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Georgian Fashion Designers on Lockdown, Virtuality, and Heritage

Left: Anka wearing a Chubika earring and a blazer by Ingorokva. Right: Anka in a Tatuna top.
Photos by Irakli Khargelia for EastEast. Tbilisi, Georgia, December 2020

Georgian fashion brands continue to make their way onto the international market while their bold and sophisticated products keep winning them new fans. Anka Tsitsishvili, Creative Director of IERI concept store, spoke with leading Tbilisi designers about the effect of the pandemic on their work, as well as the projects that were born thanks to and despite these new conditions. In a special photoshoot for EastEast, Anka tried on her favorite outfits from her friends’ collections.

Two years ago, Anka Tsitsishvili, a celebrated buyer and co-founder of INDEXflat boutique in Moscow, moved to Georgia and, together with Sofia Guguberidze, a graduate of the International University of Monaco, opened the IERI concept store. It sells items made by Georgian designers—in total, more than thirty brands, including the latest collections of David Koma and Materiel, atelier wardrobe pieces by Samoseli Pirveli—traditional outfits made according to the models found in old photographs and redesigned to meet modern trends, and Sofio Gongli’s jewelry created in the ancient cloisonné enameling technique. Anka herself describes IERI as a guide through the heritage of Georgia, because its concept is based on the demonstration of the country’s history and culture coupled with world fashion and art trends. For the first year and a half of its existence, the concept store has hosted exhibitions of famous Georgian artists and public talks with leaders from the local fashion industry. It even organized a children’s party dedicated to the legend of the Argonauts who arrived in Colchis to carry away the Golden Fleece. In March, the online store was launched, offering the opportunity to shop online and get purchases delivered all over the world, as well as to enjoy articles about Georgia and fashion (you can even download a coloring page inspired by the patterns of old carpets). In a special for EastEast, Anka invited four leading designers to take part in a roundtable and talk about the actual state of the local fashion industry, its problems and perspectives. 

The participants of the discussion that took place on December 16, 2020, include Anka Tsitsishvili, Creative Director and Chief Buyer of IERI Store; Alieta (Tatuna) Nikolaishvili, Founder and Creative Director of Tatuna; Tamuna Ingorokva, Founder and Creative Director of Ingorokva; Irakli Rusadze, Founder and Creative Director of Situationist, and George Keburia, Creative Director of Keburia.  

Anka wearing a ring by Sofio Gongli and a blouse by George Keburia.
Photos by Irakli Khargelia for EastEast. Tbilisi, Georgia, December 2020

Anka Tsitsishvili: Let’s start with the usual questions. How are you? How did you cope with the first lockdown and how are you dealing with the second one? 

Tamuna Ingorokva: My whole life has changed since then. I took up the things I had been putting off due to a lack of time. Now I am trying to approach everything with optimism and find time for new pleasures and myself. Earlier, I was busy following duties: for the eighteen years of my brand’s existence I had been rushing hard trying to keep up with the speed set, when now suddenly everything has calmed down. In our studio, we started experimenting with what we had long been talking about, but never had time for. To begin with, I no longer need to jump on a plane four times a month! We were able to focus on new processes, and it was as if we got our second wind. 

Irakli Rusadze: We were expecting the second wave, and I can’t say it was as shocking as the first lockdown. We faced it better prepared. I agree with Tamuna—now we have more time for the implementation of ideas that were on the back burner before.

George Keburia: I see the second lockdown as a silly nuisance that prevents me and my team from living and working. We follow all the rules and do our best to be careful, but it doesn’t have any positive impact on our work. The shops are closed, it is difficult for us to buy fittings, it is impossible to buy fast even threads or zippers, we have to wait for deliveries, order from abroad. All of these hinder greatly. 

Tsitsishvili: Have you worked with small producers in Georgia? 

Keburia: Yes, and quite a lot. And now we have to stop working with small local partners and begin to cooperate with either European companies or large manufacturers. Orders do not arrive in time. Delivery can be up to three weeks late. The cost of production is also increasing.

