The Emerging World(s) Of Stephan Rabimov
I’m sitting here at the lovely San Francisco W hotel with the esteemed Stephan Rabimov, owner and editor of Depesha Emerging Markets Lifestyle “bookzine,” that is responsible for bringing awareness to the West of the brilliance of emerging fashion designers from around the world. Stephan has a resume as long as this season’s wide leg trousers and as broad. You would be better to ask “who doesn’t he know” than ask who he does. In addition to being editor of Depesha, Stephan is the director of Fashion Journalism, and founder and director of Social Media Center at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. He is also a regular contributor to Forbes. Stephan has been interviewed by such esteemed publications as WWD, The New York Times – Russia Beyond Headlines edition, CNN, and the Wall Street Journal to name just a few.
You would think a man like this would be hard to approach but quite the opposite. Sitting with him you immediately can tell that this is a man who cares and cares deeply…not just about everything he does, but also to giving back. He is warm, down to Earth and insanely humble. We sat in deep conversation about his life in Chechnya before his parents immigrated to the United States, his path to fashion and the amazing number of lives he’s lived as well as what has lead him to teach.
C&S: You’ve been covering fashion for a long time so I have to ask, what is the craziest experience you’ve had covering a fashion show?
SR: [Laughs] Great question! I have had so many crazy moments over the past ten years, it’s hard to pick just one. Okay, I’ll tell you. The story takes place in Turkmenistan: it’s an extremely small and extremely rich country. Their wealth comes from oil and gas. They are so wealthy that nobody pays for gas or electricity, but the people live under a very fierce regime. The country only gives out 50 visas to foreigners per year, that’s how strict it is to enter this closed state. It is akin to North Korea. A while ago, I was invited to be a judge/guest of honor to one of their annual fashion shows. I was really nervous to go solo, so I begged my friend who was visiting Tanzania at the time to come with as plus one. When we finally arrived to Turkmenistan the whole time we were there we were constantly accompanied by “translators” who also served as handlers, and followed us everywhere we went. It was surreal, the downtown of the capital was entirely people-free; the streets were completely empty. Still, we tried to find out if there was any nightlife, because I like a good time in any place, even crazy ones! We evaded the handlers and spent a late evening drinking and hanging with locals at an undisclosed location; it was a major risk because we could have been jailed for drinking past curfew (yes this country has a curfew!), but if I am going to have a stiff drink it better come with a garnish of an international diplomatic crisis. [Laughs]
C&S: So you know we are an accessories company so I have to ask, what do you think is the importance of accessories to having great style?
SR: That’s like asking how important is it to have a pair of water-proof shoes or an umbrella on a rainy day. It is the essential “secret” ingredient that makes everything look better. It brings it together, of course, everything in moderation.
C&S: So what’s your favorite fashion accessory?
SR: I love pins, absolutely love them. I have a collection of over 300, and every time I fly home in Oregon, there’s this Goodwill shop nobody visits, except me. [Laughs]. I always find amazing vintage pieces. I think people underestimate the importance of a good pin (or a good accessory for that matter) and what it can do for a final touch for any look. Plus it can be a conversation starter, or a political statement, and most importantly it can make or break an outfit. It can make a conservative outfit transform into whimsical in a second. I think the people who understand the potential beauty of pins are another class of tasteful people. While I always say that good taste cannot be taught, it can certainly be learned! Learn from me, wear more pins!
C&S: So what kinds of pins do you have?
SR: All my pins, for the most part, have a military theme. I love how different army units have different design mascots which is so cool but most of all, I love the amazing slogans some of them have. They say great things like “always ready” or “together we fall.” They are inspirational for the most part, and I can pick a pin from my collection and it can be my motto for the day.
C&S: Any other accessories?
SR: I remember an in-person conversation I once had with a global style icon Daphne Guinness about how people can fall in love with their favorite fashion object. I think that’s so true. When you are lucky to find that one perfect accessory, it almost becomes an inseparable part of you. Take me for example, I have this vintage Cerruti belt. It goes with absolutely everything. It taught me a lesson once when I forgot it on yet another international trip: a good belt is essential for a man that travels!
C&S: You've had a chance to look over our site. Would you select a few pieces and tell us why you like them?
