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Untamed Fashion of the Eastern Bloc

Cult fashion designer Bruno Birmanis interviewed by Gyula Muskovics

Bruno Birmanis at the Untamed Fashion Assembly, 1992
Courtesy Bruno Birmanis

Eccentric, mischievous, over-the-top, and tongue-in-cheek: fashion creatives from the Eastern Bloc of the 80s and 90s were living their unbridled dream. Hungarian curator and artist Gyula Muskovics guides us through these challenging and inspiring times in his interview with the cult Latvian avant-garde fashion designer Bruno Birmanis.

In this interview I talk with Bruno Birmanis, Latvian fashion designer and curator of the Untamed Fashion Assembly. The Assembly, which took place in Riga from 1990 until 1999, was the first major event in Eastern Europe dedicated to avant-garde fashion. From a grassroots initiative, brought to life by a group of friends shortly after Latvia declared independence from the Soviet Union, it grew at an incredible pace. 

By the mid 1990s it had more than 150 participants showcasing outrageous collections. Designers, architects, and performance artists interested in costume, the body, and its variability came to the Assembly from various places in the world. Artists from the ex-Soviet Bloc could easily make alliances with their colleagues arriving at the event from the West. Among the participants were—to mention just a few names—Katya FilippovaKatya FilippovaFashion designer. She began in the 80s with provocative clothing collections using military paraphernalia, earflaps, felt boots, and red stars. and Andrey BartenevAndrey BartenevAcclaimed multidisciplinary artist and experimentalist known for his provocative performances, installation, theater costume design, and curatorial projects. from Russia, British artist and inventor of the Alternative Miss World beauty contest Andrew Logan, and Paco Rabanne from France.

Avant-garde fashion is characterized by excessive forms, unusual fabrics, costume-like creations, unconventional models, theatricality, and strong visual effects. This primarily postmodern approach in fashion appeared in the late seventies in the West. From the late eighties on, when the youth of the Eastern Bloc was also being socialized through the video clips of MTV, avant-garde fashion, as a unique medley of various branches of art, incorporated everything that had relevance and worked well as a catalyst for unleashing repressed desires and fantasies, too. 

Ephemerality, fragility, experimentation, and resourcefulness, however, had slightly different meanings in these two contexts. The main idea behind avant-garde fashion performances in consumer societies was, in simple terms, the refusal of mass production and the beauty industry. Meanwhile, in the former Eastern Bloc, where fashion and artistic production was determined by the socialist shortage economy, the scarcity of proper materials sometimes meant a bigger challenge than staying original and avoiding becoming a commodity. As an actual meeting point between these parallel universes I find the Assembly of special significance at the dawn of the years of transition.

In the following interview, I ask Birmanis about the beginnings of the Assembly, the underground cultural networks of the eighties and the nineties, as well as East-West divide now and then. But we also touch on questions such as why would the mafia or Raisa Gorbacheva support alternative fashion. The interview is accompanied by a selection of rarely seen archival photographs documenting experimental fashion performances.

Untamed Fashion Assembly, 1992
Courtesy Bruno Birmanis

GYULA MUSKOVICS: I came across the Untamed Fashion Assembly in connection with my PhD research on Hungarian fashion designer Tamás Király (1952–2013). I’ve been researching and curating exhibitions from Király’s work for many years. He was active from the end of the 1970s in Budapest until the early 2010s. Although his oeuvre is very unique in Central Eastern Europe, I was wondering if there is an international context that his work would belong to—apart from a few very well known Western designers whom he was often compared to. Then I discovered Misha Buster’s book Alternative Fashion Before Glossies 1985-1995Alternative Fashion Before Glossies 1985-1995The book is a catalogue of the eponymous exhibition at Garage Museum curated by Irina Meglinskaya and Mikhail Buster where I came to know a whole “movement” in the Soviet Union that promoted a similar experimental attitude one can detect in Király’s unruly sculptural dresses. This is where I first read about the Assembly, which I think was a very special event due to the fact that it brought together artists not only from the former Soviet Bloc, but also from Western countries. So, I would like to talk with you about what prompted you to organize the Assembly, how you became a fashion designer, and what avant-garde fashion means to you. As a start, could you talk a bit about the fashion scene in Riga back then?