Alieta Nikolaishvili: Fortunately, I am not facing any delays yet: everything we need for production is available and is delivered within a week from the moment of the order. So, we keep on working. The pace has slowed down: at the studio we do shifts so that there are no more than three people there at a time. They say that from January 2nd, the lockdown will get even stricter, and we are trying to create a reserve for the future to prevent possible supply troubles. Now I am negotiating with Net-A-Porter, and working with them is not easy. There is no way we could allow ourselves to miss the deadlines. 

Tsitsishvili: Not long ago, Sofia Tchkonia, a founder of Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Tbilisi, announced the launch of a new project, the Georgian Fashion Foundation. Have you seen any fruits of their labor yet? 

Rusadze: I have expectations about this project. It seems to me that now it is especially important for all of us to feel support and to know that our work goes far beyond the borders of Georgia. 

Ingorokva: I saw their Instagram, and I really like the manifesto, but so far I have not felt much influence on my own work. I am putting it straight. I think time will show everything. The project is still too new to draw any conclusions.

Keburia: It was about grants and support provided to designers, but so far, as Tamuna has rightly put it, the project is just beginning to grow, and it’s too early to talk about the results. 

Nikolaishvili: Sofia has told me about the financial support to designers, additional investments into brands, and sponsors, but in the current situation one can hardly dream of it. Everyone is in tough conditions and we should not expect miracles. 

Anka sporting a skirt, blazer, and shoes by Ingorokva.
Photos by Irakli Khargelia for EastEast. Tbilisi, Georgia, December 2020

Tsitsishvili: The latest fashion week was held online on a special platform. Are you happy about it? Were you planning to do online screenings regardless of the pandemic or did you have to urgently adapt to the new realities? And what positive aspects do you see in such digital shows? 

Nikolaishvili: I am for everything physical and real! It is important for me to present a collection that can be touched and seen with one’s own eyes. I don’t feel like developing an online format. It’s ineffective for my brand. After all, I also participated in a Paris online showroom and not a single new buyer ordered my collection. Everyone was excited to ask questions, but only those who had already known and seen us live requested real items. 

Keburia: There was no usual hype and publications were not so numerous. Well, it’s kind of hard for me to find any positive sides. 

Ingorokva: By the way, I would like to give George a compliment! I really loved your videos! It was so beautiful! I think I have watched your video at least ten times, it has such a good vibe! 

I attended Irakli’s exhibition twice, it was really great. If Georgia alone found itself in such a situation, it would be a tragedy, but the fact that this is a global problem reassures me a little, if you know what I mean. And all the designers seem to have coped well with these challenges. I have experienced many feelings looking at my colleagues’ work. I think everyone was really creative about the online show.

Tsitsishvili: Irakli, tell us about your exhibition, please. There were a few days when one could come to the National Gallery of Georgia and see items from your spring-summer collection at the unusual exposition Unseen Heritage. Were you actually planning this exhibition or was it an emergency measure, too? 

Rusadze: Yes, it was designed to match new realities and I am very upset that no more than fifty people a day could attend it. Not everyone was able to do it, but still, it is better than nothing. And for me even such a step is about growth and challenges. I try to see some positive sides in all the difficulties, like Tamuna. 

Keburia: I was immensely happy that Irakli has made a real exhibition! It gave us so much hope and joy! Really! 

Tsitsishvili: But still, many brands are now going online, into the virtual world. They create 3D clothes, present collections on Instagram, shoot video content. Do you see such strategies as important for your brands?  

Ingorokva: I’m afraid to make predictions. I am sure that when the pandemic begins to subside, it will become clear what people want and in which direction we need to grow. We will either go online and buy clothes for our avatars, or long for something real, genuine, not fake. As for me, I don’t like the digital. It is important for me to exchange energy with people, to feel objects and textures. I am not even fond of texting, it’s some kind of communication substitution. I love watching fashion shows on a runway. I am for anything that is able to impress and affect all the senses. Of course, the digitization of the future is inevitable, but to move into the virtual world, we ourselves must become cyborgs. As long as we are made of flesh and blood, we will enjoy touching, hugging, and live communication. It may sound old-fashioned, but this is what I strongly believe in. 

