Written and photographed by Mike Walker
If a decade ago, anyone in the fashion industry or media had predicted 2017 to be something of a watershed apex of skateboarding’s influence on high fashion and that this push would be coming from Russia of all places, few would have believed them. Yet, here we are and while skateboarding for so very long has been deeply associated with California, it is its foreign manifestations which have governed its fashion recently.
The United Kingdom’s Palace Skateboards, on a stratospheric ascent since their inception in 2007, have defined what it means to be exclusive in streetwear while young Russian designer Gosha Rubchinskiy has gone from being a fledgling force in Russia to collaborating with American skate brands in 2012 to now being rocked by rappers and other celebrities the world over and selling out entire collections in the span of a day or two.
The success of these designers and their innovative marketing which has capitalized on social media exposure, extremely limited runs of product “dropped” in between four to eight seasonal yearly collections, and the nexus of streetwear, skate-punk aesthetics, and couture (Gosha’s t-shirts are even manufactured by Comme des Garçons) has provided inspiration to smaller, upstart, designers. No longer must one wait to work in a hallowed fashion house but small brands such as Anti-Social Social Club, Stray Rats, and even tonier, more esoteric, ones like Helder Vices are reaching out via the social media-propagated tactics that Palace, Gosha, et al have used so very effectively. It’s a sea-change and a timely one at that in streetwear.
None of this could be discussed without mentioning also New York’s veritable brand Supreme, which began as a skate shop and grew into an international juggernaut with stores in Europe and Asia and an online resale business via E-bay, Grailed and other venues that are nearly a cottage industry of its own. Some may think that like Palace, Supreme came up around 2007 but that’s not really true. I recall in the 1990s reading an article in my mom’s Vogue where a writer compared Supreme’s Manhattan boutique and the reverence skaters gave it to how ladies who lunch viewed the Chanel boutique not far away, going as far as to enumerate minute by minute the goings on in both stores.
That’s where this began when skatewear moved from just being Vans and Converse sneakers of the ’80s, a pair of boardshorts borrowed from its kindred surf culture, and a Powell-Peralta tee. Which is not to say brands have not always been canny in watching what skaters will buy. In the heyday of skateboarding’s second wave circa 1988 Vision Street Wear and Airwalk both introduced sneakers for skateboarding to compete with the market domination Vans and Converse were enjoying—sneakers being the second most important item of gear to the skater after his board itself. For that matter Vans, now a global brand with their own stores in most major malls, began as a small operation making bespoke skate and BMX sneakers for kids in the later ’60s.
The wildcard in all this, however, was the Russian connection. Gosha grew up skateboarding and hanging out with skaters and all his friends were interested in art and design. They were also his original models, and some such as Anton Lisin and German Lavrovskiy have gone on to become noted designers in their own right.
Gosha was never just a fashion designer. He first found fame in Russia as a photographer and when he was still trying to get his own brand up and running circa 2012 he was shooting Nike Sportswear campaigns, with Anton Lisin as his main model, to pay the bills. His success has promoted a renaissance in Russian skate-centric streetwear now, with brands such as Sputnik 1985 and Volchok Clothing becoming huge in Russia currently alongside foreign brands ranging from Palace to Thrasher’s tees made popular worldwide not only by Kanye but by K-pop celebrities and in Russia, by a rapper who actually skates and probably has done more for youth fashion in the past three years there than anyone else except Gosha has in the past ten. His name is Pharaoh and supremely photogenic, gregarious yet moody, posh yet street. He has become the combination of the Darby Crash and Nas that Russia didn’t even know it needed but it sure did.
Wearing a Thrasher shirt, Kink Bikes (BMX brand) hoodie, tight jeans and Vans old-school sneakers, Pharaoh has set the uniform for Russian skaters, and thereby Russian youth in general. His lyrics focus on desire, despair and hedonism. His closest American comparison would be Lil Peep, who is also becoming huge in Russia now and Pharaoh like Peep adds a healthy dose of references to the occult to his songs as well. In doing so, he has skirted away from the heady political debates of Russia and coming from a background in soccer—he trained at one of the best clubs in Russia in his youth to play at the pro level—and a couple years studying journalism at Moscow State University, which would be about the same has having attended Yale prior to embarking on a rap career, Pharaoh walks a line between the nationalistic supporters of President Putin and United Russia and the Western-leaning liberal opposition. He’s pretty, he’s athletic, he skates and he’s seemingly ironically despondent more often than not despite probably having the most charmed life in Russia currently. He doesn’t need to address politics at this point and he can be whatever or whomever we desire of him. And now, you have legions of young Russians rocking Vans and Thrasher because of him.
It has not been overnight, especially for Gosha. No one has worked harder and in 2012 I remember getting my first shirt by him after seeing by chance a wonderful interview with a young German Lavrovskiy on a VK (the analogue of Facebook in Russia) page. Gosha, Anton, and German were three kids against the world back then, only beginning to make any headway. Russian youth fashion prior to then had been mostly soccer inspired Adidas, Nike and American skate brands to a smaller degree. The oddly named brand Anteater and Moscow’s Creamshop were the primary purveyors of homegrown streetwear, such as it was.
The response from America has been less than subtle. Not only have celebrities embraced Gosha, just as they embraced quirky Japanese brand A Bathing Ape years before, but skaters are looking more and more to a curated, studied, cool. When Supreme dropped their “Cherry” video a few years ago, its standout star was a young skater named Sean Pablo. Standout not so much for his skating but his style.
Wearing hi-top Converse and sporting perfect hair he looked like James Dean and the bored kid who sits in the back of your math class all at once. And Converse soon found their skate shop sales skyrocketing as kids went after the Sean look. In response, Pablo established his own brand, Paradis3. Its retro inspired tees along with those of Alex Olson’s brand Bianca Chandôn brand also now sell out nearly the day they’re released and get sold at Dover Street Market right next to $2,400 GucciGhost bomber jackets.
For that matter, Gucci’s own embracing of the street art behind its GucciGhost collection speaks volumes of what skateboarding, street art, hip-hop and a whole constellation of creative energy that once was not touched with a proverbial ten-foot pole by high fashion. My, how things indeed have changed and I daresay for the better.
Mike Walker is an architectural history major and also a skateboarder, journalist, and translator specializing in Eastern Europe.