In Cyrillic, “Gosha Rubchinskiy” is Гоша Рубчинский. Pretty much everything the Russian men’s wear designer creates is emblazoned with his name, whether it’s sweatshirts, tube socks, sweatpants, or bootleg-y Tommy Hilfiger–style T-shirts. And, like the Nike swoosh or the Adidas trefoil, the Gosha logo transcends language: It’s an immediate signifier that the wearer belongs to or at least identifies with a tribe of disenfranchised youth disconnected from the commercialism of contemporary culture. It’s a potent pull, and one that extends way beyond Rubchinskiy’s teenage fan base.
I meet Rubchinskiy on a hot summer day in Paris at his showroom just off the Place Vendôme, a square known as the epicenter of luxury jewelry brands. The location seems incongruous, almost perverse, until you learn that Rubchinskiy’s young company is owned by the Comme des Garçons group, and shares its offices. Comme des Garçons handles manufacturing but permits Rubchinskiy to operate with total creative autonomy. “I like to find the boys for the shows, I like to do fittings, I like to photograph, thinking about locations,” he says. “I have only graphic designers, that’s it. All things I do by myself.”
Rubchinskiy, 32, is pale, sports a buzz cut, and is habitually clad in the sweatshirts and T-shirts he has made cult items. He lives in Moscow, well off fashion’s beaten track. He was born there in 1984, a pivotal time. “I saw the last Soviet moments; I saw the early-’90s crazy time; I saw early Putin era,” he says. His accent is pronounced, his phrasing guttural. “I like to stay in Russia because it’s always surprising. It’s never boring, never boring. It’s interesting to be there and look what’s happening. I like to look, to watch, how kids are wearing stuff. They can buy the same Supreme or Palace sweatshirt, but they can wear it in different ways than kids wearing it in the U.S. or somewhere. That’s why it’s very inspirational for me to live in Russia.”
His base may be in Russia, but the designer’s impact is global. A week before our meeting, he was in Florence, showing his spring 2017 collection at the Pitti Uomo fair—ground zero of the men’s fashion calendar. Every year, Pitti’s organizers invite high-octane, high-impact designers to stage well-publicized shows, using the city’s architectural gems as backdrops. Roberto Cavalli once commandeered the Ponte Vecchio; Raf Simons staged one of his most memorable shows in the Boboli Gardens; Valentino took over the Palazzo Corsini.
Rubchinskiy, however, eschewed his predecessors’ affinity for Renaissance grandeur, opting for the Manifattura Tabacchi, a disused 1930s tobacco factory built in high-rationalist style. Perched in the factory’s courtyard, waiting for the show to start, guests could have been in Northern England or East Germany. “It’s like nowhere,” Rubchinskiy told me then. “That’s why it’s good. The show could be everywhere.” His stylist, Lotta Volkova, commented backstage that Rubchinskiy had managed to find the one building in Florence that looked Russian.
The clothes themselves looked vaguely Russian too, but, in fact, Rubchinskiy had been inspired by Pier Paolo Pasolini and said that to him the models looked like “Pasolini ragazzi, or personages from his movies or books.” There may have been shades of the director’s teenage lover, Ninetto Davoli—or perhaps Pasolini’s teenage killer, a hustler named Giuseppe Pelosi—in the casting, but it was hard to imagine Pasolini’s work in the context of the Italian-born sportswear companies (Fila, Kappa, Sergio Tacchini) with which Rubchinskiy collaborated. “Fila. Gosha,” said Rubchinskiy, pointing at a red sweatshirt emblazoned with a Fila logo, his name in Cyrillic written underneath. “For me, it’s very punk.”
Rubchinskiy was wearing one of the Fila-Gosha sweatshirts when he took his bow. At the afterparty, the models flocked around him, many still in the runway clothes. He casts his shows from Instagram—they’re not random, these boys from Australia, Finland, and Russia. They’re what he calls “Gosha boys”—the kids who wear his stuff on the catwalk and off. “It was important for me that boys were wearing the brand in real life,” he says. “It’s cool that they know each other, and they know each other from Instagram. A boy from Australia can know a boy from Finland. But they never met—they first met in Florence for my show.”
Many in the fashion world suspect that Rubchinskiy is, perhaps, reliving his teenage years by gathering groups of like-minded youth around him. By his own admission, he was a quiet child. His parents scraped by, trying different types of work both before and in the aftermath of the fall of Communism, which might have encouraged their son’s polymath tendencies. Money was scarce, and Rubchinskiy spent a lot of time at home, drawing. In the mid-’90s, Moscow was flooded with foreign music, subcultures, drugs. “It was good as image: cool, very inspirational,” Rubchinskiy says, explaining how he became interested in photography. “But, at the same time, it was very dangerous and scary.” Rubchinskiy and his friends would travel into the city in packs, for protection from the marauding gangs of skinheads that menace the streets of Moscow even today. “We would go, as five, to buy sneakers for one person!” Rubchinskiy says, laughing. “But if you go alone…” He’s still laughing but leaves the sentence ominously unfinished. “I feel a kind of nostalgia only because of strong emotions. I know how it was, and I want now the same feelings. To feel again. But anyway, I try to speak about the current moment. That’s why I’m hanging always with young kids, because I want to see what’s happening in their heads. And I mix my emotions, my great memories, with what is cool and great for now.”
