ZACKARIUM. Addicted to fashion and to Lucky Strike, my mission is to guide you smoothly through the jungle of brands and catwalks.

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