In a region viewed all too commonly through lazy stereotypes, one woman is using fashion to change the world’s perception of her homeland.
We spoke to Kazakh designer Roxana Adilbekova about her brand Roxwear, the streetwear scene in Kazakhstan and fashion as a reflection of culture.
‘It all started when we realised that the story of people who grew up in Central Asia has not been told yet.’ For Roxana Adilbekova, fashion is about telling stories. Born in Tajikistan during the Civil War that followed the breakup of the Soviet Union and raised in neighbouring Kazakhstan, she hails from a part of the world that many in the West know little to nothing about.
This unfamiliarity with her homeland became clear to Roxana when she began to view her own culture from the outside during her studies in Paris and New York. While both cities’ diversity and rich fashion scenes inspired her, she met with ignorance about her own background. ‘When I studied in New York, I saw how people from the post-Soviet space are perceived through the prism of established stereotypes. Although Borat did wonders in getting Kazakhstan on many people’s radar, I still met a lot of people who were really misinformed about what Kazakhstan is like.’
It was precisely these misconceptions that inspired her to use what she learned at art school in New York – for her, ‘the modern Babylon of culture,’ – as a force for change. Thus Roxwear was born: a ‘response to the plethora of overly simplistic questions regarding our origins, beliefs and ideals.’ Breaking down stereotypes is a huge part of what the brand do, using ‘fashion as a tool to tell an alternative story about our generation that you won’t hear anywhere else.’
Although Borat did wonders in getting Kazakhstan on many people’s radar, I still met a lot of people who were really misinformed about what Kazakhstan is like.
Yet Roxwear isn’t just about combatting Western ignorance. It also offers a platform for Central Asians to define themselves and represent their culture. The brand’s Instagram bio proclaims that they are ‘redefining youth from post-Soviet Asia’, and Roxana herself says that her goal is to give Central Asians outside the region ‘a tool that is going to help them better explain where they are from.’
This idea of ‘redefining post-Soviet youth’ inevitably invites comparisons with the streetwear movement in Russia, which continues to draw heavily on Gosha Rubchinskiy’s ‘post-Soviet’ Cyrillic aesthetic. Part of Roxana’s mission, though, is to dispel the myth that Soviet equals Russia. ‘Gosha successfully tapped into the Soviet mentality, and we have decided to put our unique cultural spin on top of that. Many people think that USSR = Russia, but that’s not true. There were 15 republics that were a part of the USSR, and each had its own unique experience.’
The unique experiences of the independent republics of ‘post-Soviet Asia’ are the dominant theme in Roxwear’s designs, with the influence of traditional national culture strongly felt.
This is something that has accompanied Roxana throughout her whole life and helped to shape her personal identity; her grandmother, after all, was an art historian who specialised in traditional Central Asian tapestry.
Roxwear, too, is much like a tapestry in how it weaves a diverse mesh of influences; blending in equal parts Roxana’s own background and post-Soviet upbringing, traditional Central Asian motifs and worldwide trends, the local and the global. That they are able to strike this unique balance is what sets Roxwear apart from other brands in the region. ‘Most brands in Kazakhstan just copy global trends and ideas. Others are too focused on making national dresses, and ignore the trends altogether. We believe that there is a sweet spot between the two, and the balance can yield very interesting results.’
Most brands in Kazakhstan just copy global trends and ideas. Others are too focused on making national dresses … We believe that there is a sweet spot between the two, and the balance can yield very interesting results.
It certainly does yield interesting results. Roxwear’s unorthodox use of traditional Kazakh patterns – fusing them with modern, distinctly un-conservative styles – has attracted criticism from many traditionalists in the country. Roxana, though, is unfazed by this. ‘We don’t plan to stop using physical and graphical parts of our culture. We want to experiment more with traditional materials…we want to capture the mindset of people like us and transfer it to fabric.’
Some of the brand’s designs are particularly overt in how they challenge conservative social norms. Take the Asian Pin-Up tee, with its Kazakh girls portrayed in provocative pin-up style, or the Maskara tee, which shows a skeletal woman in Kazakh national dress and whose Metallica-style logo depicts the Kazakh word for ‘shame’. The problems that still linger in Kazakhstan, and attitudes towards women in particular, both depress and inspire Roxana.
‘I was constantly questioning everything around me – why is progress and change so slow in our country? Why do women get treated like that here? Why is politics so absurd around here? Why do I constantly have to close my eyes at something that I don’t like?’ These are the questions that angered Roxana enough to protest against them in her work. Yet through considering them, she has also come to know herself and her culture better.
In the process of creating the collection, I concluded that, on the contrary, I made peace with the shit around me. The design process was very therapeutic, and it captures my journey from denial to acceptance
‘I realised that all of this is a part of my reality, my story. I took it all in and accepted it for what it is. That became the biggest inspiration for my brand’s concept. In the process of creating the collection, I concluded that, on the contrary, I made peace with the shit around me. The design process was very therapeutic, and it captures my journey from denial to acceptance.’ The story of Roxwear, then, is the story of one woman coming to terms with her own culture.
Roxana’s goal, though, is for more stories like her own to be told. Where just a few years ago, there was no such thing as streetwear in Central Asia, the scene is now developing slowly but surely. ‘Over the last few years, many young people from Kazakhstan, with their own unique voices, began to pop up in various creative industries.’ At the vanguard of it all are Roxana Adilbekova and Roxwear. Through telling the story of where they come from, they aim to leave their mark on the world. ‘We want to tell more stories, more individual stories of people from around here,’ Roxana summarises. ‘We want to spread the word of our culture into the world’s fashion vocabulary.’