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Ex-Soviet republic Georgia finds its place on the international catwalk

Fashion has found a new talent pool in Tbilisi. The capital of former Soviet state Georgia has always been a key textile hub, but now it is realising its creative potential, too

Fashion label Situationist, founded by Irakli Rusadze, shows at Milan Fashion Week Fall/Winter 2017/18
Fashion label Situationist, founded by Irakli Rusadze, shows at Milan Fashion Week Fall/Winter 2017/18  

In January 2017, American model Bella Hadid stepped out in Paris to attend a dinner with designer Riccardo Tisci, who was working for Givenchy at the time and is now the chief creative officer of Burberry, and fellow model Kendall Jenner.

She was clad, as usual, in the latest designer garments, a symbol of her status in the high fashion industry. Except, instead of donning a design from a Paris, Milan or New York heavyweight, she chose a skirt and pair of boots from a little-known Georgian brand, Situationist, based in the country’s capital, Tbilisi.

Suddenly, the eyes of the fashion world were on the tiny Eastern European nation, which, until 20 years ago, had been firmly in the restrictive grip of the USSR. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Tbilisi has transcended the constraints of its past, emerging as a bright, youthful creative force in the fashion world.

Fashion is a vehicle for Georgia’s designers to showcase a creativity that was dampened for so long and create a new visual identity

The country’s cohort of budding designers have clothed celebrities across the globe and have shown collections at the world’s most prestigious fashion events. But the country’s place on the global catwalk has not just gained it acclaim and fortune: fashion is a vehicle for Georgia’s designers to showcase a creativity that was dampened for so long and create a new visual identity that captures the individualism and pride of a liberated country.

A return to tradition
Georgia, and Tbilisi in particular, has possessed the individual ingredients for sartorial success for some years, but it was not until recently that they were combined. The country has a strong textiles tradition that dates back to the days of the Silk Road.

Tributaries of the famed East-West trade route passed through Georgia and the surrounding states of the Caucasus regions, fuelling the production of silk in the region. Georgian men were known for donning opulent robes, each embroidered in different styles to mark tribal affiliations.

This creativity wasn’t limited to clothing, either. The first textiles to be autonomously produced in Georgia were blue tablecloths made in the 17th century. Known as lurji supra, these tablecloths used a hand-dyeing method never seen before in the region.

Artisan craftsmen would carve intricate designs of men and women in national costume, as well as floral and geometric patterns, onto wooden blocks, then transfer them to delicate cotton fabric using the ink of the indigo plant.

The imposition of Soviet rule in Georgia in 1922 initially brought prosperity, particularly to the textiles industry, as many artisan practices were commercialised and industrialised, helping to preserve ancient techniques and fuelling regional markets.

When the USSR fell in 1991, however, civil war broke out in Georgia, all but destroying most factories and leading to a period of political, social and financial crisis.

The country spent the following 20 years in recovery, attempting to rebuild autonomous national industries that had been commandeered by the USSR and devastated by its collapse. Seeking to capitalise on its ancient reputation as a textiles hub and draw on its creative spirit, Georgia has poured energy into the industry that combines these two areas of expertise: fashion.

Artistic spirit
Designers in Georgia certainly haven’t had an easy ride. Many grew up in the midst of a brutal civil war, in an atmosphere plagued by scarcity and instability. “Georgia’s fashion scene has come a very long way,” said George Keburia, an emerging Georgian designer who set up his eponymous label in Tbilisi in 2010. “In the turbulent 1990s, none of the designers had the resources to present a decent collection. Moreover, there was no platform to showcase the designs.”

A model walks the runway during George Keburia’s Fall/Winter 2018/19 show at Tbilisi Fashion Week
A model walks the runway during George Keburia’s Fall/Winter 2018/19 show at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Tbilisi

It wasn’t just physical barriers they were fighting, but social, too. “Georgia is still very traditional and has a predominantly conservative attitude,” Keburia said. “As part of the Soviet Union, Georgian people experienced a severe lack of information and freedom for a long period. So adapting to individuality and globalisation takes time.”

Irakli Rusadze, who founded much-hyped Georgian label Situationist, agreed with this sentiment. “An information vacuum enforced by the Soviet Union has actually helped many Georgian designers, including myself, to think outside of the box and achieve maximum output from minimum conditions.”

