‘This Isn’t California’

PHOTO by Peter Turnley / paperboats.me
The President of Levi’s Brand comments on denim styles from the USSR

On May 20, 1873, the patent for riveted pants was issued: that was the birth of Levi’s jeans. To mark their 143rd anniversary, Afisha Daily takes a look at the history of denim not in the USA, but in the USSR and asked James Curleigh, President of Levi’s Brand, to comment on Soviet denim fashions.

James Curleigh

James curleigh
James Curleigh became the President of Levi’s Brand in 2012. He is responsible for managing the brand’s strategic direction and execution. He was previously President and CEO of Salomon Sports North America and held various leadership positions at Adidas and Mars Inc

The USSR and Russia in the History of Denim

The Russian idea in the eyes of a denim manufacturing company CEO

“If you ask me what first comes into my mind when I think of Italy, I’d say motorcycles and racing cars, fashion and coffee shops. You also know what to expect from London: it’s the centre of Europe, with an abundance of civilisation’s monuments; it has long been a symbol of the Western world, and now it is experiencing a powerful Middle Eastern influence, but it remains London, nonetheless. It is the history of hi-tech; it is Harrods and Selfridges, restaurants, Range Rover, Aston Martin, and James Bond. What is America? It is rock-n-roll, Harley Davidson, Coca-Cola, Levi’s, Americana. And Russia… What’s important is that you first think of people - Chekhov, Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky - not brands. Culture, not business.

I think Russia’s identity is best explained by the term ‘modern heritage’. Your country has rushed into the modern world and is now trying to figure out its place in it. In the 1990s, you went through a period of hungry acceptance of influences from all over the world, and now you have come to the point where you feel the need to invent your own style, your own brand.

Russia holds on to its ability to surprise the world: to change itself and to change the motion of geopolitical forces. Add to that the clichéd idea of Russians as brave, bold, and enduring and you get such heroes as Alexander Ovechkin. To me, he is an embodiment of Russia: a world class athlete, who is very devoted to his team, Washington Capitals, but he is still Russian. I think the story of Russia is still the most untold story in the world. The world needs your designers, your film directors and musicians. We need people who can retranslate the Russian idea through something other than hockey and ballet.”

The History of Denim in the USSR

James Curleigh shares his thoughts on Soviet photographs of denim-clad people

The Flowers, 1976

“I think this could happen at any great American festival, at Woodstock, for example. The people in the front are rock icons, something like the Soviet Crosby, Stills, or Nash. They're the look of the 1970s free spirit. But look at the suits behind them. Who are they? Security guards? KGB agents making sure that the performance is kept within limits. And this is a very Russian juxtaposition of culture and style: rock rebels and bureaucrats whose very look seems to say, “Hold it there!”

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Vladimir Vysotsky and Marina Vlady, 1977

“Are they Russian? She’s French? It looks awesome: legs over legs, high waists, bell bottoms, a cigarette, a denim shirt with jeans – the real 1970s classics. They look like the Russian Sonny and Cher. A provocative pose against a very sparse background.”

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The Lebedevs, hairdressers, spending a weekend on the banks of the Moskva, 1977

“This is a shot from a Russian remake of Columbo from the end of the 1970s. It's a bit more serious, judging from the style of the characters, and isn't set anywhere near Los Angeles. But this picture shows what street fashion was like in the USSR.”

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Larisa Dolina, pop singer and winner of Soviet and international competitions, 1980

“The Russian Tina Turner. Even her boots are denim! Of course it's easy to laugh at these kinds of outfits now, but in the 1980s they signified energy and power.”

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Andrei Tarkovsky, early 1980s

“What do I see here? This man is clearly comfortable wearing denim where others would feel awkward. It is some sort of a ceremonial portrait: other people would have gone for a suit. For him, denim is a way to express himself. So, who is he?”

A shot from Station for Two, 1982

“A sweet picture. A moustache, jeans, a belt, and a sailor shirt – I don't think our hero gave a second thought about what he was wearing, but every detail screams, ‘I’m a man!’”

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Alla Pugacheva and her daughter Kristina, 1982

“Absolute ABBA. There’s also a hint of Dallas-style aristocracy. But I'm more intrigued by the psychology of the picture than by her denim blouse. It's clear that the mother and daughter have everything there is to have. But are they happy?”

