Fashion’s never-ending obsession with youth culture and street style can often end up in an unashamed appropriation of subculture movements: hunted by designers, editors and photographers, they are stripped off their counter cultural claims, emptied of any subversive trait, and, finally, appropriately repackaged to be sold in shops and on newsstands alike. In the case of Dasha Selyanova, the story has a different angle. Born in Saint Petersburg in the 1980s, the designer is surprisingly open when talking about her youth, which involved many dodgy characters, a lot of partying and too many drugs.
When the whirlwind finally stopped, she found herself full of powerful memories that she needed to come to terms with, and with a lot of creative energy to spare. Drawing on these recollections, Selyanova founded ZDDZ, a London-based womenswear brand through which she visually translates her first-hand experiences, producing functional yet unconventional designs inspired by work wear and military uniforms. Her interest in people and real life experiences fuels all of her projects. “I’m not like one of those designers that put pictures of flowers on the wall and can develop a beautiful collection from there,” explains Selyanova. “It’s possible, but it’s just not me. For me, it comes from emotionally charged experiences.”
Why did you decide to transition from graphic design to fashion?
I dropped out (from my Graphic Design course) because I was doing a lot of partying and drugs. When I put myself back together and I was to choose where to continue to study, the idea of graphic design just seemed really boring – I didn’t see myself sitting in front of a computer all day making posters. There was this new department opening at the British Higher School of Art and Design in Moscow, and when I heard about it I thought: "maybe it’s a sign." I was never into fashion, but I thought that, being it three dimensional, I could work both with image and shape, whether with graphic design you just work flat. It’s a better way to translate your vision, I think – it’s richer.
What fascinates you about clothes?
Personally, I love exploring clothes as a mean of protection. It’s something that you wear all day long and it’s really close to your body, but it also protects and separates you from the outer world. This is why I really enjoy using strong fabrics. I love exploring the idea of what it is to feel protected as a woman in this sometimes aggressive and severe urban environment.
Fashion can project an image that is really disconnected from reality, but your collections are strongly connected to real life.
It’s nice that you picked it up, because it’s true. I don’t want to make fashion that people would look up to. For me it works the opposite way: I look at people and I learn from them. I observe how they wear clothes and I try to find out what they want to wear. For me it’s really important to make it real. I have been thinking about it a lot lately, and I think that for me it’s almost like making a documentary of youth. I was so detached from reality for so long when I was taking drugs that I was just not present at all, I was absent from this universe. By contrast, now I feel so greedy. I’m taking it all back, studying people, looking at how they wear clothes, how they behave in different situations.
Every collection you make seems to have a strong connection with your past personal experiences. Do you use fashion as a way to reflect and come to terms with these experiences?
Yes, I think it’s a therapy of its own kind. When I was growing up, I didn’t know how to deal with things. Now I feel that I can use my past and transform it into something, using the memory of my youth with its struggles, its uncertainties and doubts, its feeling of being lost and not being connected to anyone or anything, desperately looking for some people to connect with. I think that’s an important source of my inspiration, probably the only source. For me it has to come from my experience: if I haven’t lived it, I wouldn’t be able to make it truthful.
Your latest collection, Help Yourself, draws on depression and anxiety and on how we deal with them. Why did you decide to approach this particular subject? Is mental health an issue close to you, personally?
I’m extremely melancholic and I’m a loner. I wouldn’t say I’m depressed, but I’m not a happy-go-lucky person either. I tend to isolate and to keep things to myself. But a couple of years ago I got super low, I couldn’t do anything and I didn’t want to do anything. I felt like I was going through some big change, but I couldn’t see where it was all going. Everything stopped making sense. I didn't want to take antidepressants and I didn't go to see a doctor because I prefer to go through all my experiences myself and see where they will take me. I guess I used this collection to get this experience out of my system, and to speak to people about it. The box is locked now and I don't feel bad anymore, so I guess making a collection somehow helped.
But I also think that I wanted to do it because of what we were talking about before. I just don't see the point in fashion that is not connected, that is not serving people somehow. I thought: “Why do people never talk about this stuff?” Especially in fashion, everyone is on coke or antidepressants, but they all look happy and beautiful – it's so fake! So I thought: “Let’s make it real, why not? It's going to be fun.”
Slogans are an important part of your visual identity. How do you come up with them?
