Sunday, January 27, 2013

DESIGN: Searching for Fashion Gold in the Caucasus (

...when the Government stops fleecing it's populace; fashion develops

by Kendall Martin-Robbins 
( Continuing to explore uncharted territory, NOT JUST A LABEL is devoted to discovering, promoting and exposing new countries, and designers, and the fashion talent hiding there. Destinations is an ongoing series that does just that. Following our founder Stefan Siegel's participation at last year's Be Next talent search in Batumi, Georgia, one of our contributors headed to the Black Sea, with a touring exhibition only to discover their best kept secret; a wealth of cutting edge designers.  

Georgia is a rich tapestry of myths and hidden histories both ancient and modern. One of the first Christian nations, the language is unique (as old as Latin); as is the beautiful curving script that makes navigating Tbilisi on foot both magical and bewildering (no Moscow-style Cyrillic/European street signs for the Georgians). They have been making wine for 8,000 years, and it is the land of the Golden Fleece, sought by Jason and the Argonauts. 

It was the wealth of gold in the area that inspired this tale; Georgian pioneers used fleece to sift gold dust from the rivers since ancient times. They have Europe’s tallest mountains and the world’s deepest cave, temperate rain forests and glaciers, 200 mineral springs and the Black Sea. This is all in a country only 26,911 square miles in size with a population less than the city of London. 

Mythology aside, Georgia has a rich heritage of creativity. They had their renaissance in the 11th century, and despite invasions by the Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Mongols, Seljuk Turks, Ottoman Turks, Persians and Russians they have fiercely protected their culture. Georgia sits on the axis between East and West, and their theatre, dance and literature reflect this: not quite European but neither wholly Asian. The Black Sea was the gateway to Europe on the Silk Road and unsurprisingly – given that position slap bang in the middle of this great route for textiles, dyes, jewellery and leather – costume has been central to Georgian identity for centuries.

Georgian fashion expatriates David Koma and Tata-Naka are well know in the UK and whilst their work doesn’t smack of obvious Georgian references there are subtle hints to their nationality. Koma’s work, sculptural with heavy embellishment, is not unlike the tapered waists, full skirts and heavy accessorising of traditional dress. His use of leatherworking in his Autumn/Winter 2010 and Spring/Summer 2012 collections echoes another age-old Georgian skill. Tata-Naka’s intricate prints parallel the detail of Persian design in the South Caucasus and their Spring/Summer 2012 collection is inspired by another Georgian passion, dancing.

Georgia’s love of dance and theatre has a huge impact on their fashion industry. The local theatre school is Tbilisi’s ‘St Martins’, students loitering outside campus smoking and exhibiting their version of street style. It is a huge honour to design for the theatre, and designers often supplement their practice by producing costumes for Georgia’s myriad and prestigious theatres. 

Designer Simon Machabeli studied costume design before starting his MA in fashion at Central Saint Martins and his Spring/Summer 2010 collection, shown at Tbilisi Fashion Week, reflected this. Models were suspended from the ceiling of the venue, walking across the wall as if traversing a vertical catwalk dressed in layers of kaleidoscopic colour with distinctive chunky silhouettes and elements of bricolage. 

I visited his studio in downtown Tbilisi to be greeted by a supra, a smorgasbord of Georgian delicacies washed down with wine. His practice is embryonic, like many young Georgian designers he sells his clothes privately or produces one-offs. There is not yet enough domestic faith in Georgian fashion; nor the textile manufacturing industry to make large runs feasible. 

New York-based Uta Bekaia is also known for his drama. Predominantly a costume designer and installation artist, he shows at Tbilisi Fashion Week under the label Uta Levan. Irakli Nasidze, a Georgian designer working out of Paris, experiments heavily with textiles and presents theatrical collections supported with props, body paint and spectacle. His play with headwear and facemasks harks back to traditional Georgian veils and headscarves. 

Copenhagen-based George Shaghashvili produces multi-functional androgynous pieces, which are as much about the polymorphic presentation as the practical uses. Young designer George Keburia is another great example of this trend; his 2010 collection featured a 3-headed PVC dress and a PVC centaur suit. 

Similarly Nino Chubinishvili’s reputation rests on her theatricality with presentations built on musical performances and theatricality. During the 90’s she was part of the Akhalgazrduli (Youth Club) group, whose experimental fashion performances formed a central building block of the nascent Georgian fashion industry following the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

However, the model was unsustainable, with systematic government corruption, civil war and lack of basics such as electricity making it impossible to produce clothes, let alone stage a fashion show. The Rose Revolution followed in 2003 and finally the South Ossetia War in 2008. Georgian designers had to wait until 2010 for a new platform to present their work. 

Georgian Fashion Week was founded with the support of the wife of the head of the Georgian Parliament, which brought access to public funds with the aim of encouraging tourism to the region. It has lasted two years and following regime changes has an uncertain future, but Tbilisi Fashion Week, started in 2011, now provides the main showcasing opportunity.

The young designers of Georgia have begun to embrace their past. Student work included Lika Kubaneishvili’s award-winning collection influenced by the shape and layout of Georgian churches, whilst Nicolas Grigorian draws on the heritage of leatherworking to produce elegant and detailed silhouettes referencing Georgian folk dress. Other young designers, such as Lasha Devdariani, Ana Movesian and Djaba Diassamidze, reveal the East and West duality of Georgian design with flowing shapes and hints of European sexuality. 

Although being a young designer in Georgia is a struggle, the Tbilisi Academy of Arts is doing its best to prepare the next generation. The fashion course was established in the 1960s when the Arts Academy was one of three in the entirety of the Soviet Union. 

At that time, the coursework was monitored by Moscow and unfortunately, the teaching style has not moved on much since those times. Students use soviet-era textbooks, and funding issues mean the textile studio uses a small portable hob to prepare their dyes. Students are not taught the business side of the operation and struggle to come up with models that will sustain their practice.

There are other post-Soviet affects on the fashion industry. Following independence, the infrastructure for industry collapsed, thus there are few factories in country where young designers can have their work produced in large quantities. There are a limited number of highly skilled seamstresses in the country and scarce training opportunities. This all affects the quality of the work constructed. 

The country is doing surprisingly well considering events of the last 20 years. The economy is recovering, partially as a result of the same minerals that drew traders and Argonauts to the region two thousand years ago. There is great optimism about the new government and the incumbent Prime Minister has a track record in cultural philanthropy. There is a vibrant fashion scene here, uniquely Georgian yet potentially with global appeal. However, for Georgian fashion to gain a higher profile some of this ‘gold’ needs to be invested in the creative industries.

1 comment:

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