"Every refined man needs a solid pair of cufflinks. This pair is a great conversation starter."
"I always dreamed about an indoor fire pit, somethings are just impossible. This is as close as one could get, and it smells divine."
"Jewelry is a precious gift that lasts a lifetime (or many). I think this bracelet would make for a fine gift."
C&S: We all have a fashion story from when we were kids. I was 2 when I first realized I loved fashion. I used to twirl around in dresses my grandmother sent me and beg my mom for black patent Mary Janes. She was totally crushed being an ardent feminist. What was your favorite outfit as a kid?
SR: On my most recent trip home, my mom and I were going through old childhood photographs. There it was! A picture of me as a young boy in brown tights, a cardigan, a red scarf around my neck, and a giant beret that was obviously borrowed from an adult. Reflecting back it is when I realized that fashion has been part of my life from a very young age. My parents were always aware of good taste and style. My mother in particular always dresses immaculately well.
C&S – Do you think Russians have a greater sense of fashion, of dressing up every day?
SR: Russia is such a big country. People don’t realize it covers 12 time zones. That’s 3 times as many as the US. It spans both Europe and Asia which means in the West, in places like Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russians dress like most Europeans. They care about investing in style. They believe passionately in the importance of making a great first impression and know that you only get one chance. Outside of the cities people dress more in what is considered “Russian” style, perhaps a little bit more kitschy and loud. Keep in mind, Russia is a distinct culture. It has its own language, it’s own history. There’s something like 179 different nations in the Russian Federation. To try to pin point what is Russia, is like saying Americana is all about Cowboys, but we know it is so much more!
C&S: When you say “Russian Style” what do you mean?
SR: Well, Russia has had a mix of different styles throughout history spanning a few thousand of years. It’s a country that has been invaded and influenced by various forces through its tumultuous history: Genghis Khan, the Persian Empire, the French, Germans, and each has left its cultural mark. Therefore, Russia’s style identity is just as broad. People have sometimes made fun of the Russian love of furs, bright colors and flashy gold accents but think about it, it’s C-O-L-D and any country that had been an empire and had royalty has a stronger love for rich accents, from Spain to Japan! Also, have you ever been inside any Russian Orthodox churches? They are so beautiful, and well, yes, very Russian. So to answer your question Russian style can only be understood if/when you visit Russia and experience its culture.
C&S: How do you think Russian designers are impacting fashion in the West?
SR: They are having a huge impact. But don’t take my word for it, discover how the leading fashion critics are dissecting Russian influence on the fashion at large:
During my recent visit to Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Russia I discovered three things that have blown me away: Russian menswear designers are light-years ahead of their contemporaries in USA, Russia doesn’t shy away from some of the most avant-garde fashion trends like the rise of modest fashion, and finally, Russian womenswear designers have finally arrived. I invite you to read my stories on Forbes to get the full picture!
C&S Do you still have a lot of ties to Russia?
SR: I flirt with the world, I am married to the United States, and I love Russia. It remains a great source of inspiration for me – from literature to films Russia remains an enigma even to me, and it is fun to keep discovering exciting new things about this country. One thing I can say is that Russian people make extremely loyal friends; they appreciate cultured fun like the arts, and know how to throw a good party. Do I need to say more?
C&S: Tell me about growing up in Russia. How old you were when you first came to the US? What was it like?
SR: My family and I came here as refugees in 1996 when I was only 14 years old. The first year we had to live in state sponsored house and used food stamps, all while my parents looked for work. My dad was great with metal so he eventually got a job in an auto shop where you could get by not speaking English, though both of my parents went to school at night to learn English. My mom took a step further and not only learned English and finished a teaching degree, but also got her teaching license. Within couple years, they bought their first home. Their courage to leave everything behind and build a new life inspires me, and reminds me of their sacrifice and my responsibility to keep on building on this incredible legacy.
C&S: Fast forwarding to now, what is DEPESHA?
SR: DEPESHA is a resource, a destination for anyone interested in learning about emerging fashion markets from the new East: From Russia to Georgia, from Azerbaijan to Ukraine, and then some. I enjoy visiting and reporting from the most unique places that are marching to their own fashion beat.