BRUNO BIRMANIS:The fashion scene in Riga was similar to all the fashion scenes in the Soviet Union. In the early eighties the regime was still strong and designers who worked in the industry had little space for creativity. A few underground events were happening, like in every big city, but the big waves that started shaking the system arrived only in the second half of the decade. I think there are three main ways to tame people’s minds. The first is religion, the second is education, and the third and the most powerful one is money. At the end of the eighties all these three stopped working and this is how it became possible to organize a public event like the Untamed Fashion Assembly. I don’t like the term avant-garde because it sounds like the frontline or the harbinger of a trend. If we use a much better word like alternative, we arrive at the question “Alternative for what?” I think the Assembly provided an alternative not only for fashion, but for the whole Soviet ideology that was about to crash during that time.

Ball of Postbanalism, 1989
Courtesy Bruno Birmanis

GYM:Could you tell a bit about how your career as a fashion designer started?

BB:I graduated as a jewellery designer at the school of applied arts in Riga, so I don’t have a degree in fashion. But my first wife worked as a fashion designer, in a rather classical way, and this prompted me to do something new. I was surrounded by a lot of interesting people back then, and so many things were going on around perestroika, the artistic life in Riga was super dynamic. Electronic media, music, nightlife, the alternative cinema festival . . . it was a melting pot. So, I started collaborating with a fashion designer called Ugis Rukitis, we worked very close to each other and we ended up creating a huge performance entitled The Ball of Postbanalism. It was a real theater piece, 1 hour and 20 minutes long, featuring more than 150 costumes. I think it was one of the first alternative fashion performances in the USSR. We worked on it from 1987 until 1989, and then we toured to many places. This is how my way as a fashion designer started.

GYM:Where did your tour begin?

BB:Our tour began in Riga and then we travelled around the Baltic countries. Soon we got invited to the big Kremlin Concert Hall in Moscow by Raisa Gorbacheva. I think it was in 1988, at the launching event of the first issue of Zhurnal mod (Fashion Journal). A lot of official fashion houses were present, but our show was the only alternative one. It was a strange time. We felt like heroes and celebrated the victory of our point of view. A few months later Artemy TroitskyArtemy TroitskyRussian journalist, music critic, concert promoter, radio host, and academic who lectured on music journalism at Moscow State University. In 1988 The New York Times described him as “the leading Soviet rock critic.” Troitsky is the author of Back in the USSR: The True Story of Rock in Russia (London and Boston: Faber & Faber, 1988), Tusovka: Who's Who in the New Soviet Rock Culture (London: Omnibus, 1990), and Subkultura: Stories of Youth and Resistance in Russia, 1815-2017 (New Social, 2017). invited me to Rome and Venice, to the presentation of his book Back in the USSR. As part of the book launch they organized a Soviet avant-garde festival with the participation of many alternative artists, including for instance Pyotr MamonovPyotr MamonovRussian rock musician, songwriter, and actor, frontman of the Moscow band Zvuki Mu. and Katya Filippova.

GYM:People say that everyone got to know the Russian scene through Troitsky.

BB:This is true, I also met everyone through Troitsky and his wife Svetlana Kunitsyna who back then worked in the Fashion HouseFashion HouseThe All-Union House of Fashion Design (Общесоюзный дом моделей одежды) was founded in 1944. It was a focal point of Soviet fashion industry. on Kuznetsky Most. We are very good friends until today. You know, Troitsky is a journalist, he used to write a lot about alternative music and underground culture in the USSR. He is an incredibly deep person, and he was good friends with people like Viktor TsoiViktor TsoiSoviet rock musician, co-founder of the band Kino. , Paul McCartney, David Bowie, and many others. He is a rocket engine, and indeed, all the foreign people got to know the Moscow and Leningrad artists through him. When I started the Untamed Fashion Assembly in 1990, Troitsky and Svetlana helped me find some crazy artists.

GYM:How did you meet Troitsky and Svetlana?