Nikolaishvili: I am sure that even without the pandemic, the digital would be developing rapidly—in our industry as well. But I would like more shows and live communication. 

Keburia: I am not thrilled with all these online stories. But in the future, I think everyone will make their own choice about either going online and showing collections using modern technology or sticking to the physical format. Each will decide for him or herself in accordance with their priorities. And certainly more attention will be paid to digital development. But all this is alien to me. 

Rusadze: I agree with George. It is up to designers to decide which strategy to choose. There is no wrong way, it’s just about the brand DNA, about its concept. It is important for us to bring art and fashion together, we need to stay in real space and try to impact all the viewer’s senses. Even if we talk about fifty people present at the show. 

Anka in a turtleneck and trousers by Tatuna.
Photos by Irakli Khargelia for EastEast. Tbilisi, Georgia, December 2020

Tsitsishvili: Irakli’s exhibition was called Unseen Heritage, and Tamuna has recently collaborated with The Colors of Caucasus, creating a collection of eco-friendly fabrics hand-dyed by means of traditional techniques. How relevant is sustainable development to your brands? Is returning to the roots important for you? 

Ingorokva: The project you have mentioned is really exciting. It deals with looking for natural dyes that won’t harm the planet. And for us, the joint collection of clothes made from fabrics dyed in this way was both an experiment and a challenge. And I think we coped well with it. I will say more: the items turned out to be very expensive and we will not be able to do it on an ongoing basis. Of course, sustainability, or sustainable development, is an important trend, but not everyone can afford to comply with environmental requirements. And here I mean not only consumers, but also the production team. So, in the end, we see an exciting gap: on the one hand, everyone is talking about digitalization and modern technologies and on the other—there is a desire to get to the origins, preserve the planet and use only natural, almost hand-woven fabrics. And we, as fashion industry representatives, find ourselves in the epicenter of these two mutually exclusive trends. 

Nikolaishvili: There are lots of talks about sustainable development. More talking than actually doing something about it. 

Tsitsishvili: And let’s start with the fact that any production cannot be environmentally friendly now: new items take space and essentially do not aim to satisfy our basic needs. 

Ingorokva: I have been researching this issue for a long time. Even the soil where cotton for the fabric grows must be clean in order to be able to say that the brand truly meets all the principles of sustainable development. Stella McCartney and Gabriela Hearst only might boast of doing this, but still . . .  

Tsitsishvili: On the other hand, each of you works in small brands, you do not have mass production, there are no factories that pollute nature. You make clothes in small ateliers almost by hand or using sewing machines. Cannot we say that these are actually Georgian brands following sustainable development principles? 

Nikolaishvili: We work in a small studio and constantly use leftover material—either for covers or some pretty cushions. 

Ingorokva : Yes, we have embarked on a sustainable path of development by chance! We also have no leftovers, we make every piece useful! (Laughs.)

Keburia: Yes, and we use manual labor in the brand. And this, by the way, is an expensive pleasure. Our tailors enjoy high salaries. I believe all the colleagues will agree with me. 

Tsitsishvili: If you work with large retailers, you will have to expand your production. Are you ready for this? 

Rusadze: I have already worked with Net-A-Porter, and I have come to realize I don’t need this stress. I am not ready to return to this story.

Ingorokva: I was negotiating with a large retailer, but in the end froze all the processes because I realized I was not ready for that scale. We cannot meet the demand now, despite the fact that a lot of sewing is done in Italy. For my company, it is about extra concerns and impossible pace. Thus, we decided to remain a niche brand at this stage. Tatuna, I must tell you—you are great! You are a risky girl, if you are currently negotiating with Net-A-Porter. 