Despite the obstacles in place, Georgia’s fashion industry began to grow, little by little, spurred by a group of young designers seeking ways to express their newfound creative identities. “Georgian creatives are trying to liberate themselves, push a more positive agenda and be more open-minded,” said Keburia. “The artists of the new generation are in the process of breaking the rules and traditional norms.”

The up-and-coming cohort includes Keburia and Rusadze, along with designers such as Tamuna Ingorokva and sisters Nina and Gvantsa Macharashvili. Many have credited their country’s turbulent history with inspiring their designs.

Keburia has used prints depicting weapons “as a symbol of the rough times that the country suffered”, while Ingorokva has embossed the Georgian national symbol onto the buttons of a coat in her latest collection.

Rusadze is also a frequent explorer and conveyor of Georgian culture in his designs; his SS19 collection traces a history of Georgian fashion from the early 12th century to the modern day. “I believe that every traditional costume reflects a region’s history, identity and way of life,” he told Business Destinations. “They transcend culture, time and geography.”

However, he added: “Fashion constantly evolves according to the needs and values of the time. In the last five years, the Georgian youth has experienced a dramatic change in their beliefs, morals and lifestyles. In my work, I wanted to explore links between the collective and historic identity of modern-day Georgia, and how it can be reflected in fashion.”

Eyes on Georgia
The growing success of Georgia’s sartorial scene has been aided by two key organisations, the first of which is actually a remnant of Tbilisi’s Soviet days. Fashion House Materia was founded in 1949 and at its peak was one of the largest textile houses in the USSR.

It closed in 1991 but rebuilt following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Recently, the brand launched MATÉRIEL, a hybrid fashion house accelerator for emerging designers. The company provides creatives with everything they need to produce a collection, from manufacturing facilities and raw materials to labour and PR support.

Its atelier in Tbilisi’s old town is also home to MATÉRIEL’s in-house luxury label, which has garnered international acclaim from fashion authorities such as Vogue. This has helped draw attention to other emerging designers in the Georgian capital.

Keburia and Rusadze are both alumni of MATÉRIEL and have credited it for acting as a stepping stone to the next stage of their careers. Keburia said: “I gained great hands-on experience while working at MATÉRIEL… it played a great role in my professional development.”

He also credits the house for fostering a sense of kinship within Tbilisi’s fashion community. “I made many great friends at MATÉRIEL and we are very close to this day,” Keburia added.

The second organisation that has been integral to placing Georgia in the fashion industry’s spotlight, Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Tbilisi, came about as a result of Georgia’s most famous export in the fashion world, Demna Gvasalia.

Georgian designer Demna Gvasalia won the International Read-To-Wear Designer award at the British Fashion Awards in 2016
Georgian designer Demna Gvasalia wins the International Ready-To-Wear Designer award at the British Fashion Awards in 2016

Born in 1981 in the capital of disputed Georgian province Abkhazia, he was forced to flee his home aged 12 to escape ethnic cleansing in the wake of the USSR’s collapse. After graduating from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp, the Georgian native led design teams at Maison Margiela and Louis Vuitton, before founding Vetements in Paris in 2014.

Gvasalia is now creative director at Balenciaga, where he frequently incorporates elements of his Georgian heritage, from motifs to materials, into his work.

Gvasalia’s ascension to the lofty heights of the fashion elite turned heads towards his homeland. One of those heads belonged to Sofia Tchkonia, a Georgian-born fashion journalist who had been working in European capitals such as Paris and Milan to champion her country’s style.

With the aim of capitalising on the explosion of native talent, she established Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Tbilisi in partnership with Mercedes-Benz in 2015. This biannual event brings international buyers, editors and influencers to the Georgian capital.

Keburia, Rusadze and Ingorokva are delighted with this international interest. “It makes me extremely happy that my country is becoming associated with fashion, creativity and talented people, as this means bigger opportunities for us,” Keburia said. Rusadze echoed this sentiment: “the fact that [Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Tbilisi] is bringing so much international press is directly influencing the visibility and sales of my brand and others.”

The event also provides an opportunity for designers to share elements of the Georgian identity in a free and creative way. “Before [Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Tbilisi], Georgian designers had to adjust to international standards to keep their brands going – now we have the chance to actually express ourselves,” Rusadze told Business Destinations.

