2019 December-January Analysis Featured

Anti-anti-fashion: after industry makeover, Georgian fashion redefines itself

The Gvasalia anti-fashion boom is over, but Georgian fashion is still trending thanks to a revolution in the industry. At 2019 MB fashion week Tbilisi, Georgian designers continue to challenge the fashion world – but this time in clothes that are tailored to fit.

Since Georgia’s Demna Gvasalia hit the fashion world with ‘anti-fashion,’ the world’s top buyers have been flocking to fashion events such as Tbilisi’s Mercedes Benz Fashion Week to see what rules Georgian designers will break next.

Missing in the latest edition of the event in October 2019, however, were the red oversized hoodies and frumpy floral frocks that put Georgian fashion on the map. At the show’s various glitzy locations, from the ultra-lux wealth management branch of Bank of Georgia to a live opera performance at the Kakhidze Music Center, the tone of MB S/S 2020 was edge in style.

Georgian anti-fashion lasted only a moment, but the numbers show Georgian fashion is still trending.

After 10 successful fashion weeks, MB fashion week Tbilisi has opened the Georgian fashion industry to international buyers, allowing designers to be designers in their own right.

The business of anti-fashion: non-competitive fashion at a premium price

During Soviet times, Georgian factories mass-produced clothes for the Soviet Union. Though there was a concerted effort to revive fashion as an ideological vehicle for Soviet values, the planned economy never mastered the fleeting nature of fashion. Mass-produced, utilitarian designs were a source of discontent for many people: “We all used to wear the same things,” says Tamar Davitnidze, creator of Georgian brand Individi. “Only the colors were changing.”

Georgia’s clothing manufacturers collapsed along with the Soviet Union, leaving tons of mass-produced, bad clothes in their wake. With the arrival of market capitalism, the post-Soviet world became fertile ground for a rebellion in high fashion. Georgian designer Demna Gvasalia became the first to spin the Soviet style of non-competition into a prestigious Parisian label with premium pricing.

In 2015, however, the anti-fashion hype looked unsustainable. Georgia’s designer diaspora had earned the country something of a reputation, but with no fashion school, virtually no textiles, and no easy access to the international market, much of Georgia’s creative capital was at risk of draining away.

“Fashion wasn’t like a business then,” says Georgian designer Lako Bukia, who herself went abroad for a fashion degree. “There was no Mercedes-Benz, no seasonal collections – only a few designers doing some fashion shows. Everyone was basically doing whatever they wanted.”

Indeed, fashion in Georgia was less a business than it was an art form: “Designers were happy if they could sell their designs to their friends,” says Head of Creative Industry Development at Enterprise Georgia Tatia Bidzinashvili. “Nobody was thinking about buyers.”

This first started to change back in 2009 when Sofia Tchkonia launched BeNext, an annual design competition aimed at tapping into Georgia’s creative capital. Apart from the annual competition, BeNext offers training programs to help emerging designers improve their communications and entrepreneurial skills.

“At first designers didn’t want to attend these trainings,” says Bidzinashvili, who laughs at being one of just a few people to attend the first session. “Then designers realized there was really good demand from the international market. They realized this was business, not just fun, and they started learning English and developing their business skills.”

Still, even with the right entrepreneurial skills, accessing the international market from Georgia was difficult. For recent art school grads, the start-up capital needed for PR and other related expenses simply wasn’t available. Meanwhile, surviving off the domestic market alone, Georgian designers and fashion experts concur, to this day remains nearly impossible.

Watching tons of untapped creative capital walk in and out of the design competitions, Tchkonia decided to launch MB fashion week in Tbilisi herself in 2015. She realized what so many others hadn’t: for Georgian fashion to survive, there needed to be a ‘Georgian’ fashion – with Tbilisi as its capital.

A fashion week in Georgia, Tchkonia realized, would not only bring international exposure to designers, but would export a cultural identity to the world. “I think international exposure for Georgian designers is good for the whole country,” says Tchkonia in an interview with the Calvert Journal. “It helps people to discover Georgia from a different angle, from its creative side.”

Fashion, in other words, could be a national affair. “At some point we all realized the creativity of Georgian designers and the attention this could bring to the entire country,” says Bidzinashvili. “Enterprise Georgia decided to support the fashion industry to promote Georgian designers on the international market and increase interest in tourism.”

Since 2016, Enterprise Georgia has been helping Georgian designers access the international market through grants to participate in international trade fairs in important fashion hubs such as Tokyo, London, Paris, and Milan. Designers and collectives who have participated include the most successful names in Georgian fashion, such as The Situationist, Giorgi Keburia, Materiel and Avtandil.

In collaboration with MB fashion week, Enterprise Georgia covers the travel costs of 20 buyers each year. The National Tourism Agency also covers the travel expenses of journalists to attend the event and promote Georgia as a fashion hub. The investments have paid off. “MB fashion week is 99% responsible for our success in the fashion industry,” says Bidzinashvili, noting that market stability has been more important for international buyers than momentary hype.

Because Georgia’s fashion industry and designers were new on the market, sales in 2015 and 2016 fashion weeks were nearly negligible, says Bidzinashvili. In 2017, Georgian designers sold 150,000 GEL at fashion weeks, sales at 2018 MB fashion weeks doubled to 300,000 GEL. Data has not yet been collected for 2019, but Bidzinashvili expects that sales will exceed previous years.

