For as long as anyone can remember, the big four – New York, London, Paris, Milan – have dominated and defined the fashion narrative. Now, though, thanks to social media, we’re more globally connected than ever before, and discovering smaller hotspots of creativity around the world. Niche fashion weeks like Seoul, Lagos, Sydney and Kiev are fast becoming industry game-changers, home to the most experimental street style, emerging brands and up-and-coming creatives.
Tbilisi is perhaps the most thrilling right now. Its fashion week [Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Tbilisi] has been held twice a year since 2015 and the spotlight has been focused on the Georgian capital since its hottest export, Demna Gvasalia was made artistic director of Balenciaga in October of that year. Gvasalia had already earned his stripes as the head designer and spokesperson of Vetements, the collective label made up of seven anonymous designers, which burst onto the scene in 2014 and disrupted the industry with its high-low, couture-streetwear mashup, and the pithy dialogue it engaged in with consumers.
While Vetements was based in Paris during its infancy (its HQ is now in Zurich), the fascination with Gvasalia inevitably led to a curiosity about his home country, and how it shaped such a fresh fashion perspective. Lately, Gvasalia has indulged that fascination, using Vetements' SS19 collection to detail his experience growing up in war-torn Georgia in the 1990s. Visual codes of conflict – flak jackets, combat boots, balaclavas, and camouflage – were interwoven with '90s typographies and oversized leather jackets, worn by models with mullet haircuts.
"It was like dressing a documentary of my life," he explained in the show notes. "I dedicated this collection to Georgia, the Georgia where my brother Guram [who steers the business side of Vetements] and I grew up together in the '90s, and the war that happened where we lived. I tried to face this angst and fear and pain in this show." After several years of therapy, during which he "didn’t want to remember [...] didn’t want to go that far," this season Gvasalia thought, "Let’s just go for it. I’ve never felt so creatively happy, so I think I felt safe enough to put it out there, to get it out on the table."
Georgia’s political history is complex and feverish. Declared an independent state in 1918 in the wake of the Russian Revolution, it was a member of the Soviet Union from 1922; the birthplace of Joseph Stalin, deadly protests erupted in the country after Nikita Khrushchev made moves to undo the dictator’s policies after his death in 1953. Georgia finally regained independence in 1991, but civil war soon broke out between government forces and separatist troops. This is the conflict in which Gvasalia grew up, and which casts its shadow across a new generation of creatives.
So what has risen in the wake of such a tempestuous history? Georgia is still a conservative country, but a creative hub is rapidly emerging. Thanks to electrifying fashion, art and club scenes, plus an LGBTQ+ community that thrives in the face of the country’s vocal right wing, Tbilisi has become a playground for a new generation of young, cool and talented Georgians.
Now, this tiny post-Soviet country has the world’s attention, too. "The scene in Georgia is very forward-thinking across every creative industry, from music and art to fashion," Costanza Lombardi, junior buyer, women’s ready-to-wear at Browns tells Refinery29. "All these different elements inspire each other and the result is a warm creative energy that I have not found anywhere else for a long time."
Lombardi unearthed a plethora of exciting Georgian brands via Instagram a few years ago. "It all started with a fantastic coat I saw from MATÉRIEL and some amazing leather blazers from Situationist," she explains. "I became obsessed and was desperate to buy them. After months of emails and direct messages on Instagram, I simply thought I needed to share these amazing designers with everyone." Browns now stocks five Georgian brands on site, and with more and more buyers and editors making the journey to Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Tbilisi biannually, we’re set to see more labels from the country take the industry by storm.
"There’s an adolescence about Georgian fashion that makes it particularly inspiring and attention-worthy," say Natuka Karkashadze and Nina Tsilosani, founders of emerging Georgian label N-Duo. Established in 2014, its architectural pieces fuse femininity with a playfulness that has caught the attention of Prune Pauchet, Eva Chen and Reese Blutstein; think Parma Violet-hued puff-sleeve blouses, checked prairie dresses and relaxed tailoring.
Designer George Keburia agrees. "The new generation is in the process of breaking the rules. It’s this fresh and somewhat rebellious attitude that makes Georgian creatives interesting." He founded his eponymous label back in 2010 and was awarded 'Best Newcomer' at MBFW Tbilisi the same year. His tongue-in-cheek pieces – all angular micro shades and '80s hues – have been worn by Bella Hadid, Solange Knowles and Rihanna to name a few.
"Demna Gvasalia’s success turned the spotlight on the Georgian fashion scene, and undoubtedly, interest towards Tbilisi has risen dramatically," Keburia tells Refinery29. "However, I believe that Georgian creatives are meeting the international interest well. When part of the Soviet Union, we experienced a lack of information and freedom, and adapting to individuality and globalisation takes time. We’re trying to liberate ourselves, push a more positive agenda and be more open-minded."
The designers behind MATÉRIEL – the premium label born out of Fashion House Materia – also highlight the open and reactive quality of emerging Georgian designers. "Their collections convey cultural and political elements that elevate the term 'fashion'," they explain. "The country has been a battleground for many years now, and political turmoil has given birth to interesting creatives in every field." Fashion House Materia began in 1949 as an atelier business and remains one of Georgia's oldest manufacturers and retailers. It showed internationally during the Soviet era, surviving the collapse of the USSR by becoming privately owned.
MATÉRIEL collections are created by a rotation of Georgian designers who work under the label’s moniker. Aleksandre Akhalkatsishvili and Lado Bokuchava (who both have their own brands, too) are currently at the design helm, and their fresh and versatile pieces – think pistachio co-ords and disco ball blazers – have brought global recognition, with the label now stocked at Browns, Farfetch, Moda Operandi and Net-A-Porter. Can they explain their international appeal? "Our generation is very diligent: we are workaholics, and we are talented," Akhalkatsishvili tells Refinery29. "MBFW Tbilisi has done an amazing job of increasing worldwide awareness of the country and its designers, but now, our job is to not lose the spotlight."
Like Keburia, who used rainbow fringing overlaid on skirts and shirts for SS19 in direct response to Georgia’s constantly threatened LGBTQ+ rights, Situationist is another brand that incorporates social and political activism into its creations. Founded in 2015 by self-taught designer Irakli Rusadze at the age of just 17, Situationist has since shown in Milan and Paris, and thanks to Bella Hadid donning two of its looks in one evening, the label has gained an international audience, too.
"The information vacuum, and lack of materials and labour enforced by the Soviet Union has actually helped designers from the Eastern Bloc to think of alternative ways of creating fashion," Rusadze tells Refinery29. "We’ve learned to think outside the box and get the maximum outcome from minimum conditions." It's this resourcefulness and resistance that's putting Georgia firmly on the fashion map. As designers rebel against a tumultuous past and a conservative present, they bring us a fresh perspective on clothes – and what they can mean.