Nikolaishvili: I have long wanted to work with them and I was not afraid of the volume and deadlines. I am madly passionate about this partnership and I am working on the collection with great enthusiasm, although, putting it straight, the stress is enormous. 

Ingorokva: It looks like in Georgia only Materiel has a real resource to satisfy a large retailer. Good luck and success to all, but this story is not for me. 

Tsitsishvili: How do you find employees? There are very few specialists in Georgia who can do cutting, design and so on. I am familiar with situations when seamstresses work for several brands. 

Nikolaishvili: I have a few employees we have been working with for more than seven years. Nino Mgaloblishvili, Dean of Fashion Design Department at the Academy of Arts, also helps a lot: she has many graduates and I invite novices to our studio for an internship or to hire them. I see that they are incredibly motivated. For them it is not just working for a salary, but about a sense of achievement and joy they feel seeing the results! 

Keburia: I envy you, Tatuna! (Laughs.)

Nikolaishvili: Yes, can you imagine it? We solve all the problems together, looking for ways out of any difficult situation. 

Keburia: I also have a nucleus of employees who have been with me for a long time, but still we constantly miss people: the other part of the personnel often changes. And when new employees come, it takes a lot of time to teach them everything... I look for new employees through my network.  

Ingorokva: Look, we do not have an adequate educational institution that would teach stuff ready to work. Everyone needs to be taught and it takes more than one month. There are some standards: twenty minutes for a straight skirt, three hours for a jacket, and to meet them we have a long way to go. We teach and train our stuff because there is no way out. But my tailors, people who have been in their profession for a long time, sometimes happen not to know various new technologies, so they teach the newcomers their partly old-school methods. But it should be the other way around: young people should come prepared, with their ideas and knowledge and offer new technologies they were taught at the institute. It does not mean we sew using old-fashioned methods. Certainly, we also follow the trends, but so far I have not had an opportunity to learn something from the youth. 

Rusadze: Not only Georgians work in my team. At least two interns from different countries work for the brand, and they match Tamuna’s image of interns and new employees perfectly well—they are proactive, greedy for knowledge, and very skillful. To get more experience, they come to Tbilisi to work for my brand and do offer a lot of new exciting things. 

Ingorokva: By the way, I had a similar story. There was one girl who trained with us for a year and was entirely happy. So, exceptions sometimes happen, too. 

Anka wearing a jumpsuit and a coat by Situationist.
Photos by Irakli Khargelia for EastEast. Tbilisi, Georgia, December 2020

Tsitsishvili: I would like to return to the question about the roots and the heritage of Georgia many of you address in your collections, though sometimes implicitly. For example, I remember Tatuna dresses with long sleeves, similar to those of a national costume. Or Irakli, who, in his collections for Situationist, often uses traditional elements invisible to those who know nothing about them.

Rusadze: I am inspired by Tbilisi—my main source of creative ideas, as I have realized. I have consciously decided to work more as an art brand and, most likely, will give up the idea of ​​doing conventional shows, I mean on the catwalk and with models. I am going to look for galleries and exhibition spaces around the world where my collections could be shown as installations. I will combine fashion and art. I see it as something I am much more interested in and it is in this where I see the brand’s future. David Giorgadze came up with the name Unseen Heritage for the exhibition and we realized it was a very good match. 

Tsitsishvili: The heritage of Georgia? Your brand’s heritage? 

Rusadze: Let me put it like this: the exhibition was greatly influenced by the situation we live in. The brand’s showroom is located on the left bank of the Kura River, on a very noisy and lively street, and we were inspired by this movement, this city, the stories we heard. So, perhaps, yes, we meant the heritage of Georgia. 

Tsitsishvili: Do you see the difference between foreign and Georgian clients? Is there a feeling that the Georgians seem to value the work of their compatriots less? 

Nikolaishvili: Just the opposite, I see the Georgians supporting my brand and me. They place orders, sew, and buy clothes. There are regular customers who come back again and again. 