I've always been taking photos of different slogans and signs around the city, since I was 14. Once I find the subject that I want to be working on, it's always in my subconscious somewhere, and everything I see goes into the kettle. For “Help Yourself” I knew that I wanted to make a collection about depression, but I didn't have any slogans yet. I was in a coffee shop and they were giving away some croissants left from the morning with a sign: "Help Yourself". When I saw it, I took it out of context and I started thinking “How do we help ourselves?” When your mind is open to something, then everything falls into place. Everything that I come across I take out of context, cut out, restructure, and put into a different context – that’s how my brain works. I don't like forcing these things.
There is also a political dimension in your designs. Which issues do you consider more relevant at the moment?
I'm not really into politics, I'm just a little bit anarchist inside, so I love all these politically charged slogans that I use. I love being against something: when I work against something, that's comfortable for me. I don't work when I'm happy. I'm much better when I'm pissed off at something, or frustrated, or I’m just going through a break-up. Then I’m productive.
It feeds your creative energy, right?
Yes. That's how I work. I don't know if it's good or bad. I wish I could be happy all the time and still produce collections, but I feel like I need to be angry and frustrated to create – which I am, pretty much always.
Your collections are quite urban as well. Do you think that living in a big city shaped your identity and creativity in a certain way?
It's the sense of danger that we have in Russia. I mean, when I go to Turkey for a yoga retreat all I want to wear is dresses, and I think that if I was born in Turkey, that's what I would be making. It's as simple as that. But my experience is different. I didn't have much sunshine, I was constantly feeling that I had to fight against something; I constantly felt insecure, like I needed to be ready to fight in some way. Even if you don’t really fight on the streets, it's a psychological state that I am in – in Russia for sure, maybe less here in London. But in the country where I come from there is a sense that something is going to happen and you have to be ready for it.
Do you think that you will ever go back?
I don't have the answer right now. I have dear friends there and my family is there, but I'm really sensitive to the environment I’m in and I take things very deeply. You don't see a lot of justice or happiness in Moscow and Russia. It's a lot of frustration, desperate people, poor people, and no one cares about them really. It’s really upsetting even to talk about it now, and when I’m there and face it all, I don't feel comfortable. Some people say it's very unpatriotic, but I feel better here, it works better for me.
London is an easy city to live in. I know where to call if something happens, I know who is responsible for what. In Russia is like total fucking chaos. I used to think that, because I'm an artist, I need to struggle to create, but now I know that I have already enough pain to deal with, which gives me fuel to create. This is comfortable for me, I don't want to suffer more.
Is music an important component of your inspiration?
I wouldn't say it’s inspiring, but I listen to music a lot. For the last collection I was listening to techno so much. I just found that the repetitive sound somehow stripped things down to the core. Normally I don't really listen to techno, so it surprised me that I was literally, constantly listening to it, but I've learned to go with whatever is happening here (inside me). I feel that I'm still learning who I am. I try to respect what's happening inside me and I try to go with it, because I try to trust myself.
Have you always trusted yourself or did you learn along the way?
I'm still learning! I used to be such a control freak. I used to think that I had to be this clear image of myself and follow it, but it's so not like that. Now I know that I cannot be pinpointed. I'm a million different people, in the way I dress, in what I listen to, in what I love to eat. It's difficult because in order to feel safe you want to know who you are, and I don't know who I am. But I'm trying to be gentle to myself and learn how to live with it. I used to be really tough, putting myself in the box and labelling it, but it doesn't work like that. Now I try to respond to what I feel rather than to what I think. I'm not sure if it's right but it works for me. I feel much happier this way. I didn't even know that what was making me unhappy was that I was living with my brain so much.
For your previous AW15 collection you presented a short film called “Kids”, where young people streetcasted in Moscow talk freely about life, love and personal experiences. What did you find most fascinating about them?
I just love them! They’ll tell you the deepest stuff straight away. They're really honest and really aware. They seem to know much more than I knew about when I was 17. It gives me hope for another youth in a way, because my youth was kind of grim. I spent a lot of time drinking and doing drugs, and it ended up just sad, so maybe for me it's like re-living something. It's a nice generation. Some people say it's a lost generation, but I don't think so. (Talking to them) gives me a lot of positive energy, which I don't necessarily have on my own. It's really charging.
Do you think you'll keep doing these videos, even for the new collections?
For the new collection, I'll do a slightly different thing, but again focusing on kids. I would love to carry this on somehow. It’s a sort of documentary, a reflection on where we are as humanity – just a little snapshot. Every time I try to reflect on a part of our existence.