Monday, March 03, 2014

Ethnic Fashion, Cultural Insiders, and Razu Mikhina

I have written quite a bit on othering that occurs via fashion, including the notion of "ethnic" clothing being an extension of a culturally distinct group (also please see the Threadbared post that summarizes many of these points cogently). But I also think that the less appreciated side-effect of that is the fact that "ethnic" clothing has been explicitly excluded from fashion.

I the fashion world, "ethnic" or "national" clothing has been allocated its own weird niche: in the hierarchy from couture to pret-a-porter to mass market to high street, everyone recognizes each of these rungs as a part of the same system, which explicitly excludes clothing that is timeless, national in character, locally produced and worn, and uninfluenced by the fashion shows and magazines. The only way this clothing is allowed to enter the mainstream is by being appropriated -- be it "tribal" and "ethnic" prints that are swarming the runways, be they "locally sourced" textiles environmentally responsible fashion companies are shilling, or be it a scarf some personal style blogger picked at "this quaint market in Turkey" and styled with her required assortment of Isabel Marant and Zara. That is, ethnic clothing as it exists is antithetical to the very notion of fashion, and this rigid divide serves to exclude certain people from participation in fashion industry.

Now, an act of self-appropriation -- when, say, Duro Olowu makes a successful fashion career largely drawing on his Nigerian roots (and all the power to him!) -- seems to be the only way for a cultural insider to participate in mainstream fashion without abandoning clothing bound to its cultural context. Because outside appropriation is by definition shallow, cursory, and tone-deaf. The visually distinct groups are defined by the crude "tribal" caricatures, with little thought given to their unique characteristics, so we end up with monstrosities like "African prints" and "Asian influences".

On the other hand, Russian culture is an interesting case of being fascinating to the West and thus commonly appropriated, and yet the ethnicity tied to the culture lacking distinct visual characteristics. It is because of that, I think, the Western admirers of Russian culture rarely go for the folk component of the current culture -- such as traditional crafts and patterns -- and instead focus their attention on the mish-mash of the historical and imagined ethnic, much like Yves Saint-Laurent's 1976-77 Russian collection and Ralph Lauren's 1993. Both combine nods to the 19th century Russian empire and peasant dress:

This is the type of appropriation that renders any discussion of authenticity moot: much like is the case in literature, any criticism of inaccuracy is usually met with "well, it's only inspired by Russia!" defense. The trouble with it, of course, is that people perpetrating the appropriative acts and those defending them are the dominant cultural voices, who are unable to distinguish between a real culture and its imitation. Thus, we largely live in the world where many cultures are represented not by themselves, but by the dominant voices trying to articulate what those cultures ought to be like. And while the original ethnic dress remain firmly outside of fashion mainstream (much like folklore remains outside of the Western literary tradition), the cultural insiders making their voice heard within the mainstream become terribly important: without them, it's all just a distorted mirror held up by outsiders, who keep congratulating themselves on being inclusive and worldly.

For Russian fashion, such cultural insiders are rare. While there are many talented designers hailing from Russia, many of whom are even known in the West, most of them are a part of the fashion mainstream without relying much on their cultural background (which is by no means a criticism), and if they do draw on Russian history (most notably, Ulyana Segeenko), they do so via the elevated historical references to the height of the Russian Empire rather than more humble folk craft.

Now then. All this brings me to the one designer I wanted to talk about!  Daria Razumikhina of Razu Mikhina -- a designer who actually incorporates a lot of traditional techniques, such as appliques, embroidery, and soutache (we all know how I feel about soutache, right?) At the same time, this is the collection that is firmly connected to the present of its source culture (Razu Mikhina store is located in Moscow, and the lace she uses is made in Vologda, a famous center of traditional crafts), reasonably priced, especially compared to mostly four-figure designer duds, and imminently wearable.

 This coat, which I own, is not only gorgeous in its own right, it is also timeless. The design is quite simple, just like most of her shapes:

But the detailing is what makes it. While traditional, it is also artistic and unique, and often not too serious. Also, everything is domestically manufactured.

The clothes move well, and are plain fun to wear:

And this, to me, what ultimately ethnic and cultural influences in fashion should be: referential of the source culture yet interpreted through the designer's unique point of view, done by the cultural insider, and modern. Once such fashion becomes established, perhaps our view of the role of clothing will expand enough to allow for ethnic clothing, unfiltered through one person't perspective and dominant narrative, to be included in the conversation. One can dream.

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