The international attention drawn in by MATÉRIEL andMercedes-Benz Fashion Week Tbilisi has also provided these young designers with the opportunity to clothe some of today’s biggest stars. Keburia’s designs, particularly his characteristic slim sunglasses, have been seen on celebrities such as Rihanna and Solange, and are stocked at international retailers such as Browns and Net-a-Porter.

“Celebrities and ‘it girls’ have a huge fan base and constantly influence the world with their sense of style,” said Keburia. “Their support means a lot to me and it makes me confident that I am moving in the right direction – it definitely gave me more energy and motivation.”

Rusadze also credits an increased social media presence for bringing attention and therefore greater prosperity to his brand. “It is one of the most useful tools for sales, because we are geographically distant from major fashion cities,” he said. “Social media shrinks that time and distance and allows brands to grow faster as a result.”

The business of fashion
Fashion is a business, though, as well as an art form. While creativity in Tbilisi flourished despite the repressive Soviet regime, the logistical aspects of running a fashion business floundered. The scarcity of materials was the most significant issue for much of the 1990s and early 2000s, and remains problematic today.

Georgia had no autonomous trade relationships, while the poverty brought by the collapse of the USSR led to the closure of many factories, meaning the country’s own production output was reduced to effectively zero.

Ingorokva also noted that the lack of resources has forced her and her Georgian contemporaries to be more creative as they have had to make do with far less than their designer counterparts in France or Italy. “In Paris, everything is on your doorstep – if you need a special material or a finish on a design, it’s possible there. In Georgia, it’s very difficult because we have to import everything. And you can’t change your idea halfway through production, either.”

The country’s pro-business government has implemented numerous reforms over the past decade to make SME foundation and operation in Georgia far simpler

Materials have to be sourced before production can start as the trip to choose fabric is lengthy – flying to Milan or Paris can take up to 12 hours.

This distance can also prove problematic for e-commerce operations. Rusadze said: “One big problem that we are facing now is shipping. Collaborators, magazines and stylists are usually expecting to request items and receive it the day after. This kind of service is very expensive in Georgia and normal post takes much longer than two to three days.”

This has knock-on implications for publicity, as publications will choose to work with European designers that are able to ship items more quickly. “Even though we are willing to collaborate, we are physically not able to do so,” Rusadze added.

The lack of trade-specific businesses that can support the Georgian fashion industry makes life harder for labels, too. This includes access to materials, but also production ateliers and the availability of trained tailors to help produce collections rapidly for new season collections.

“Local artists should be provided with appropriate production,” said Keburia. “The whole manufacturing chain should be more convenient and should be able to keep up with creative minds.”

Recognising the importance of supporting the burgeoning industry, the country’s pro-business government has implemented numerous reforms over the past decade to make SME foundation and operation in Georgia far simpler.

As a result, the country has leapt up World Bank’s ease of doing business ranking, rising from 100th place in 2006 to sixth place in the 2019 rankings. It was the second biggest reformer over the past 12 months, implementing a vast number of reforms, including strengthening protection for minority investors, making it easier to pay tax, restructuring property registration and cutting administrative delays across a range of departments.

Most impressively, it halved the amount of time taken to set up a business to two days. In a statement, Mercy Tembon, Regional Director for the South Caucasus at the World Bank, said: “[Georgia] has continued to advance its position in the ranking over the past three years. This is a testimony of the government’s commitment to a progressive reform agenda to improve the business environment.”

Rusadze acknowledged the productive reforms made by the government, describing the process of establishing a business in Georgia as “a very transparent and easy process”. He also credited the government for its logistical support in his creative endeavours: “The governmental agency Enterprise Georgia is doing their best to support us, too, by hosting lectures and workshops. For example, they supported us when we were participating in Paris Fashion Week, for which we are very thankful.”

Enduring creative spirit
The progressive environment fostered by Georgia’s government has cleared the path for its designers to ascend to even loftier heights in the fashion industry. Ingorokva, Rusadze and Keburia have all been featured by prestigious fashion publications such as Vogue, and their respective client lists grow daily.

Despite the international acclaim the country’s fashion sector is garnering, there’s little sense that it is losing the strength it derives from its distinctive, identity-focused designs. Tbilisi’s designers have survived political, social and financial hardships, and they aren’t about to forget those in a flurry of dollar bills.

If anything, their newfound success will continue to inspire them now that they have a larger audience with which to share their lived experience. Their resilience and tenacity is testament to the strength of their creative spirit and their commitment to both the art form and the business of fashion.

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