BB:I met them first at the Tallinn Fashion Days, maybe in 1988. It was the biggest official fashion show in the USSR, organized for Western journalists. I took part twice and got the award both times. This event was the first push towards the Assembly. I didn’t understand why there were only two or three creative ideas out of more than 200 collections, so I decided to bring to life an event dedicated to experimentation and creativity. Thirty years ago you needed only a wish and some connections. I prepared the first Assembly in half a year with a team of two to three people. It was risky, but when you are a child you just do it.

Western people didn’t understand why we were doing this

GYM:It shortly became a grandiose event, attracting many international guests. 

BB:At the first Assembly in 1990 we had twenty four designers. Most of them were from former Soviet countries, but also a few from places like India, Germany, and the UK. It took place on May 24th, twenty days after Latvia declared its independence from the USSR. By 1994 the Assembly became a huge international event, with twenty one shows and the participation of 150 designers, not only from Eastern countries but from Italy, the Netherlands, France, and many other places. It grew so fast! And it comes as no surprise that it called the attention of Western media, too. BBC made a report on the first one and a one hour long documentary about the second one. Another documentary was made by MTV, and Sky News, CNN, and the French press also came. The Assembly had an extremely good media coverage from its outset. We were at the right place at the right time.

GYM:I find the idea of the Assembly being a meeting point for Eastern and Western fashion designers quite interesting. Where did this idea come from and how did you get in contact with the international fashion scene?

BB:It came naturally. In the nineties traveling became easier, and the direction of our attention also shifted from East to West. In 1992 I moved to London, and then to Paris where I got to know a lot of new people. The Assembly was very unique for them because it was lacking a commercial objective. We never talked about money. Of course, we covered travel and accommodation for our guests, but no one had a salary. Western people didn’t understand why we were doing this, yet I got support from big stars too, like Paco Rabanne. I met him after my show in Paris in 1993. I told him about the Assembly and he came. It went easily with other stars as well. 

Bruno Birmanis (left) and Burnel Penhaul (right) at the Untamed Fashion Assembly, 1992
Courtesy Bruno Birmanis

GYM:Is it true that Alexander McQueen also took part in the Assembly?

BB:In 1992 we had a student group from the Royal College of Arts and Central Saint Martins presenting their stuff and McQueen’s name was also on the list of the participants. Later we carefully went through the archive materials, and I am 99.9% sure that he was indeed here. We can’t ask him anymore, unfortunately.

GYM:Why was your anti-commercial approach so appealing for Western designers?

BB: We were poor, but free, without the pressure of the market. Not like in Western Europe where the avant-garde trends in fashion faded away by the early nineties. We were in a vacuum between the old system that didn’t function anymore and the new one that wasn’t established yet. We were playing with forms and emotions, we just went with the flow, instead of being against something. It is important for me that alternative fashion is never against something; it is about trying to stay on the edge; about challenging traditional ways of thinking, and provoking changes and new ideas. Our openness was encouraging and it stimulated the imagination of Western artists, too. People simply wanted to become part of it. Our only problem was money.

GYM:Where did money come from?

BB:You know, Latvia is a very strange country where artists and designers are poor until the present, because of the mentality. I have never worked from state funds. The Assembly had private sponsors; the money came from friends, companies, and mafiosi.

The money came from friends, companies, and mafiosi

GYM:Why would mafiosos support alternative fashion?

BB:Fashion can be really attractive, and the Assembly had an invigorating effect on nightlife in Riga. We organized parties, it was the time of techno music and the beginning of club culture. You can imagine . . . but sometimes these people don't need a reason to support you, they just want to do something nice.

GYM:The Assembly went on for a whole decade. Why did it end in 1999?

BB:While we were getting bigger and bigger the market economy gradually replaced the old system. It became difficult after a while to find the right sponsors. People who had money started counting and telling you who to invite and what to do in return. I didn’t like this. In 1994 our main sponsor, that was actually a bank, went bankrupt. It was painful but we could survive. In 1999 the same thing happened, but this time it would have been too heavy for me to continue.

Paco Rabanne (left) and Andrey Barteniev and Sandra Straukaite (right) at the Untamed Fashion Assembly, 1994
Courtesy Bruno Birmanis

GYM:Many alternative designers who were popular during those years have also stopped doing fashion ever since.

