Kollektiv reviews the best, worst and most iconic uses of the cyrillic alphabet in fashion by those not native to the country.
While Russian streetwear brands have moved beyond using Cyrillic letters, words and phrases on t-shirts for their staple pieces, this doesn’t stop designers, brands and high street shops further afield from imitating the look. From Vetements to Topman, it seems that everyone still draws inspiration from the style popularised by Russian designer Gosha Rubchinskiy.
Urban Outfitters’ равноправие (equality) tee was probably the most widely worn item of anything on this list – it was almost ubiquitous with English students of Russian circa 2016.
The classic one word of Cyrillic across a t-shirt or sweatshirt is a solid design, and, with their reasonable prices, Urban Outfitters had made Rubchinsky’s style accessible to a wider audience.
Using the word Equality, Urban Outfitters were also invoking mildly political undertones, commenting on the wider issues in Russian society that were being regularly explored by the Western media.
Or maybe I’m looking too deep into this and равноправие just looks sick on a t-shirt.
Kollektiv Rating: 6/10
Not long ago, high street giants Topman made a short-lived attempt at getting in on the Cyrillic clothing action.
Their collection consisted of a variety of men’s t-shirts and sweatshirts emblazoned with a rather strange selection of Russian phrases.
The word Создай (Create) in bright letters down the one arm seemed to miss the irony of a high street store imitating a fashion trope a few years late.
Often, the meaning of foreign text on Western fashion pieces can be counterbalanced by the item’s aesthetics, however this cannot be said for the other garments in Topman’s collection.
Their unsightly sweatshirt with Причина (Reason) emblazoned across the chest leaves us looking for exactly the reason why they decided to go through with this.
Kollektiv Rating: 4/10
Иди на хуй roughly translates as “fuck off”.
Despite the plaudits Vetements receives as a whole, this must be one of the most unoriginal phrases that could be stuck on a t-shirt (and socks). Or maybe I was expecting too much from a brand that is named after the French word for clothing.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with international brands using a foreign script or expletives for purely visual purposes, but a good rule of thumb would be to consider whether you’d use those in English – “Fuck off” on a t-shirt is little too Rage Against the Machine for 2019.
To Vetements’ credit, their Georgian-inspired collection released last year is a more creative and successful use of non-Latin text. The brand’s founders are, after all, Georgian, so this should come as no surprise.
Kollektiv Rating: 2/10
Surely a designer who visited Russia one year, saw some 5 pound t-shirts with Vladimir Putin on at a local market, then release a collection months later with the exact same design and a load of fake diamonds on the back, would, at least, have the decency to price the item reasonably.
The $594 price tag suggests otherwise.
The release courted further criticism in the wider fashion world for the lack of responsibility it apparently showed by using Putin’s face on an item of clothing, although this seemed like an overreaction.
The only saving grace from Heron Preston’s collection was the roll neck with Стиль (Style) on the collar, which became one of his most successful and recognisable pieces after Kanye and Kim’s daughter was spotted in it.
Unfortunately, there’s not much else to add to this.
Kollektiv Rating: 0.5/10
Будь Смелым translates as Be Brave, which might be what Monki’s design team thought they were being when creating this t-shirt. It is, however, more brash than brave – the in-your-face red font on white is particularly garish.
While I’ve never seen this t-shirt in real life, the text comes across as somewhat textured or even shiny on this image, making it even more grating on the eye.
Many of these brands pay homage to the constructivist-inspired block letters and shapes or at least touch on some element of Russian culture – Monki’s design, however, is simply uninspired on every level.
My favourite feature of the tee is the asterisk which points to the English translation in small print on the sleeve.
A practical feature no other brand thought to include and one that at least prevents any embarrassment in not understanding what’s written on your tee, notwithstanding the embarrassment of wearing it in the first place.
Kollektiv Rating: 1/10
Off White x KM20
KM20 is Moscow’s premier streetwear shop, stocking the latest releases from A.cold.wall* to Yeezy and everything in between.
KM20’s collaboration with American-Italian brands Off White gives me enough of an excuse to include this capsule collection in an article on non-Russian brands.
It’s also one of the few examples on this list where it’s actually done well.
A transliteration of Off White into Russian as well as Временный (Temporary) in the brand’s trademark inverted commas is tastefully printed on the back in contrast to the English spellings on the front.
Virgil Abloh, through collaboration with actual Russians, succeeded in creating a design that both reflects Off White’s brand image and Russian fashion culture without succumbing to cheap stereotypes.
This collection unfortunately comes with the Off White price tag, but the less said about that the better.
Kollektiv Rating: 9.5/10
Whilst we may be stretching the theme a little here as there is no Cyrillic involved, it’s nonetheless an excellent example of a western brand tackily appropriating Soviet aesthetics for commercial gain.
The hammer and sickle has to be the most overused and unoriginal Soviet symbol to include on a piece of fashion at any level, and I’m struggling to understand what Gucci were going for with these boots.
At a push, printing the symbol of the Communist Party on a pair of high-fashion worker boots could be considered intentionally ironic. However, it comes across more as a cynical attempt to court controversy.
It’s time designers found a creative way to draw influence from Russia and the Soviet Union and to stop reverting to lazy imagery.
Kollektiv Rating: 2/10
Coming from Youtube’s most subscribed user PewDiePie (or so I’m told) is this sweatshirt with Сука Блять printed across the front.
For a start, I had no idea PewDiePie dabbled in fashion, and I’m also struggling to figure out his connection with Russia.
Nonetheless, on the surface, this piece is at least easy on the eye, and, if I couldn’t read Russian and had little understanding of the country’s culture, it’s something I might wear.
But there are no more positives.
Let’s start with the text. Сука Блять, which roughly translates as “fucking bitch”, is once again one of the least imaginative phrases they could have used.
When someone says, “oh I know a bit of Russian” these are usually next two words to leave their mouth. It’s another design that lacks on the originality front.
Moving onto the sleeves’ two stripes: being kind, you could argue it’s an homage to the famous Soviet two-striped Adidas tracksuit for the 1980 Olympics.
However, it’s more likely to be an attempt to reflect the Adidas trademark three-stripes without getting sued. It plays on the Gopnik and “slav-squat” image which over the years has become a rather tired meme on the internet.
As far as I’m aware this is PewDiePie’s only forage into the Cyrillic-fashion world, and here’s hoping it stays like that.
Kollektiv Rating: 5/10
Naturally, Cyrillic on pieces of clothing certainly remains a strong style. High street shops and high fashion brands, however, are doing their best to take away any semblance of meaning behind the words and imagery. Unfortunately, this seems to be a trend that for now sees no sign of slowing down or stopping.
Despite this, there are many native Russian brands who are creating some of the most inventive streetwear collections inspired by their own language and culture. These brands deserve recognition beyond the borders of Russia and should not be overshadowed by Western brands’ imitations and appropriation.
View some of our favourite Russian brands here.