His friend Demna Gvasalia, the Vetements and Balenciaga designer, views Rubichinskiy’s appropriation of sportswear and early-’90s style in Russia, when Western influences mixed with Soviet imagery, as being “patriotic.” And it’s true that Rubchinskiy is routinely lumped together with other Eastern bloc designers—particularly Gvasalia. Volkova works with both of them, which perhaps only adds to the confusion. “They put all together—Gosha, Demna, Lotta,” says Rubchinskiy, who often speaks of himself in third person. “But Demna is Georgian, it’s one story. Gosha is from Moscow, Lotta is from Vladivostok. Of course, we are same generation and have same background, same Soviet background. But we are different. I don’t like cliché. I feel, myself, like an international artist. Not like Russian, local thing. I don’t like when people say—‘Oh, Gosha does the post-Soviet Russian thing.’ I think, no.”
Still, whether Rubchinskiy likes it or not, his prominence has clearly derived from his Russian identity. It was in Moscow that Adrian Joffe, the president of Comme des Garçons and Dover Street Market, first met Rubchinskiy, at a party in 2009 hosted by Anna Dyulgerova, the former executive fashion editor of Russian Vogue who went on to found Cycles and Seasons, an organization to promote young Russian talent. “Back then, I used to work as a stylist for magazines, and costume designer for a few movies in Russia,” Rubchinskiy recalls. “I thought it was the time to do my own project. But what is interesting? And at the same time, I meet these cool kids, these skaters, and I spent all summer photographing them, traveling to different parts of Russia, like family. It was amazing, and at the end of the summer I thought, Maybe I should do a collection?”
His first shows presented the very same clothes worn by his skater friends. Joffe initially bought 10, maybe 20 T-shirts for the stores. They were produced in Russia, then Serbia, but after the Serbian factory went bankrupt, Rubchinskiy approached Joffe for help with manufacturing. “Who knew it would become like this?” Joffe says, shrugging. “I had no idea. I don’t even know how it happened!” By the time Rubchinskiy had his Paris debut, in 2014, 56 stores had picked up the collection. “I was breaking even,” Joffe adds. “I had fun doing it; I loved meeting all these skater boys. But business doubled after that first show. And then it quadrupled!” Rubchinskiy’s label can now be found in 116 stores worldwide.
And yet, Rubchinskiy chafes at the prospect of being considered a designer. “Fashion for me is a medium where you can do different things,” he says. “I want to do photography, I want to do movies…” Rubchinskiy’s spirit of community and cross-pollination comes through not just in his clothes but also in the four photography books he’s published: Crimea/Kids, Youth Hotel, Transfiguration Book, and The Day of My Death, which was produced for the Pasolini-themed collection at Pitti. It was accompanied by a 17-minute film of the same name, directed by Renata Litvinova and starring Volkova and a couple of Rubchinskiy’s favorite models; the designer has a fleeting cameo. “Before I used to do films, but it was more documentaries,” he says. “I would shoot some kids, interview them. This is the first time we do a script, we do some story. For me it’s like, What happens if we put Gosha kids to some Pasolini spirit?”
Rubchinskiy’s clothes—with their focus on the everyday and the banal—bespeak his affiliation with youth culture rather than an allegiance to fashion. “Gosha brand is about some basic items, but with some cool details,” he says. “I like the idea of uniform for Gosha boys. Always when I create a collection, I think, We need to have jeans, we need to have sweater, we need to have sweatshirt. I change only colors, change fabrics, and put Gosha. I want really the feeling that you can find it in some vintage store somewhere. That feeling of…” His voice trails off. I suggest “authenticity,” and he nods.
“People think there’s more to his clothes than meets the eye,” Joffe says. “No one’s going to say he’s a great designer, and he doesn’t pretend to be one. We are in a moment when people can admit they’re not designers. They’re telling a story.” It’s precisely that disarming honesty that sets Rubchinskiy apart in fashion’s world of smoke and mirrors. “After my first show, some journalists ask me, ‘Gosha, what do you think, is it fashion that you show?’ ” Rubchinskiy recalls. “And I said, ‘No, it is not fashion.’ For me, it’s more like performance. I wanted to show only this community of boys, and the collection was made only for them.”