MBFW Tbilisi: embracing emerging design and advocating LGBTQ+ Rights
After a nearly four-year pandemic-induced hiatus, the Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Tbilisi made a highly anticipated comeback in the Georgian capital from May 4 to 8, marking the triumphant return of a fashion event that had once established itself as a prominent fixture on the global catwalk scene, rivalling major fashion capitals like New York, London, Milan, and Paris.
Reflecting on the challenges faced, Sofia Tchkonia, the fashion entrepreneur responsible for founding MBFW Tbilisi in 2014, humorously acknowledged, "It wasn't easy to get back to work and organise everything again - I thought I had almost forgotten how to put on a fashion week!" Amidst the obstacles, the event's mission to support local designers and enhance their global presence remained paramount. However, the journey was disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic and further threatened by the Russian invasion in Ukraine. Tchkonia shared a bittersweet sentiment as she lamented the impact of these events, questioning the purpose of even continuing to organise a fashion event amidst the backdrop of war.
At the international level, the Georgian population has emerged as a vocal opponent of Russia since the outbreak of the war. Their strong opposition is understandable, given the shared "common enemy" with Ukraine and their aspirations towards European Union membership, which they applied to be a part of in February 2022. Having been part of the former Soviet Union and having previously experienced a two-year civil war, Georgia faced an armed conflict with Russia in 2008 over the invasion of South Ossetia. While Russian tourists still visit the country, the streets of Tbilisi reflect a palpable sense of rejection and criticism to its neighbouring nation. The city has become a backdrop for protests against the government and perceived alignment with Russia.
Amidst such circumstances, Tchkonia took a proactive stance in supporting Ukraine, engaging in activities such as collaborating on the Polish border and organising various forms of support for the country. Notably, she had previously organised the Kyiv Art & Fashion Days, a cultural and fashion event, in Ukraine just months before the invasion. Prior to resuming preparations for MBFW Tbilisi, the entrepreneur chose to organise The Culture Week Tbilisi, a multidisciplinary event held last November, to foster collaboration and showcase the talents of both Georgian and Ukrainian creatives. "I couldn't stand idly by in the face of the situation the world was going through," Tchkonia told FashionNetwork.com at the time, emphasising the importance of "rethinking" events and creating "meaningful" hybrid concepts.
The revival of MBFW Tbilisi took place in the industrial space formerly occupied by the Coca-Cola factory in the capital, marking the initial steps towards reclaiming its previous size and attracting international buyers. This edition received support from renowned industry figures including journalist Diane Pernet, Andam award founder Nathalie Dufour, and Louis Vuitton's head of creative talent acquisition, Millie Aoki de La Valette. This edition also featured a collaboration with the Parisian showroom Untitled, further enhancing its industry presence.
Commitment to emerging talent
"The idea is to take things one step at a time. On this occasion, we received very positive feedback and the inspiration to bring back the fashion week came from the energy and anticipation expressed by all the young designers eagerly waiting to participate," revealed Tchkonia. The entrepreneur is also head of the Georgian Fashion Foundation, which plays a pivotal role in supporting and funding emerging local talent.
The last edition of the catwalk put a strong emphasis on the new generation of young designers through the highly anticipated Be Next Contest. This prestigious competition aims to support five talented fashion students by offering scholarships, mentoring, public relations support, and project funding. Out of over 200 applications received, twenty exceptional designers from countries including Georgia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Israel, were shortlisted. Their collections showcased a range of themes, such as sustainability and upcycling, innovation and new technologies, and the revaluation of traditional craftsmanship from various regions. The jury, consisting of esteemed journalists and industry professionals, cast their final votes during the MBFW Tbilisi.
