Exploring the Fascinating Realm of Fashion Diplomacy: An Interview with Stephan Rabimov
Fashion is not just an outlet for self-expression; it’s an incredibly diverse art form that can be used to craft an image, express an idea, or define an era. And, according to Stephan Rabimov, it is also a subtle yet powerful tool that nations utilize to help shape people’s perceptions of their particular country, culture, and traditions. It turns out fashion diplomacy is a vital part of nation branding.
Soviet-born Rabimov has been living in the United States since 1996, immigrating to Oregon with his family just a few years after the dissolution of the USSR. The monumental event left a strong impression on the young man, and sparked his interest in international politics. A few years later, he relocated to New York City to pursue his academic studies at Columbia University. It was around this time that his interest in fashion diplomacy took root.
Today, Stephan Rabimov is the Director of the Social Media Center and Fashion Journalism at the Academy of Art University based in San Francisco. ARTpublika Magazine reached to the esteemed editor, educator, and entrepreneur, to better understand how fashion diplomacy plays out on an international scale.
What sparked your initial interest in fashion?
[Around] the 2000s, when the Internet was still rising and there was a big explosion of digital music, I was a DJ at a college-run radio station where I was playing everything from ABBA and Ace of Base to Queen. During that time, I also founded my own online radio station called RadioMir as a way of promoting emerging Russian and European artists. So, while I was [covering] music and exploring different music scenes, I started to pay attention to what the artists were wearing during their performances and in their video clips as part of my commentary. It just happened that my interest quickly evolved from music to fashion. [When] I moved to New York City, my love of fashion grew even stronger. It's the perfect place to explore this interest.
Was there any particular style that stood out to you back then?
Well, the greatest thing about New York City is its underground culture. I always say that anything underground one day becomes mainstream. And, that’s precisely what I have been seeing over the years. I remember when I would go out to various clubs – and there were some quintessential clubs like the Roxy (Roxy NYC) and the Limelight – I would wear things that, at that time, would be taboo to wear on the red carpet. I am talking about something like a leather harness. Just [recently], we saw that very same outfit on Adam Rippon at the  Oscars. So, this cycle is fascinating to watch, experience, and be a part of. The club culture reinforced my interest in fashion and helped me create a fantastic network.
At what point did you start thinking about fashion diplomacy?
After graduating from Columbia University [in 2006], I joined the United Nations, where I had the chance to research how 33 different countries around the world dealt with their post-war/ post-conflict situations. At the time, I was already working on my own fashion magazine, DEPESHA. So, you can imagine, by day I was doing international relations work and then by night I was doing fashion research and writing. Ultimately, through that dual labor, I was able to gain a very strong grasp of how nations use fashion to promote themselves and/or put their specific cultures on the global map. Working for the United Nations, I got to travel around the world and really experience how the universal language of fashion enables anyone and everyone to connect.
What did you studying at Columbia University?
I have an MA in Statistics/Mathematics of Finance and an MA in International Affairs, with specialization in Emerging Markets. I am also the recipient of The Harriman Institute certificate.
What happened next?
I continued to build the team for the magazine; I had the chance to work with some very talented photographers, stylists, and writers that helped shape the vision and the idea behind it. Ultimately, DEPESHA became a voice for emerging designers from around the world – a platform for promoting and highlighting some of the talent coming out of places like Uzbekistan and Rwanda, and everywhere in between. Emerging fashion is a fascinating space to watch because [it’s] always changing. One particular element that excites me is that you never know where the next amazing thing will come from. Take for example, Demna Gvasalia. Who would have guessed that a Georgian designer would be leading the global fashion revolution?
A few years ago, you gave a talk at the Fashion Institute of Technology about how fashion diplomacy plays out on an international scale using national airlines as one of the key examples. Can you sum up that argument?
As part of nation branding and literal diplomacy, the very first impressions that countries give to their foreign visitors and tourists are often through their national airline carriers. Of course, in a country like the United States, there is no national airline carrier; we have many, many different private airline carriers. But, if you take a national airline of a country like Qatar, you can imagine that for someone visiting that country for the first time, stepping onto the plane and seeing the uniforms worn by the flight attendants already begins to shape their understanding or impression of Qatar culture. It’s always fascinating to sit at the airport and watch flight attendants from various airlines and countries, because it’s almost like watching a global fashion show. There are all kinds of [strategic] color schemes.
If you take, for example, the Lufthansa [flight attendant uniforms], there’s yellow present, which is [one of] the colors of the German flag. Aeroflot [flight attendant uniforms are] a fantastic saturated red, for the color of the former communist state and of course one of the [stripes] in the Russian flag. And, if you look at the flight attendant uniforms for airline carriers in the Middle East, you may see some of them using a kind of veil as part of their headgear. So, I think, all of the specific cultural symbolism gets translated into the uniforms. If the uniforms are not designed in an appealing way or in a way that strengthens the positive impression of the country, then there’s a risk that the relationship to or the cultural interest in that country may not be as strong. The whole notion and definition of diplomacy is to promote a country’s interests abroad and to protect a country’s culture and lifestyle.
How did fashion diplomacy play out during the 2018 Winter Olympics? What did the international community take from the outfits worn by Russian Olympians?