Tsitsishvili: But your prices have increased, retailers have appeared, including IERI store. How do Georgians react to such changes? 

Nikolaishvili: Of course, regular customers who have been loyal to the brand for several years get discounts, I offer them some bonuses. But in general, we enjoy mutual understanding. 

Ingorokva: I have always had high prices, but there was a case when a girl came to us saying she had been saving for some of my clothes for long, that she had a dream, but she still could not afford to make it true. Of course, I offered her a discount. Firstly, I admired her confidence (I would not be able to act like this myself), and secondly, her emotions felt really sincere. 

Tsitsishvili: Tatuna and Ingorokva have their own stores and points of sale, where you can regulate discounts and interact with regular customers. But George and Irakli do not have such possibilities. How can you answer my question? 

Rusadze: I have many fans who support me. There are also a few people I sew clothes for privately, but in general we do not work with clients directly, so I do not have a large circle of Georgian clients as such.

Ingorokva: Oh, come on! They adore you! Both you and George! You’re social media stars! Every second person wearing your clothes proudly shows their photos online!  

Keburia: Thank you, but they buy all the pieces from retailers, in general we do not work with private orders. I have no resource to do it. Once we sold glasses in Georgia, but that was a completely different story, of course. Earlier, we could take some private orders, but recently, after the start of the pandemic, we have closed this direction. 

Nikolaishvili: You know, I wanted to say that it is actually very important for local consumers to support their designers. This is of huge importance for us. It is a very correct message. 

Tsitsishvili: On this solemn note, we shall wrap up our talk. And let me share my own vision saying that over the past five years I have been witnessing a tremendous breakthrough both in quality and ideas. And I’m incredibly proud of how Georgian brands are conquering the market. Keep it up! 

Recorded by Natela Potskhveriya

Translated from Russian by Olga Bubich

The photoshoot was prepared by the team of IERI store
Photographer: Irakli Khargelia
Stylists: Sofya Zykina
Producers: Salome Jakeli and Natela Potskhveriya
Model: Anka Tsitsishvili 

Contributors
Anka Tsitsishvili
Creative director and buyer of IERI Store, co-founder of INDEXflat. Anka acts as a fashion advisor for brands and fashion businesses, launches show-rooms in Moscow and Paris, curates exhibitions of contemporary artists. She studied and established her career in Moscow, but now she is based in Tbilisi, Georgia. Anka has a son Ilia and raises him together with her boyfriend, a famous contemporary artist Alexey Dubinsky.
Tamuna Ingorokva
Pioneer of Georgian fashion industry with two decades of design experience. Today INGOROKVA is one of the country’s most talked about luxury womenswear labels that creates collections featuring masculine cuts mixed with feminine touches. Inspired by personalities, moods, ambitions, desires, and the present, Tamuna Ingorokva presents timeless looks shaped by modern culture and art.
George Keburia
Self-taught Georgian designer, he founded his fun-loving eponymous label in 2010, presenting a surrealist collection saturated with outlandish concepts and references. The style of Keburia is a mix of underground and classy looks. His collections present a modern interpretation of femininity with the use of raw and provoking silhouettes, exaggerated shapes, mixing light and heavy fabrics.
Alieta (Tatuna) Nikolaishvili
Georgian designer based in Tbilisi. She graduated from Tbilisi State Academy of Arts and established her brand in 2009 under the name Tatuna. She is known for her extraordinary pattern cuts, minimalistic lines and pastel colours. Enjoys drawing, sketching and pattern cutting. Her clothes are handmade from luxurious fabrics and her creations are sold worldwide.
Irakli Rusadze
Founder of Situationist. Sophisticated forms, quirky tailoring, and elemental colors are the hallmark of the brand. He easily gained recognition within and outside of the country by raising important subjects through fashion. The collections are characterized by reflective geometric constructions, strong lines, and sharp shoulders. They feature silhouettes, cuts, details, and proportions of Georgian traditional clothing. Every outfit reflects the region’s history, identity, and way of life.