Despite the absence of some familiar brands like Anouki or Lado Bokuchava, the MBFW Tbilisi fashion show schedule included over 20 shows, presentations, as well as engaging talks and exhibitions. Situationist, a renowned Georgian brand with international recognition, made a striking appearance. Led by designer Irakli Rusadze, the brand presented a unique and sensual menswear collection in a traditional sauna located in the historic center of the capital. The Spring/Summer 2024 collection explored a range of contemporary structured tailoring, alluring knitwear in fitted tops and jumpsuits, as well as captivating corsetry designs.
A safe space for the queer community
"Russia's invasion of Ukraine and decades of hostility towards Georgia have revealed Russia's problematic stance towards all of its independent neighbouring states," explained the premium fashion brand, established in 2015. "While we are not the ones being shot at, we are engaged in a war of ideologies and it is hurting the Georgian community, especially the marginalised queer community, which remains a target of Russian propaganda."
"We have come to realise that we have to fight differently and that sometimes existence is the purest form of resistance (...) We hope to remind our community that love and freedom are worth fighting for; and that we must continue to resist oppressive systems and attitudes," the brand added.
Led by the bold vision of Situationist, MBFW Tbilisi emerged as a haven for the LGBTQ+ community, offering a platform for alternative and inclusive collections. Reckless, a local streetwear brand, garnered attention for its punk message-bearing sweatshirts and Gen Z-inspired looks that defy traditional gender boundaries. Designer Camp Aka Prodiashvili presented a vibrant and provocative show at Mono Hall, blending drag, dance, and disco influences. Featuring an inclusive lineup of models, the fashion show presented daring phallic prints, dazzling festive ensembles, and edgy BDSM-inspired silhouettes.
Adding a captivating finale to one of the fashion show days, the mesmerising Drag Ball enthralled the audience with its fusion of grunge aesthetics and rebellious drag performances. The subversive acts by drag queens like Shally, Giorgi Cheminava, Vato Kerdzaia, David Gogishvili, and local sensation Madlena showcased the designs of brands such as God Era, Reckless, and Aka Prodiashvili.
Ukrainian design also finds its place in the market
Simultaneously, Tchkonia's event further cemented its collaboration with Ukrainian design by featuring notable brands like Jean Gritsfeld, now based in Berlin, and hosting a showroom presentation that highlighted Ukrainian fashion labels. "All the participating brands have kept their workshops and continue to produce in Ukraine. That's the most important thing," said the visionary behind the boudoir-inspired dress brand, Alya Gonta. Despite the challenges posed by the ongoing conflict, Gonta's optimism shone through, motivated by the potential inclusion of her designs in the series "And Just Like That...". While her husband and business partner, Tim Gonta, focuses on military work, Alya Gonta divides her time between Italy and Ukraine.
Each brand featured at MBFW Tbilisi has a unique narrative, reflecting a dual presence in their country of origin and their adopted host country. For instance, Sayya, known for its voluptuous dresses, now operates between Tbilisi and Kiev, while the minimalist brand Bobkova creates collections in both Berlin and Kiev. Meanwhile, Ksenia Schnaider remains committed to her store in Kiev while she actively continues to support and promote other emerging brands. Additionally, the launch of the brand Moon Lingerie added to the dynamic landscape. "Even in times of war, Ukraine continues to witness the creation of new brands and businesses. It is a testament to our resilience," affirmed Gonta.
In addition to its diverse lineup, MBFW Tbilisi showcased fashion shows from more conventional brands. Founded in 2005 by Georgian designer Datuna Sulikashvili, Datuna made a memorable impression with a show held at the Factory, featuring a captivating collection in pure white adorned with voluminous silhouettes, lace, and floral embellishments. Meanwhile, the minimalist sustainable brand Ingorokva stood out with a vibrant presentation, as models interacted throughout the rooms and staircases of the Unfound Door Hotel.
The next edition of the fashion event, which is expected to take place next October, should mark the consolidation of Tbilisi's resurgence on the global fashion calendar with an increased presence of international attendees. While maintaining its distinctive identity, the organisers are exploring synergies to create a hybrid event that encompasses not only fashion but also the realms of art and culture.
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