Like most of the former Eastern Bloc countries, Georgia is a rather schizophrenic nation. One can feel Tbilisi's distinctive, post-communist flair when taking a stroll through the city center. A flair that cannot be captured by simple regulative constructs, mainly because of the complex make-up of Georgia's population, its distinctive way of mixing both history and the present, the weight of the political past, and the cultural intermingling that has taken place.
This makes for the contemporary issue of most Eastern European countries: historic city buildings continue to tumble down, neglected by often corrupt heads of state, who rarely inject any money into cultural initiatives, leaving this task of paramount importance to young entrepreneurs and creatives, who express their commitment to their country in their own way – think self-funded and self-organized workshops and ateliers, creative designer brands, and independent cultural events.
Georgia, however, seems to have found its way out of this issue. Although corruption has been a concern in post-Soviet decades, the country is seeing the light at the end of the tunnel since the Rose Revolution of 2003 and the implementation of anti-corruption reforms. In addition, the government has been showing an ever-growing interest in cultural initiatives that highlight Georgia's creative potential, providing forward-thinking pioneers with structural and financial support.
Tbilisi Fashion Week (TFW) is one of those state-supported events, and it offers the very best of Georgian fashion design. The bi-annual fashion event aims to bring young Georgian designers to the forefront of the local and regional fashion scene. TFW is the brainchild of model and entrepreneur Tako Chkheidze, who initiated the fashion week to help support Georgia's creative scene and to create a true fashion hub in Eastern Europe. A personal commitment that she's been maintaining with success for the past years, since the event’s inception in 2009.
Anano Dolaberidze, her right-hand woman, is what one would call a real go-getter. Ambitious and audacious, the young creative – who wears many hats, including that of Tbilisi Fashion Week board member, fashion blogger, freelance fashion stylist and PR – doesn't seem to be intimidated by the weight of the international fashion industry. In fact, at a time when the internet has erased boarders, helping creative people of all types and backgrounds with a never-seen-before visibility, Anano is more determined than ever to promote the talents of Georgia's fashion scene, both inland and abroad.
"Maybe we don’t live in Paris or Milan, where high fashion was born, but this actually gives me motivation," mused the young slasher. "Honestly, the fashion industry is so commercial today. People buy big brands for their names more than for their creative potential. When I see Georgian designers, who are creating something out of nothing, it gives me the feeling that we Georgians can do something in fashion because we really feel its artistic, non-commercial side – because we know that this side is vital to the brand more than anything else,” she said.
An artistic identity that is not subject to financial restrictions and business conditions? Dolaberidze explained: “Well, we don’t have too many designers here, so we mostly give all of them the opportunity to do a runway show or presentation. We always advise them, we always help them to do their best. It is up to the designer to decide. Nothing is controlled or financed by a higher instance. So if the designer tried, but couldn’t sell, maybe it is better for them to stop." And indeed, having no major financial backup surely makes things harder for designers, but it also keeps the process quite honest – in other words, either you make it or break it.
In this context, NOWFASHION's mission on this discovery trip was to give a voice to talented, and mostly unknown Georgian designers and fashion influencers that deserve to break out of their locally-driven mold. Mariam Gvasalia is one of them. The 20-something designer graduated from the Tbilisi State Academy of Arts and opened her very own boutique-atelier in a small basement space in Tbilisi. When speaking to Mariam, she admits that the lack of diverse and professional fashion education and quality manufacturing in her own country are an issue, saying that it can be a burden. But she also notes that this situation can motivate them to discover and learn their trade on their own. A challenge through which they emerge greater and stronger than other aspiring fashion designers, who are protected by an educational cocoon and are often struggling with answering the “What's next?” question once they finish school.
“Everything is handmade in Georgia. We really care about quality, and we always do our best, but it's very hard, as everything is handmade, and we have neither the manufacturing facilities nor the appropriated fabric suppliers. So you have to be inventive,” explained Mariam, while showing her latest Spring/Summer 2016 collection, as well as her high-end shoes, accessories and archived collection pieces. “When you have to try hard to achieve your goals, it gives you a chance to actually make something that is unique. Your fantasy grows with it,” she said.
Her fellow designer Giorgi Keburia is following the same type of DIY, go-getter spirit. “I have never studied fashion design. I was studying business management first, but then I left it and started to do fashion on my own,” explained Keburia, who made an impression with a sporty, feminine and subculture-flavored womenswear runway show inside the parking lot of a shopping mall outside town. He has been successfully selling his womenswear on regional online shops and in Russian stores for the past 5 years and is currently planning the opening of his first flagship in Tbilisi. “My goal is to grow my own label locally and to do my best. I used to want to work as a designer abroad, but now I think I have to be based here to make it,” he said.
And there is definitely space and audience for young designers in Georgia. Matériel is one of the local best-selling fashion brands that embodies the city's fresh and creative spirit. The ready-to-wear label invites many local designers to work together and provide their very own take on fashion through a capsule collection each season, instead of having one single designer at the helm of the brand. This multidimensional concept might seem risky upon first sight – isn't it hard to maintain the brand's identity from one collection to another if you have “too many cooks in the kitchen”? – but it turns out to be a creative asset more than anything else.
In fact, the three head designers of the brand, namely, Lika Chitaia, Aleksandre Akhalkatsishvili and Tiko Paksashvili, are able to satisfy their customers by providing women's ready-to-wear, which is both edgy yet appealing to a wide range of customers in its diversity. All three designers studied fashion design at the Tbilisi State Academy of Arts, and develop their collections in the small atelier adjacent to the flagship store. “We want to help young designers,” explained Salome Mikashavidze, the brand's PR manager. “The concept of our brand is to give young designers, who don't have sufficient funds to set up their own brand, the chance to make their own collections. Some of our designers already left and have their own brands by now. Our aim is to grow with them, to bring them outside of Georgia and to show them to the world,” she stated, adding that most of the designers are scouted at the BE NEXT International Fashion Design Contest, which promotes up-and-coming new talents on an international level.
Lako Bukia, for her part, did a stint abroad to learn their trade. The womenswear designer studied at many places, including Central Saint Martins, London College of Fashion, and Parson's New York. In fact, Lako's eponymous brand is international at heart, yet Georgian in its bones. “After graduating, I came back to Georgia in order to put all my knowledge into my label here and make it grow. It wasn’t always my intention to come back and it still isn’t,” she said. “I’m a Georgian designer and I have a studio here, but I have been very internationally active, showcasing abroad in Paris, Berlin and Kiev, among other cities,” she continued, mentioning that hiring staff in Georgia, such as pattern makers and sewers, comes with lower costs than in the West. “Being a designer in Georgia is really affordable compared to what you have to spend in international fashion cities, such as in London or New York. This really helps to kick-off your own brand, especially when you don't have any financial backing or investor. There are a few challenges, though, that we have to face locally, in terms of technology, such as digital prints. There aren't any facilities here, so as a designer you are forced to work on this abroad,” she said.
“Challenges? I think they don’t have to stop,” smiles Anano, addressing the need for more international press and buyers to show interest in Eastern European fashion. “Another problem is that Georgian designers think that “they are done” at some level. They are quite successful locally and regionally, and so they think that they can rest on their laurels. But you can never think that you are good enough – you have to research, learn and gain further experience, every minute of each day. Experience is never enough,” she said. One thing is certain: Balenciaga's Demna Gvasalia and Mugler's David Koma are not the only Georgian-born designers that the fashion industry will learn to cherish in future.