BB:To be a fashion designer you need material resources, so you need sponsors too. But when you ask for financial support the most difficult thing is always to explain ideas that are completely new and unseen. People don’t get it, they don’t believe you because they don’t have previous experience with what you are talking about. This is why so many things have to come to an end. Beyond that, since the nineties we have witnessed a series of economic collapses destroying the artistic life in Eastern Europe. But there are definitely some success stories. For a few artists the Assembly meant a big European starting point.

Like architecture, fashion is an integral part of the environment

GYM:Take, for example, Andrey Bartenev who won the Grand Prix of the Assembly in 1992 with the incredible papier-mâché costumes of Botanical Ballet. Some of his works are now part of important museum collections. When I met Bartenev in Moscow he talked a lot about the significance of the context an artist works within. Although his work is somewhere in between sculpting and fashion, he consciously maintains a closer bond to the visual arts. Which context does the Assembly belong to according to you, or, otherwise formulated, where would you try to find support for a similar event today?

Andrey Bartenev's Botanical Ballet at the Untamed Fashion Assembly, 1992
Courtesy Bruno Birmanis

BB:Like architecture, fashion is an integral part of the environment. If all the streets were empty it would feel like after a war; if everybody was naked the city would remind you of a madhouse; or if all the people wore military uniforms it would resemble the Soviet Union. Today, however, H&M and other fast fashion brands destroy these meanings and what fashion really is. Although they try to make an image of a creative company on social media, they produce their more than 100 collections per year only for the sake of business. They don’t care about the future or the cultural role of fashion. So, I’m completely sure that I wouldn’t start searching for support in the fashion scene today. Instead, I would try to find private sponsors like in the nineties. You know, the Assembly was special thirty years ago and smart people, who don’t like the system in general, trust you with a background like this.

GYM:Last year, when I was researching in Tbilisi I became aware of a similar event called the Avant-garde Fashion Assembly, held three times between 1995 and 1999 in the Georgian capital. Its initiator Gela Kuprashvili said he had been inspired by the Assembly in Riga. He studied fashion design at the academy in Vilnius, this is how he knew it.

BB:This sounds interesting. I must have met Kuprashvili if he was in Vilnius, but I’ve never heard about his event. Probably because the mid nineties, as I said earlier, was a critical period in the history of the Assembly and I hardly had time to travel.

GYM:Was there any other event similar to the Assembly?

BB:There was a big event called Smirnoff Awards happening all around Europe where Smirnoff vodka was on the market. I wouldn’t call it alternative fashion, but they supported underground and creative ideas. I met the organizers once and they wanted to buy the Assembly. I didn’t sell it. Maybe I was young and stupid . . . When the Assembly ended, my friends continued this activity in Lithuania. Sandra Straukaitė, who is also a fashion designer, started to organize an event in Vilnius called Mados infekcija (Fashion Infection). It is a festival, a bit more oriented towards design, happening yearly until now.

Sandra Straukaite's show at the Untamed Fashion Assembly, 1992
Courtesy Bruno Birmanis

GYM:What are the prospects for alternative fashion today?

BB:As I said, fashion has changed a lot since the nineties. Alternative fashion is inherently tied to underground culture, but today alternative ideas and subcultural modes of expression get easily appropriated by the mainstream where everything can become a trend. Possibilities are everywhere, and if you have power and money you can make your ideas come true. You can become a superstar if you spend half of your budget on marketing. Success is too closely related to cash, and I think this is not right. Only a few untamed and extremely creative people have the ability to avoid becoming commercial.

GYM:What do you think about post-Soviet fashion? The way a new generation of artists and designers (who grew up in the 1990s) make use of (post-)Soviet nostalgia on the global market is quite interesting. On the one hand they capitalize on a past they have never really gone through, on the other, they are able to shift global perspectives.

BB:They sell what they know and I think it is smart! The Soviet empire had a strong image for the West and these artists build on that. By the way, if you look at the work of, for example, Vivienne Westwood, she has also built a whole brand on traditional British symbols. What makes designers like Gosha Rubchinskiy unique is that they show something the Western world barely has an experience with. It is like you come back from the Moon and tell the people what it looked like. The Moon is very far, so of course your story sounds interesting. But it is also important to realize that the roots of our imagination in Eastern Europe are different. Soviet style is only one of the many in the West, but for us, whose parents and grandparents lived in that system, it is the main direction.

