Georgia has been on everyone’s mind lately. And there’s a reason for it: the Caucasian country is experiencing what has been dubbed a “fashion renaissance” thanks to designers that have brought it to the forefront of the global scene (Demna Gvasalia, obviously, but also, more recently, Irakli Rusadze of Situationist, the brand on every hip person’s lips). Tbilisi has not one, but two fashion weeks, showing consecutively in late October-early November. So I headed up to the Georgian capital to check its style… and the potential of its fashion industry.
Ani Datukishvili SS18 at Tbilisi Fashion Week.
The first thing that strikes the visitor when touching down in Tbilisi is the decadent charm of the city. Its architecture mixes different-era elements from Asian style to Western European, even Haussmannian, Art Nouveau, and, of course, more than a few totalitarian and brutalist Soviet buildings. The 19th century bourgeois town houses in the city center, in their semi-derelict glory, are particularly appealing, especially in their contrast with the uber-hipster shops, art galleries, and cafés populated by creative Georgian youths. I’m instantly hooked. Turns out Tbilisians have a natural knack for fashion, their style being a quirky mix of maximalist 80s references (the shoulder pads, the bright colour mixes), Vetements-infused street style winks, and a touch of post-Soviet bling. So much so that, in comparison, some of the fashion on the catwalk seemed a bit bland. Which doesn’t mean potential isn’t there.
Running for a quick coffee in between the first few shows of the week, Anano Dolaberidze – International Media Relations officer at Tbilisi Fashion Week – explains to me the reason behind the city’s two fashion weeks. “Tbilisi Fashion Week was established in 2009, then Mercedes-Benz stepped in a couple years later, so designers have been moving back and forth between both events.” So far, the idea of merging both fashion weeks seems not to be in the cards; but since they both happen in the same week, it’s easy for guests to see everything the capital has to offer when it comes to fashion. “There are a few international editors and buyers, then some industry insiders from Russia, Kazakhstan and Ukraine, and members of the Georgian government,” says Anano as we wait for one of the highlight shows of the week to start. The designer’s name is Mariam Gvasalia (no relation to Demna and Guram), and her collections have a distinct Slavic feminine aesthetic with punkish undertones. Her shoes, with their over-the-top heels and patchwork of materials, catch everyone’s eyes. “She’s shown only for two seasons and was picked up by buyers from her very first collection,” whispers Anano. Might she be the third Gvasalia on her way to global fame?
Éthéré SS18 at Tbilisi Fashion Week.
That evening, I have dinner with a few local fashion insiders and the conversation inevitably gravitates towards the Balenciaga Creative Director and Vetements founder. What do they think of his work? A unanimous “Oh, we love it!” resonates from across the table. “He is, in a way, a fashion hero,” explains Salomé Mikashavidze, a marketing specialist for Matériel, a cool contemporary label with an alluring concept store in central Tbilisi. “Of course his hyper normal aesthetic and his reinterpretation of Balenciaga might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s about what he’s done for Georgian fashion. I really think it’s thanks to his notoriety that international industry players are now taking our work seriously.”
Internationalization of Georgian fashion is really key at this point: the biannual fashion events are gathering momentum with leading media such as Vogue or Dazed covering them, but the economy has to follow, and Georgian designers are confronted with challenges that most of their Western Europe counterparts don’t have. “There’s the money, of course, but also the fact that there are no fashion schools in the country,” explains Ani Datukishvili backstage, one of the designers showing on the third day. “Which means Georgian designers are either educated abroad, have degrees from the Tbilisi State Academy of Arts, or are, quite simply, self-taught.” But that’s only the beginning. Fabric producers and factories are lacking as well. Problematic, true, but designers have found a way to turn those downsides into opportunities, choosing to keep production small and confined to seamstresses in small ateliers in the city rather than turning to foreign factories where they would come last and likely have no control over a range of details. The same goes for commerce. “At the moment, our objective is to lure in more buyers from Italy and the United States, but we have a pretty solid customer base in our surrounding countries, namely in Russia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and Azerbaijan,” explains Anano. “Many of the collections are picked up by buyers in those territories; but even when they are not, designers are selling directly through their social media, often filling bespoke orders and skipping the middle man.” Which, paired with the relatively low cost of producing in Georgia, means unusually affordable price points for Western European and American clients (a 100% wool coat from Matériel, for instance, costs less than 400 €). A shrewd strategy adopted by some of the most interesting designers I saw during my week in Tbilisi.
Elenny SS18 at Tbilisi Fashion Week.
The fashion week schedule looks almost as full as those in London or Paris: there are shows and presentations every hour and social events every night. Like in London and Paris, there is too much information and too much product (isn’t that excess really fashion’s mal du siècle, though?), which almost manages to overshadow a few golden nuggets, although not quite. Apart from Mariam Gvasalia’s cheerfully rebellious collection, international guests are all stricken by Éthéré’s beautifully handcrafted accessories. The brand, which has become known for its chic minimalistic jewellery and its wooden sunglasses, one of the week’s highlights. As was Elenny, the brand designed by the very press-shy Elene Giorgadze, who answered all my questions backstage with monosyllables and coy smiles (“our designers sorely need to be media-trained,” remarked Anano a few hours later). Her collection, though, was far from shy, especially her big draped trench coats and puff jackets with overblown rose prints, which were ultra-desirable. Same for Flying Painter, the hip brand whose store is based in Fabrika (a Soviet-era garment factory turned creative hub) which presented a psychedelic-inspired multicolored collection along with a reedition of cotton poplin smocks from the U.S.S.R. days. And, a few days later, during MBFWT, Datuna would impress with its clean tailoring and Situationist would prove again that it is more than worthy of all the international attention (and Bella Hadid love) it has been getting. All these designers tapped into the zeitgeist without slipping into overtly Vetements-y territory (actually, Western European designers are falling into that trap a lot more).
It’s a sweet moment for Georgian fashion, that’s for sure, and one that could bring unprecedented business opportunities in the fashion field for the country… Depending, of course, on how the local industry decides to play its next few moves. But let’s not get too much ahead of ourselves. Today’s candidness, spontaneity, and freshness – not to mention the sustainable ways of working and the appealing prices – big business is bound to be effaced. Let’s enjoy them while we can.