On Cult Fashion Designer Konstantin Goncharov

Designer Konstantin Goncharov, model/actress Irina Kuksenaite, and model Christy Turlington in Leningrad. Photographed by Arthur Elgort 1990. Courtesy of Pleasurephoto, Vogue and Arthur Elgort

‘Strict Young Man. Theatre and Fashion by Konstantin Goncharov’ is a well curated exhibition of costumes by the 1990s Leningrad fashion designer whose untimely death at the age of twenty-nine cut short a nascent career abroad.

The short and vivid artistic career of designer Konstantin Goncharov (1969–1998) coincided with an equally brief time of unparalleled artistic freedoms for young artists in St Petersburg. The city had regained its historical name in 1991 yet was in many ways still Soviet Leningrad. Haute couture was something completely new in Russia, and the fashion industry had not yet merged with mass contemporary culture and was still an area for creative experimentation.

In September 1990 Arthur Elgort did a famous shoot for Vogue USA called ‘Russian Red’, where Christy Turlingtondressed in Yohji Yamamoto was photographed among the Leningrad bohemians. On the left of a vintage photograph taken on this shoot stands a 20-year-old Konstantin Goncharov. He had studied the basics of cutting and sewing and worked at the Mariinsky Theatre designing and making historical costumes for La Bayadere, Swan Lake and Giselle. This grounding in the classics made him a natural fit in the 1980s New Academy artistic movement under Timur Novikov (1958–2002), a postmodernist group of artists who followed classical aesthetics and revived lost ideals of beauty.

Konstantin Goncharov loved sewing dresses and coats for his friends, typically monochrome, always in an exquisite colour with a very complicated cut. Each piece is unique, inimitable, produced by hand as a one off. He made a coat for art historian and critic Ekaterina Andreeva, who after wearing it for years, decided to gift it to the Hermitage Museum, where there was already a substantial holding of his costumes. Andreeva sees it as art more than fashion as she says, “Like great works of art, these things are not seasonal, and cannot go out of fashion”. In the Museum setting his costumes have thankfully been well preserved over the years.

He dressed musicians and created stage costumes for the rock band Kino and pop diva Zhanna Aguzarova. With like-minded spirit Alexey Sokolov he opened a fashion atelier and gallery called ‘Strict Young Man’ in 1994 in St Petersburg. The name comes from a cult 1935 film directed by Abram Room (1894–1976), which embodied the early totalitarian aesthetics of the USSR. Artist Sergei Spitysn designed the logo for Goncharov's house of fashion, a red-figure painting in a circle depicting a young man reminiscent of ancient Greek kiliks.

In 1995 Konstantin Goncharov designed the costumes for the ballet ‘Leda and the Swan’ staged by Sergei Vikharev (1962–2017), which was performed at the Hermitage Theatre. In 1996, the Passiones Luci project, in which 28 costumes based on Apuleius' novel ‘The Golden Ass’ were combined with current technologies of new media and photography, won a prize at the First Moscow International Festival of Avant-Garde Fashion ‘Albo-moda’.

Goncharov always had a deep interest in the work of Cecil Beaton (1904–1980), whose costumes for the 1964 classic film ‘My Fair Lady’ left a strong impression on him, especially contrasting with what he saw as a dreary late Soviet environment. Andreeva recalls how he loved the horse racing scene at Ascot in the film. Among his creative reference points was French designer Thierry Mugler. Ekaterina Andreeva believes: “If Goncharov had lived longer, he would have become as famous as Galliano or McQueen. He died just at that moment when his first shows abroad were attracting a lot of attention”.

Ekaterina Andreeva likes to draw parallels between the costumes and the classical museum where they are now displayed. Comparing all the various buildings which form part of the Hermitage Museum perhaps it is closest of all to the historicism of architect Leo von Klenze (1784–1864). A recent exhibition ‘Novikov’s Wedge’ at the Russian Museum showed Goncharov’s works and was censored. Of particular concern for the censors was a costume for Lucius, the protagonist of ‘The Golden Ass’. A textile phallus which is an integral part of the garment was covered with a drape. In the Hermitage exhibition, as often happens in museums, things were removed from their original context. In cramped display cases Goncharov’s textiles need air and space to breathe, to regain their sensuality, tactility and eroticism, all elements important in his art. Yet in Russia today, as there are strict laws against what is seen as LGBT propaganda, the museum chose to follow a strict policy to sidestep any risk.

Strict Young Man: Theatre and Fashion by Konstantin Goncharov The Hermitage

The Hermitage

St. Petersburg, Russia

28 March – 14 April, 2024

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