It is interesting to note, that 8 years ago, nobody was talking about Russian fashion or even attempted to translate what designers from Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan were creating; except me. Today, everybody covers it, Vogue, NYT, Vice, you name it. But there is so much of the world that hasn’t been discovered. I am exited to see how fashion industry is shaping up in Myanmar, Vietnam, Nigeria, and Columbia, among others.
C&S: What’s been the best part of having this magazine?
SR: Watching designers grow. Some of them have started out at the same time when I was launching my magazine, for example NYC based designer Ruben Singer. Now over 10+ years and he is a globally recognized name, having dressed Beyoncé for the half-time show, and sells in Neiman Marcus. It’s just amazing to see that passion and perseverance can take you places if you just give it time.
C&S: That’s great advice for students just starting out in the field, which brings me to the point that now, even with this incredible resume, you joined the School of Fashion at the Academy of Art as the director of Fashion Journalism. How has that change been for you and what prompted you to make that change?
SR: I’d have to say I’ve made the change because of a desire to give back. I am surrounded by some incredible professional talent from our executive director Simon Ungless to colleagues like Rob Curry, Iliana Rickets, Jinah Oh, and Flore Morton. I have read their bios and worked with them over the past two and a half years, and our students are lucky to have such incredible teachers.
This experience has reminded me of the time in my past. When I look back on my own success, I credit it to my own teachers, too. I always had the most amazing instructors, who went above and beyond to support and guide me. There is no question I would not have ended up where I am now if not for their support. I’m so grateful to them for being willing to go the extra mile, ask the right questions, and push me harder.
At the Academy, I follow this rule: if I can instill confidence into a student and help them feel empowered by their own voice as a journalist; if I can give them powerful tools to, one day, become the leading fashion voice of their generation…that’s would be so gratifying. In many ways I see myself as even more of a mentor, a friend that listens, than just a teacher. Every teacher will tell you that when you teach you get back as much as you give and that’s so true. I enjoy when students share their points of view and raise interesting questions. They really make you think. We engage in conversations, debates, and we work together on stories that highlight the most pressing questions fashion industry is facing right now, Whoever said that journalism is dead or that print is dead, never held a good magazine in his/her hands. Journalism is booming, with the arrival of social media, our jobs and responsibilities have transformed and expanded. This is why one of my very first initiatives at the Academy of Art University was to launch Social Media Center, with curriculum that is ahead of the curve that can make our fashion journalists and other media professionals across the Academy speak the language of social fluently.
C&S: How has the job market changed for students today?
SR: It’s completely different from even a year ago. The industry is changing so rapidly now. In fashion journalism it is really about the ability to tell the story in the most immersive, most interactive, and most engaging ways. Some of the tools we teach are so experimental that industry relies on us to offer them feedback for improvement! We continuously update our online courses to ensure we stay on top of the changes in the industry, and our Global Advisory Board which I have cultivated over the past two years already includes Tumblr, Weebly, Flipboard, Issuu, Fyuse, and NewCo. We are preparing students for the careers of the future, while other programs are just playing catch up with careers of the past. I cannot be more proud of the strong, visionary support from the executives in helping us bring this Center to reality!
C&S What do you think is next for social media?
SR: In a word? Consolidation! For awhile now, social media has been a rather fragmented experience: million apps doing million things. IN reality, we as humans prefer having all things in one place. This is why my bet has been and will be on Facebook – they are the next everything in social. Mark my word!
C&S: You’ve lived such a rich and amazing life, so what does the future hold?
SR: In the near future I would like to realize a new course on fashion film at the Academy; for me this medium is a perfect example where fashion, media, arts, creativity, and people come together to tell a story. Perhaps this is why from Sofia Coppola to Roman Polanski have experimented with this medium. The world is curious about this content type, and so am I.
We concluded our interview there, he to meet up with friends at the San Francisco Film Festival and me to head home, my head full and my heart inspired. I’ve taught some courses for Stephan but never really had the chance to know the man before this evening. I know I’ve barely scratched the surface, but what I’ve discovered here has given me a lot to think about.
Stephan Rabimov in Moscow
Interested to learn more about Russian Fashion? Check out these articles by Stephan.