Since 2015, Georgian designers have exported more than 3 million euros worth of materials.

The biggest commercial success story in the Georgian fashion industry is undoubtedly Materiel, former Soviet clothing factory spun into luxury clothing brand. In 2018, their exports grew to 80 percent; in 2019- to 600. Today, they are Georgia’s largest clothing company.

“Before MB fashion week had started, no one would imagine that any Georgian brand would be sold in such online retailers as we have today,” says Materiel commercial director Rusa Janashia, who notes that Materiel’s client portfolio includes big names such as Net-a-Porter, Browns, and Essence.

Patching up the holes in Georgia’s fashion industry

Georgia has strengthened its identity as a fashion hub abroad, but designers and fashion experts agree there remain a number of practical issues .

Despite the Georgia-EU free trade agreement, exporting clothing to Europe is extremely costly from Georgia-the cost of transportation plus clearance of the goods totalling around thirty percent of the order cost. “European clients often assume that Georgia will have easy export terms and low transportation costs,” says Janashia. “Then they find out that the 5k they set aside for the shipping is actually 10k-it’s a deal breaker.”

Georgian designers are hit by export clearance fees not just once, but twice.

Designer Lako Bukia produces everything in Georgia, but like Davitze and all other Georgian designers, is forced to source fabrics from outside the country. “Textiles and technology are not very developed here, so what you can do inside the country is limited. For nice buttons and fabrics – everything, you have to go to Turkey.”

Georgian designers committed to producing in Georgia agree that it would be more beneficial to source fabric from inside the country. “At Materiel we export 100,000 euros worth of materials per season,” says Janashia. “If we could supply textiles from Georgia this would not only be great for us, because it would cut costs tremendously, but it would also be great for that company, because we would be a consistent client for them.”

At the same time, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Georgia’s seamstressing industry has not returned to Soviet era capacity. Davitze is dedicated to the quality of each of her individual designs, but jokes she couldn’t mass-produce them even if she wanted to. “In Georgia we cannot be Zara,” she says. “The manufacturing companies don’t have the capacity to make tons and tons of clothes.”

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, most of Georgia’s seamstressing workforce went underground to the atelier, says Janashia, leaving Georgia’s emerging fashion industry with serious labour demands: “We basically have to go door to door and tell tailors and seamstresses, ‘Come work with us, it’ll be great!’-that’s how hard it is.”

Not helping matters is the overly academic/somewhat under practical fashion program at Tbilisi Academy of Arts, the only school to offer a fashion degree in Georgia.

Though the school churns out a lot of great creatives, graduates often lack practical skills in business and manufacturing. To fill some of these gaps, Materiel has developed a close partnership with the school. Apart from their internship program, Materiel gives lectures at the university and gives educational tours of the factory. Materiel also scouts for fresh talent at the Tbilisi Academy of Arts as part of its commitment to give platform to Georgian designers. “That’s been our goal from day one, to be a collective,” says Janashia. “In Georgia you don’t have a lot of financial support needed to start your own brand. What we do is bring young Georgian talent together to make collections that are cool and fresh.”

Though designers must sacrifice some of their individuality for the sake of cohesion, the benefits of walking into a well-known brand with an established clientele are enormous. “When you come here as a designer,” says Janashia, “you just design-everything else, whether it’s PR or production or finances, that’s all taken care of.”

Working under a label hasn’t stopped Materiel’s young designers from making names for themselves. Of the collective’s past and present designers, many have gone on to develop their own successful labels-these include George Keburia, Lado Bokuchava, and Alexander Akhaltsishvili.

The designs of Materiel’s newest designer, social-activist and Tbilisi Academy of Arts graduate Aka Prodiashvili, have already made their way onto Lady Gaga.

Anti-anti-fashion: Georgian designers go their own way

Materiel is just one of many examples of how creatives and experts in the Georgian industry have begun to change its landscape. As for some of the remaining gaps, Bidzinashvili is optimistic: “The market will provide as the industry expands-that’s just the nature of supply and demand.”

International interest in Georgian designers is continuing to grow, and with it the independence of Georgian designers. Less reliant on hype than in previous years, Georgian designers are lifting themselves out from under the blanket-terms of the ‘post-Soviet aesthetic’ and ‘Georgian anti-fashion’ to make their own names for themselves.

During the post-Soviet boom, Lako Bukia walked her digital prints – photographs of her parents’ school days – down the hallway of an abandoned Soviet schoolhouse.

This year’s collection, however, is less about remembrance than it is about emancipation from the past. “Women in Georgia have had to fight to be free,” says Bukia. “For this year’s collection, I just wanted them to feel as light as they can as women.”

Materiel, meanwhile, says that elegance has always been the DNA of the brand. “In Paris, buyers would say, “Wow, in the world of streetwear, you guys make evening dresses,'” says Janashia, noting that the consistency of the brand has paid off. “Buyers see we are true to our aesthetic and not just jumping on a trend.”

All this is not to say the edginess of Georgian street fashion is lost. From the gender-bending fashion of Aka Prodiashvili, to the aggressive couture of David’s Road, rebellion was still very much present at this season’s fashion week, albeit in a more elegant form. Georgia’s access to the international fashion market has officially opened, and Georgian designers are moving forward with grace.