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The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Designer (and DJ)

by Galina Zueva

What does it mean to be an artist in Russia today? Must one compromise their aesthetic for the state, or possess 'coterminous' interests with sponsors from the new elite?

Alexei Komov, a St. Petersburg born and bred DJ, who has risen to fame alongside the rise of house music in Russia, has now set his sanguine sights on fashion. Alexei has worked in the DJ industry for ten years, observing the rise of the first house club in Russia, Tunnel, to playing at VIP parties for the 'golden youth'. 1)   He is in such demand that his usual gigs range from Murmansk to Moscow, London, and this summer, Cannes.

"Ten years ago I thought that I wanted to play only house music and that this would be great. I have rich friends and very popular people around me….unfortunately, the scene has changed in Russia: people aren't accustomed to honest work. I love music, I love to play music, but many people in Russia go to these parties only if it's popular. It's not a culture in the sense of the dance scene itself is only a small percent of the population. I probably wouldn't have a job if it wasn't popular. Now, the wealthy pay a lot of money for house DJs to play. For example, this evening I will play at a venue 150km out of St. Petersburg for a young boy from Moscow. It's his birthday and his parents have given him US$100, 000 for him and his friends to party. There are a lot of these types of parties in Russia".

Alexei isn't very impressed playing at these parties, and perhaps this explains his despondency with the dance scene in general. It's work, but lacks the vibrancy of conceptual based house parties. Five years ago Alexei was a part of a collective that created parties with a certain philosophy based purely on music and dance. It has changed dramatically, becoming a job rather than the maintaining the street credibility it once had.

"A lot of money is now poured into creating these parties, but they aren't interesting. They lack the core concept of music, dance, and having fun……Today in St. Petersburg we have exclusive clubs (generally VIP) and underground clubs. Underground clubs generally don't like this creativity. For example, concept parties, etc. They want to take drugs and listen to electric house. In VIP clubs, people are boring, going because it's the 'thing to do'……perhaps to watch others dance, drink champagne from crystal glasses……this is also not for me. Five years ago, we created the Opium club and held thematic parties where rich people went and engaged themselves in the concept we had created. This is interesting…..but VIP clubs are not that innovative anymore. Girls now go-go dance, there are spats, etc. This is definitely not cool."

Playing at concerts is also not all that it is cracked up to be. Young people that flock to these concerts usually only go if drugs are involved. However, Alexei notes that it is positive to see 15,000 people respond to what you play, but he questions the culture that facilitates this. Quite often, people may respond to the rhythm, but not to the melody, or internal structure of the music, which means that they are not really feeling the music. For Alexei, it is the culture of drugs which has created this problem. Of course, St. Petes has always had drugs; but when the scene first began, drugs weren't the reason to rock up to these clubs. Ten years ago, the scene seemed more fresh and idealistic, and now it has become apart of popular culture: easily manufactured and disposable. Consequently, a disposable culture has been spawned. Alexei also laments the 'gortike' mentality of partygoers in general now, who aren't restive, and usually pick fights in underground house clubs. 2)   Ten years ago, this was unheard of. Because of this, VIP clubs now enforce strong dress codes and security, in order to maintain a positive atmosphere central to the dance ethos. Ironically, the people who pay a lot to enter these VIP clubs usually don't dance.

Alexei does acknowledge the development within house music in Russia and its wide public support. "In Russia, electric house is becoming more common for concerts. I have a friend who works mainly in big clubs and he usually plays R&B and hip-house [a fusion of popular house tunes with R&B tunes]. It's a growing trend, something that was unheard of a couple of years ago …Of course, house music is the new pop music, and even children listen to it. Minimal house is on the rise and drum and bass is too, although it seems to attract a very young crowd…"

A stint in London made Alexei even more aware of how this culture is developing in Russia. The biggest difference is that English clubs tend to resemble raves (for example, Ministry of Sound in London), and attract a very flamboyant - and dare one say buoyant crowd! In general, concept parties still seem widely accepted and even flaunted. Another difference is money: in England it's rather cheap and easy to create parties, whereas in Russia, promoters pay an arm and a leg for popular DJs like Paul van Dyke or Roger Sanchez to play. However, popular DJs are often surprised by the attendance and the freshness of partygoers in Russia, perhaps as this scene in the UK is older and has become rather well worn.

As the life of a DJ has become just a regular job, Alexei's passion has turned to the catwalk. Alexei continues his work as a DJ in order to finance his collections. Russian designers who have shows in Milan or London usually have sponsors, usually businessmen who want to invest money into art. However, an up and coming designer may not necessarily have this support.

"It's not easy in Russia. You need a lot if money if you want to make your own collections. In Italy or England they have institutes for fashion designers. You can study or work in fashion houses, even if you aren't that good. You are given a chance to refine your work. In Russia, we don't have this possibility. If you want to create fashion, you need the money to do it. Fashion is rather new here, in that it is a concept from abroad."

Alexei estimates that in ten years the market, or a certain attitude towards fashion, will change in Russia, making it easier for young designers to crack the market. Although young designers are accepted quite readily in Europe, one has to remember that in Europe it's an established culture, whereas in Russia they are quite undervalued because of its 'foreignness'. A Russian designer, such as Denis Semichov, is very famous for his European motifs, and is one of a few who has managed to blend quality and brand (brand being especially imperative if one wants to enter the Russian market!). And, for Alexei?

"Generally, Russians, especially men, are not all that fashion conscious. At the moment I am putting together a leatherwear collection for men….As for the future, I want my own label, although maybe only 30% of it would circulate within Russia. But in Russia, we're only just beginning".

Alexei Komov has recently been accepted as an inhouse designer within an Italian fashion house. Stay tuned.

1) A direct translation of 'zolotoy moladozj' - a term used only for the very rich and privileged youth in Russia.

2) Gortike - people from the provinces, usually associated with uncultured philistines.

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