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It was 2008, during my first show, and a journalist asked me, ‘What is the fashion of the future?’ I said, ‘I am the future. In 10 years, everyone will be talking about Gosha’.”
In the eight years since that bold announcement Gosha Rubchinskiy, the 31-year-old Russian designer, has fulfilled his own prophecy and become one of the biggest sensations in menswear. The show in question, which can be found on YouTube, was staged in an indoor athletics track in Moscow and centred on sports and skatewear; simple, graphic pieces that have gone on to become his signature. His work predicted fashion’s current obsession with sportswear, be it the functionality of “athleisure” brands or the luxury of Gucci’s new bestselling tracksuits. “I felt like the look that we made in the first show would be very popular in 10 years,” says Rubchinskiy. “Eight years later, it’s happening. It’s funny.”
We are sitting in an abandoned tobacco factory on the outskirts of Florence, built in the 1930s and empty since 2000. There is bird mess everywhere. But it’s here, on Wednesday evening, that Rubchinskiy will stage his biggest show yet as the guest of the city’s menswear trade fair, Pitti Uomo. His show, the day before Raf Simons’ (another guest designer at Pitti), has transformed Florence into the buzziest city of this season’s menswear schedule.
Rubchinskiy is a compact man with a shaved head. He’s not quick to speak, but he has an air of supreme self-assurance when he does. His English has greatly improved since we first met in 2010. A photographer as well as a designer, he is here today to shoot images for a limited edition book with publishers Idea to coincide with the show. Working with him on the shoot is his friend Lotta Volkova, the Russian-born stylist who also collaborates with the head of both Vetements and Balenciaga, Georgian-born designer Demna Gvasalia. The three are part of a friendship circle that has become a sudden indomitable force in 21st-century fashion. That DHL T-shirt that caused so much controversy at the Vetements show last September? The man wearing it was Rubchinskiy.
For his show venue, Rubchinskiy had the pick of Florence’s grand buildings. Instead, he went for a fading example of Italian constructivism. “I wanted something wrong,” Rubchinskiy says of the factory. “I wanted something connected with Russia. I wanted somewhere where I find myself at home.”
Rubchinskiy has determined opinions. He insists that his T-shirts (£45) and trackpants (£95) should be affordable for his legion of adolescent devotees. In the process, he’s amassed a wide following of adult men who still think of themselves as teenagers. He is stocked in 92 stores worldwide, a number kept capped despite the many others wanting to carry his line. He understands the most powerful fashion doesn’t have to get hung up on luxury. It thrives also on individuality and a strong point of view.
He first tried to launch his eponymous label from his home in Moscow after his debut show in 2008. But factories in Russia were unreliable and export duties crippling. Rubchinskiy found it prohibitively expensive to produce his clothing and put the label on hold while he concentrated on photography. It wasn’t until 2012 that he established his financial footing thanks to a unique agreement with Adrian Joffe, president of Comme des Garçons. Joffe now manufactures and distributes Rubchinskiy’s collection in Europe, thus bypassing the red tape. It’s all done through a gentleman’s agreement, with Rubchinskiy retaining ownership of his label. Today, he designs on his own in Moscow, and has three staff at Comme des Garçons in Paris; one works on PR, another on production. “I prefer to work alone,” he says, “because only I know what I want.”
In recent seasons, Rubchinskiy has staged off-schedule shows on a tiny budget during Paris menswear where the small audiences sat on school benches. The first were word-of-mouth successes. Last season it was clear Rubchinskiy’s show had become a hot ticket. Popularity brought a new challenge: the danger of overhype. His reaction? Change.
“I didn’t want to show again in Paris,” he says. “I wanted to move to a different city, do something different.” He considered Milan, then Pitti extended an invitation. “I had never been to Italy,” he says. “I wanted to go to Florence for the Uffizi gallery. I wanted to see Leonardo and my favourite Botticelli.”
One of his inspirations for this new collection is the director and poet Pier Paolo Pasolini. “Now is the right moment to think about what is Europe,” says Rubchinskiy. “Pasolini was anti-globalist and thought it was good to keep the spirit of Italy in Italy, of France in France, of Russia in Russia. I think it’s the right moment to remember Pasolini, and to think about what is Europe.”
Rubchinskiy grew up in Yeltsin’s Russia, a time he remembers as one of crippling hardship yet energising possibilities. His family lived in Moscow, and his parents struggled to find work. While the designer revelled in western pop culture and counterculture, he is proudly Russian and has often looked at national identity in his work. “I feel a connection with Europe, and I think Russia and Europe need to be together.”
Rubchinskiy’s clothes sit with brands such as Supreme and Palace Skateboards that have found a fan base beyond the traditional menswear industry. “What we do now suits the moment,” he says. “Brands like Supreme, Palace and Gosha are above the system.”
Neither Supreme nor Palace stage fashion shows, preferring instead to reveal their collections online just before they hit their stores. Waiting for the drop has become part of their cult appeal, with customers camping around the block on delivery days. But Rubchinskiy still believes in the energy he can create in a fashion show, and how it forges his brand’s identity. He is disrupting the system from within.
“I never want to be Supreme, I never want to be Palace, I want to be Gosha,” he says. “People say Gosha is the next Raf, Gosha is the next Supreme. No. Gosha is Gosha.”
Rubchinskiy is also very different from Vetements, whose clothes are priced at staggering figures. But despite their opposing business models, the designers are close: it’s one of the reasons Volkova cast Rubchinskiy in the Vetements show. “So many designers have a weird energy between them in fashion,” she says. “We just wanted to show we’re all cool together, and each of us is doing what we want because we believe in it.”
“It’s a story about individuals,” agrees Rubchinskiy.
Alongside his T-shirts and sweatshirts, Rubchinskiy has always shown updated versions of menswear classics — double-breasted tailoring, jeans, duffel coats — that have that awkward air of someone young experimenting with a look. He reveals nothing about the new collection he will show in Florence, but there’s a sense, with this collection, he will be expanding his horizons, and that the other work will come to the fore.
Whatever else, Rubchinskiy insists that he wants to make clothing that men will buy. Wearability remains key. “If I choose fashion as a medium, I need to sell clothes,” he says. This may seem an oxymoron, but there are countless designers whose interest is conceptual, with no thought of an actual customer.
Not so for Rubchinskiy. “If it’s successful, it means you’re doing the right thing,” he says. “When we stop selling clothes, I’ll go and do something else.”
Photographs: Tom Fletcher; Catwalking