Indeed meritocracy - a system that rewards merit with success - has become globally unpopular, even though in some sectors, such as the fashion industry, it has probably rarely existed.
It is not a secret that, in fashion, ability and talent are often secondary to your looks and to how aesthetically or physically attractive you appear in a photograph. Besides, in fashion, silence is preferred to any kind of conceptual, philosophical or political disquisition about serious issues such as society or economy.
Being frivolous, photogenic, keeping your mouth shut, boasting an Instagram account with millions of (fake? real?) followers and giving the best presents to the right people in the industry, guarantees a designer the support (features, positive reviews, contracts with shops...) of many key players in this industry.
In the last few years we have for example seen a few unsuspecting labels and designers becoming rather popular for the aura of coolness built around them by selected editors, high profile bloggers and trend forecasting agencies - think about hip Gosha Rubchinskiy and his soccer casuals or Vêtements revomiting Martin Margiela 20 years later and being hailed as the freshest and most innovative thing around rather than just a temporary tribal cult for fashionistas (but the list of young and hip labels with very little to say could go on and on...).
In this chaotic mess reigning supreme in the fashion industry there is an unassuming Russian design duo that is not enjoying the rewards of other labels, even though they should probably be more successful than them - Nina Donis (Nina Neretina and Donis Pouppis).
Their well-researched and wearable collections make them not just the best Russian designers around, but part of a very limited group of fashion designers who seems to have managed to preserve their integrity in an otherwise frivolous world.
The duo's A/W 2016/17 collection moves from Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin's painting "Bathing of the Red Horse", a symbolical work that summarizes three inspirations - Russian icons, Byzantine frescoes that inspired the Russian classical iconography, and Neoclassicist art.
There are other influences, though, in this collection going from memories of childhood and hard sugar candies or kids' attire from New Year's Eve to Mickey Mouse and Olive Oyl, with a touch of interior design represented by Soviet enamelware and a few references to cinema with Alisa Brunovna Freindlich in Office Romance, American icon Marilyn Monroe and Fanny and Alexander by Ingmar Bergman.
The result of this mix of inspirations is a well-balanced collection of separates and dresses revolving around a limited colour palette comprising black, white and camel with a splash of red.
The designs are simple with oversized dresses and versatile tops at times with large Peter Pan collars, matched with skirts and pants firmly held in place with a thick cord evoking the world of sailors.
Most pieces included in the collection are minimalist yet well-structured while embellishment is limited to the collar line or the skirt and dress hems with a subtle row of sparkling Swarovski crystals and gems, a reference to the festive Christmas season, but also to Byzantine frescoes and to crafts - all the crystals are indeed appliqued by hand, a process that takes the duo 14-16 hours.
If you want to know more about Nina Donis you should check the video "Crash Course in Russian Culture by Nina Donis" (embedded at the end of this post). Recently released on YouTube, it shows their personal Russian inspirations in an imaginative collage-like style. There's a smiling Yuri Gagarin at the beginning; then Leningrad porcelain leads to a red square evoking Malevich's art.
Then we are catapulted in the world of literature via illustrations from children's books and Eugene Onegin, Alexander Pushkin's novel in verse. For a while it feels like having a walk in a bookshop on a bleak and cold Moscow morning, but then suddenly the mood swings to Russian forests, the anticipation of New Year's Eve and love, the '80s music scene and the '90s raves, a time of hope and enthusiasm that was too soon dispelled by other worries.
Shot in a postmodernist style, the video reflects the style of Nina Donis' moodboards, infused with a passion for history and culture, but also with subtle messages of protest and featuring images assembled in a coherently incoherent collage linked to art, film and music. In this case you almost expect at some point to hear New Order playing in the distance as the images and the way they are arranged and styled calls to mind the post-punk aesthetic injected with electronic and dance music that characterised the videos of the Manchester band.
There is actually another reason why, after watching the video, we should respect Nina Donis even more: their invisible presence and the fact that they always put their inspirations and clothes before themselves (like Margiela did...). In a world ruled by too many egomaniacs and where the cult of the self has damaged the substance, this is truly and genuinely revolutionary.