I spent four hours in the KGB after my first show. In fact, we should not forget it

GYM:Yet this is a recent trend, and it was preceded by decades of cultural amnesia. What prompted this generation, according to you, to shift back the focus from the global to the local context? 

BB:The cause is very simple. It’s easier for them this way. Let’s take another example. In Soviet times people used to live in communal apartments (kommunalki). After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the private sphere became very important and everyone wanted to have their own flat. Today young people live in shared apartments again. Someone like me, for whom individuality is essential, hardly understands how four or five people can live in the same flat. But the cause is again simple. It’s cheaper, so it’s easier for them.

GYM:I have two concerns with this. First, I think the way Eastern Europe is represented in today’s fashion is not necessarily authentic. Second, the concept behind “post-Soviet youth” or “New East,” is based on a certain kind of “rootlessness” experienced by current generations. I think, just because we don’t have enough knowledge about the past, we shouldn’t believe that our endeavours have no precedents. Alternative fashion addressed similar questions, already thirty years ago, regarding cultural identity. One photo comes to my mind from the Assembly where Andrew Logan’s shirt is adorned with a glittering star, a hammer, and a sickle. It demonstrates clearly the outdatedness and the emptiness of these symbols as well as a demand for a kind of “reunion.” What do you think, does the gap still exist between East and West, three decades later?

Left: Alvis Hermanis and Andrew Logan, 1990
Right: Sandra Straukaite and Andrew Logan at the Untamed Fashion Assembly, 1990
Courtesy Bruno Birmanis

BB:I think there is still a big difference. Imagine two wanderers, one has thousands of kilometers behind, the other just a few, but wants to walk the same way, in the same style—it is impossible. In Eastern Europe we have a similar complex because of not having an uninterrupted, continuous, long way behind us. The totalitarian systems of the 20th century have destroyed our cultures and have erased certain parts of our histories. If we look back we see our past in fragments. It’s not easy to forget forty years of communism. I lived in this system, too, and I know how hard it was to realize something—I spent four hours in the KGB after my first show. In fact, we should not forget it.

GYM:I think the Assembly allows us to look at the years of transition from that reality to the current one through a very unique filter. This is why I find it important to talk about your initiative. However, there seems to be relatively little discussion about this period.

BB:The nineties is the period that everyone remembers, but nobody has precise memories about. The digital era started and memories, just like photo negatives, got lost easily in the vacuum between old and new technologies. The information gap is very deep, which I think holds a lot of possibilities as well. 

GYM:I have also noticed that when it comes to alternative fashion these “possibilities” are more often perceived by art galleries or museums. I mean that there are more and more big exhibitions revolving around the subversive potential of avant-garde fashion creations, while fashion magazines rarely feature such content. Why is alternative fashion canonized in art history and not in fashion?

BB:Maybe we should ask whether alternative fashion is fashion or art. But to this question I would answer that it is somewhere in between or both. It is a challenge. Jean Cocteau said that the difference between art and fashion is that “art produces ugly things which frequently become more beautiful with time. Fashion, on the other hand, produces beautiful things which always become ugly with time.” In the light of this quote, which I really like, I think alternative fashion is closer to art. The meanings, the images, and the narratives merged within such fashion objects carry a long-lasting message, while regular fashion dies half a year after birth.

Contributors
Bruno Birmanis
Fashion designer based in Riga, Latvia. “I grew up in a family of theater actors, TV journalists and architects, and all of these areas are reflected in my perception of the world. For me, fashion creation is a tool for narrative, communication and mood creation, so I can be fully identified as a multidisciplinary artist. I am a creator focusing on fashion and art, culture and design. I curate ideas somewhere between untamed mind and sophistication, curious brain games and simplicity.”
Gyula Muskovics
Curator and artist based in Budapest, Hungary. As a Ph.D. student at the Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design in Budapest, he researches avant-garde fashion in Eastern Europe with an emphasis on the work of Hungarian fashion designer Tamás Király.