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A schoolgirl in drawing class in the Pavlovsk Park, 1985

“Here we see the new generation. For them, jeans are just a part of their everyday life – no self-expression, just pants. The pose and the outfit of this girl would have looked too bold before, but now they look everyday and random, even.”

Andrey Makarevich, Leonid Yarmolnik, Aleksandr Abdulov, 1986

“Their style is relaxed. They're making it known that they're musicians. The colour scheme is very minimalistic – blue, white, and red. I think it’s a picture of a band who have just recorded their first hit and are taking their first pre-stardom photo shoot. The Russian Talking Heads?”

Yanka and Grazhdanskaya Oborona, 1980s

“They're smiling, so they feel good. And under conditions that are no so good: there is snow everywhere! Their shoes aren't right for the season. A band could have worn identical jeans, but here they're all different: a beard, long hair, rock, hippie style, and the last guy looks like a college student.”

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Igor Sklyar, actor, 1986

“You know the mullet hairstyle that was so popular in the eighties? It's business at the front, but a party at the back. I’d say that this is a mullet suit. It’s a time in the eighties when jeans stopped being the antithesis of the suit and tie. Denim used to be the clothes of goldminers, cowboys, and rock stars and now it's part of the clerk's wardrobe. Is he a clerk?”

Dance floor, late 1980s

“Amazing hair – nobody thought that this style could ever come back, but it is just the fashion now. I see an ocean of blue with pops of red: very Soviet, again.”

A shot from Courier, 1986

“I never would have thought that I could ever see the words ‘USSR’ and ‘skateboard’ in the same sentence. And I have no idea what’s going on here. Is this guy running to save the guy on the skateboard? Or is he about to take his picture? And, of course, it’s hard to imagine a Californian skateboarder dressed like that.”

From the archives of Andrey Gans, 1987

“Street style, graffiti, young rebels. Here, jeans are a sign of protest once again, and I would be very interested to see these guys ten years before and ten years after this shot was taken.”

The wedding of Joanna Stingray and Yuri Kasparyan, 1987. From the archives of Joanna Stingray

“What's this? A young communist wedding? You can see right away who the outsider is here – the guy in denim. On the other hand, he's clearly having more fun than the rest of them.”

Vladimir Presnyakov, 1988

“The flaming acid wash of the eighties! You can tell that the guy got ready standing next to a John Bon Jovi poster.”

Electroclub Band. In the front: Viktor Saltykov and Irina Allegrova, late 1980s

“Again, it is the late 1980s glam, which was thought to be the most banal form of rock-n-roll for many years. Denim is beginning to melt into sports style, so the white sneakers draw the eye.”

Boris Grebenshchikov, late 1980s. From the archives of Joanna Stingray

“You can’t say that the USSR was an isolated country like North Korea. This picture shows that Western influences did get there. And it is obvious that he had David Bowie in mind; it's a Soviet interpretation. Of course, David Bowie couldn't play in Leningrad every Saturday, so the USSR needed its own version.”

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Alla Pugacheva and Vladimir Kuzmin, late 1980s

“Acid wash and bad hair again. It's interesting that this look was an element of counterculture at the time. This excess swank was arrogant, but not tacky.”

Metalheads in Red Square, 1989. From the archives of Dima Sabbath

“We are arriving at the time of jeans customisation that combines Boy Scout badges, on the one hand, and the punk demand for a lot of metal, on the other. I recognise some of the patches: Number 1 is for Harley Davidson, and there is the Confederacy flag. Now these symbols are seen as part of Americana, an international myth of America, which goes beyond the USA. Not everyone likes America, but everyone loves Americana.”

Katya, a prostitute, in Red Square, 1991

“I don’t think that denim overalls the working attire in the USSR, like they were in the USA. I don’t know who she is, but today you could definitely see a shot like this in a fashionable brand's look book.”

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Pyotr Mamonov, 1991

“Soviet normcore: it’s as though a regular guy was sitting on a bench and somebody took his picture by accident.”

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The nineties or later

“What a crazy jumble! The guy on the right is wearing rolled-up jeans and no socks; the guy in the centre is the most fashionable, with his rolled-up sleeves, black corduroys, and white socks; and the one on the left is the most relaxed in his three-striped Adidas shoes, Levi’s jeans and a black turtleneck. Of course, it's not about fashion, but there is a certain art in the way that jeans are put together with shoes.”

Author: Philipp Mironov