I can’t really speak for the international community, but I can say that the challenge the official supplier for the Russian Olympic team was facing because of the strict guidelines was in itself very fascinating. When you’re being asked to design a uniform that should promote a country’s image and culture, but you cannot use any of its cultural symbols, you’re struggling with coming up with something that can really translate that message. I think Zasport, the official clothing supplier for the Russian team, did a fantastic job at ensuring that the uniforms stood out on their own. That kind of gray reflective uniform was very well made and designed, and even though it lacked cultural symbolism, its very fashion forward contemporary aesthetic and appeal caught the attention of fashion pundits and, therefore, did the job it was supposed to do.
What motivated you to take a job as the Director of [the] Social Media Center & Fashion Journalism at the Academy of Art University?
When you are asked to join an amazing team of experts that have been contributing to the fashion industry over many decades, it’s an opportunity of a lifetime! The team here is truly fascinating and I am very proud to be among them. Simon Ungless, the Executive Director of the School of Fashion, has worked side-by-side with the late Lee Alexander McQueen (1969 – 2010) as a textile print designer for a number of his collections. And there are a lot of other directors and staff here, at the School of Fashion, who’ve worked with designers such as Vivienne Westwood, Versace, and many, many others. Just being a part of this circle of experts is an amazing experience, so, it was a very easy decision to make.
As the Director of Fashion Journalism, what do you hope publications that cover fashion write more about, and write less about?
When I travel around the world, and I really do get a chance to travel to a number of countries, I always ask local designers: “Do you feel that you get enough support from local fashion outlets?” And, surprisingly, the answer in every country I go to, from Japan to Russia and from Georgia to the UK, is always: “No, not enough. Never enough.” So, I wish fashion press would write more about their local talent and focus less on international talent. And, I hope that publications like Vogue, Elle, and Glamour – the mainstream titles – open up their platforms to younger talent and talent that can benefit most from their coverage. As for what they should be writing about less – opinions. They are a dime a dozen, and they are not as exciting as the more long-feature in-depth investigative stories.
What do you hope your fashion journalism students will take away from their experiences at the Academy of Art University?
[First,] we teach our students the fundamentals of fashion journalism: How to do proper research, reporting, and interviewing while ensuring that the journalistic standards and ethics are the highest they could possibly be. Second, we teach our students how to be creative professionals: How to package a story and design a layout using [HTML and programming skills] and the latest sophisticated software tools (such as Adobe Suit). [Third,] we teach our students how to make their social media strategies succeed, [since] it’s essential for anyone entering fashion journalism, and anyone entering journalism in general, to learn how to use social media as experts.
What are some of these strategies?
To make a story go viral, we teach students how to ensure the story is 1) timely 2) relevant 3) engaging. These are some of the specific strategies we focus on.
Why do you care about fashion personally?
My BS and my first MA were both in mathematics. The language of math is universal; you can literally go anywhere in the world and not be able to speak the local language, but you can absolutely and indisputably say that 1+1=2 and it will be understood. Fashion is the same. The notion of waking up in the morning and putting on clothes is shared around the world. It’s just another way of being able to connect with everyone and have a common language. That is essentially what fascinated me.
You helped launch Thom Browne and several other designers in Russia. How did you get into this aspect of the fashion business, and what do you get out of this kind of venture?
It was less about business and more about creating dialogue between countries and cultures. I worked on bringing Thom Browne to St. Petersburg the year Russia created a law banning homosexual propaganda. That was the same year Valerie Steele and I worked on bringing her over to St. Petersburg to deliver a lecture on the queer history of fashion. The collection Thom Browne was showing was inspired by punk culture and obviously had some homosexual innuendos. Combined, that [sent] a very powerful message. I really do pride myself on being able to create cultural dialogue as well as showcase the positive aspect of queer culture through fashion and historical examples. These are meaningful moments in cultural awareness.
When you dress yourself, how is your style influenced by all of the information you hold at the forefront of your mind, since that’s what you do?
Good question. Like I said, everyone has to get dressed and go out of their house. Whether we think about it or not, how we dress says a lot about who we are. So, my own sartorial choices are often about expressing a specific sign and symbol about who I am. When I give a talk, I tend to wear a suit because I want to look confident and authoritative. When I go out clubbing, I may wear something fun, shiny, and more fashion forward, because I want to catch people’s attention and create an opportunity for dialogue. When I travel to foreign countries, I tend to buy a lot of local designers and wear them there to showcase the local talents’ skills and capacity to be commercially successful. Everything people wear is a way of creating certain propaganda about them; it is healthy and it is natural. People should think about how they dress. It’s really the first impression they give about themselves everyday.
Who is your favorite designer?
Oh, that is a tough question. I like to consume a lot of different designers and clothes. And, I like to wear different trends depending on the season; my taste really changes from year to year. Over the years, I really enjoyed designers that merged three specific keywords, which are business, sport, and sex. If you combine those things together, that pretty much describes my wardrobe.
What do you look for in a quality brand?
The biggest pet peeve I have is when designers show up for a season or two and then they disappear. That, to me, is more like a hobby than a career. So, when I look for a brand, I look for longevity or the capacity for longevity. Then, obviously, for the quality of the execution and the ability to tell their story really well.
Can you give an example of a brand that has done that successfully?
Yes, of course. Gosh, there are so many of them. I think Kawakubo, in terms of being truthful to the origin and interest of the brand despite the fashion trends that arise everyday. No wonder they call her the oracle of fashion; she is always able to remain relevant and have an eye looking forward.
Note* Check out Stephan Rabimov's Forbes article on fashion diplomacy and the 2018 Winter Olympics. | Images: Stephan Rabimov delivers a keynote talk at the Fashion Futurum conference in Moscow | Stephan Rabimov with designer Yasia Minochkina at Cafe Zhivago in Moscow