Finding one’s identity is not always an easy task, especially if you’re born in a melting pot of cultures like Kazakhstan. After a long journey of self-exploration, Roxana Adilbekova is now bringing Central Asia into the spotlight with her brand Roxwear. Founded in 2017, it gives a voice to Kazakhstan’s often obliterated and unheard youth, their culture and their creativity
The brand’s fourth chapter Futurasia is set in a retro-futuristic world where nomadic traditions and craftsmanship techniques meet spaceships, androids and flying yurts inspired by old VHS tapes. A world where tribal tattoos out of 2000’s films tell a new story. Futurasia, through the prism of cyberpunk, imagines what a Central Asia-centric world would look like. But for a better understanding of this reality, Roxana opens up about identity, her heritage and what it’s like growing up in post-Soviet Asia.
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To know a bit more about you, how would you define yourself?
Identity is a big running theme in my work because I have been struggling to define myself for years. I am Kazakh but don’t look Asian, speak Russian, and grew up in a mix of remnants of the Soviet state of mind coming from my grandparents and western media on the internet and TV. Abroad, I have faced a lot of stereotypes and presumptions about where I’m from and questions about my origins and beliefs.
Have you always been interested in fashion and design? When did your journey as a designer begin?
Since I was a child, I have been interested in different arts, from music to painting to photography. When I took a gap year after high school to explore more, I went to Paris to study French and search for new interests. I met a lot of interesting and inspiring people there, explored the city and understood that I wanted to be an artist. I soon applied to Parsons School of Design, where they taught us what design thinking was.
I started my first brand – Ottepel – after graduating in 2014, and it was a fun business venture. Then, when I came up with a concept for what today is Roxwear, I only wanted to pour out the bottled-up emotions and needed an artistic outlet to self-heal. Since I was working on Ottepel at the time, clothes happened to be the closest canvas for it. Before founding Roxwear, I had been designing clothes for five years, but only with this brand did I think I could call myself a designer, as it tells a complicated story that goes really deep into the exploration of different concepts.
How have your studies, at Parsons School of Design influenced the way you approach your work?
To me, Parsons was a one-of-a-kind experience, influencing me a lot and giving me experience, perspective and useful knowledge. Since the day I realised I wanted to go to art school, Parsons was in my head, not only because it’s one of the top art schools in the world, but also because I felt that New York would have a huge impact on me.
From it, I would highlight Design Thinking classes and the holistic approach to art and design the school supports. It allowed me to think outside of the box and bend the rules in a way that works. It taught me how to convey my ideas and tell stories, and most importantly, it inspired me to push myself to explore the limits of my imagination.
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During your studies you had to move to New York. How has living in a city with such a cultural mix been?
It has been a soul-transforming experience. I too come from a mixed cultural background and New York highlighted how wonderful it is to meet different people, learn from them and share. I evolved not only as a creative there but also as a person, as a soul.
How would you define Roxwear? Would you say it is an extension of yourself?
Roxwear raises many questions about what it’s like to be a person from my part of the world. It’s certainly based on my experiences, but I hope that it transcends my personal story and goes deeper into the exploration of our culture – stuff lost after decades of living under socialism.
Futurasia is your brand’s fourth collection. What makes it different to the previous ones?
For Futurasia I used cyberpunk aesthetics as a narrative device to embody my dreams, fears and hopes. It’s a dystopian world where popular culture clashes with tradition. It’s a commentary on uncertainty, growing loneliness and technogenic isolation we are experiencing. Cyberpunk almost found its own way into the collection. It’s darker than my previous collections too, but also more interesting in terms of textiles, patterns and prints that I used.
 “If my ancestors were inspired by the nature that surrounded them to create ornaments, I am inspired by the things I see – neon signs, brutalist architecture and internet culture.”
The collection is deeply inspired by your heritage. Can you tell us more about your personal background?
I come from a multi-cultural background. My father’s heritage is Kazakh and Russian and my mother’s is Tajik and Russian. So, I was raised in a mix of Kazakh, Tajik and Russian traditions and was always open to different cultures.
One of your main references is your grandmother. How would you describe her and why is it so important for you and your work?
My grandmother was one of the leading specialists in the exploration of Central Asian arts. She spent a huge part of her life going on expeditions and gathering first-hand information about ornaments, embroideries, and the lifestyle of people living in different parts of the region. She wrote books that are still used to teach art history at universities today. Her work helps me a lot in exploring our roots and her drawings inspire me to create prints and embroideries.
What else served as inspiration for the collection? How did you translate all these references into the actual garments?
I get inspired by the environment I live in. Not so long ago I found myself so fed up with the post-Soviet landscapes and aesthetic that has been beaten to death, so I had to figure out a way to look at everything from a different angle. I try to code meaning and stories into my clothes. I will take a bad guy tribal tattoo out of a 2000’s movie I saw on VHS, mix it with lettering and colour, and that makes up a piece that tells a new story now. I approach it in a playful way.
If my ancestors were inspired by the nature that surrounded them to create ornaments, I am inspired by the things I see – neon signs, brutalist architecture and Internet culture.
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You also say clothes are a form of language, a dialogue. What are your clothes trying to express?
The clothes I make tell the unique story of the people from post-Soviet Asia. I try to implement a lot of traditional craftsmanship techniques as well as make use of Central Asian ornaments and applied arts in order to emphasise our region and culture and raise awareness about how Asia is not only China, Korea and Japan, but also our region, full of its unique history and heritage.
Your main aim is to redefine youth from post-Soviet Asia and modernise your national ornaments and culture. Why is this needed? How can Roxwear make a difference?
Unfortunately, post-Soviet Asia is underestimated in the world since it has been pretty silent in terms of popular culture. I have been faced with questions regarding my origins and the country I am from all my life. Many people still don’t know where Kazakhstan is located or worse – they bring up Borat and wonder if it’s an actual country. I aspire to introduce more of our story and culture to the outside world since we have something to say. We have unique artists, musicians and designers who have a unique and fresh outlook.
You want to achieve this through the prism of cyberpunk. Why did you choose this particular genre?
Cyberpunk is a rich genre that went through its own transformations. It found me on its own when I started planning my collection – the ideas that I wanted to put into it really closely overlapped with the themes explored by cyberpunk. Roxwear is about experimenting with genres and media, so I don’t intend to stick to one genre.
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For you, a collection should be like a good music album – it should tell a story. What album would represent Futurasia and why?
The Black Album by Metallica. It’s dark, it’s lonely, it’s angry and it’s also very introspective. Self-exploration is also a theme in there, be it demons or hopes and longings.
What advice would you give to any young designer willing to start their own brand? Has it been challenging for you?
I would advise them to search for what makes you unique. It takes time and you need to ask yourself many wrong questions before you finally find the one that’s going to give you the right answer on what differentiates you. And you may never find that answer, but it’s the process that counts.
What are your proudest moments as a designer?
I’m the proudest when I inspire people and when I hear they see themselves in my clothes. I enjoy the moments when people from other countries and cultures are curious about my work and get the ‘vibe’ I am trying to convey. Those moments are priceless and when they happen, I realise I’m doing something meaningful.
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If you could choose someone to dress, who would it be and why?
I’ve dressed only local artists for now. I would love to work with M.I.A. – I am really inspired by her. I love what she stands for, what she expresses, her style and her persona.
What is next for Roxana and Roxwear? Are there any future projects you can share with us?
We plan to develop internationally, work with more stores and collaborate with other brands and artists. I would love to explore more opportunities for the brand.
We are currently working on our mini-doc series that explores the lives of creative youth in Central Asia. We used the production of my last collection as a backdrop to tell the stories of creatives from Kazakhstan and its surroundings. The first episode was featured on WePresent  and introduces me and the brand, while the second episode is going to step away from the brand and focus more on the creative environment in Kazakhstan and Central Asia. There’s a lot of local talent featured in the documentary.
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