tephan Rabimov is a renowned fashion critic and stark practitioner of fashion diplomacy. In his long history writing for Forbes, Huffington Post, L'Officiel Austria, and more, he covers fashion and emerging markets extensively. Since initially founding, funding, and leading DEPESHA Magazine to find his fashion footing in New York City, Stephan has launched brands, international pop-up stores, and even a fashion collection for Fashion Week Moscow alongside a curated, cross-cultural, diplomacy-minded collective.
Stephan’s interests exist at the cutting edge of fashion. He recently covered virtual influencers for Forbes in The Real Game-Changers: How Virtual Models Take On Creative Industries. We sit down with Stephan to chat about virtual fashion, fashion diplomacy, and virtual influencers. Enjoy this unique perspective.
Hello Stephan! When did you first take an interest in fashion?
My interest in fashion was mostly influenced by my move to New York City. I still vividly remember my first visit to New York Fashion Week—this is going to age me (laughs)—at Bryant Park. Coincidentally, it was a fashion show by a Russian designer Alexandre Terekhov. Everything came together that day, like a missing link in my life, that first experience ignited the spark within me that ultimately led me to try many fashion roles throughout my professional career.
Let's talk more about that. What are some of the lives you've lived in the fashion industry?
I started my life-long journey in fashion by creating the USA’s first Russian expat fashion magazine, DEPESHA. Thanks to my friends like Paulina Korenblum, Nadia Vertlib, Masha Birger, Stella Melomedman, and many others, we would cover, discover, and write about emerging designers like Matthew Williamson and Mary Katrantzou when they were still attending fashion schools, or designers like Thom Browne right before he became a household name after he dressed Michelle Obama for the presidential inauguration day. I always took pride that DEPESHA discovered and supported through editorials some of the most talked about fashion names today.
That platform became a springboard into the industry, with an invitation to join The Huff Post following shortly after. For over seven years, I was a contributing fashion and art editor there. My coverage there led me to meet some amazing people, like Simon Ungless at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, who invited me to lead their fashion journalism program. From 2015 to 2019, I revamped the program’s BA and MA programs to meet the rising demand of the fashion industry by establishing America’s first academic Social Media Center. During my last year there the program was ranked #1 in the world. I felt my job was done so I moved to Oregon to launch my own PR firm to help start-up brands and companies with their communication strategies.
Last year I tried myself as a fashion designer, creating a fashion collective called EXPATS consisting of four designers (including myself): Two from the USA and two from Russia. We created a fashion runway collection and had our big debut at Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Russia. To date I continue my journalistic career as a contributing editor at Forbes, and recently joined L'Officiel Austria as Editor-at Large.
I'm very proud of my journey and people I got to meet along the way. One day it would make for a fun memoir (laughs).
That's quite the journey. Who is your favorite designer or tastemaker at the moment?
There are three names that I follow, because I really believe they have a unique voice in fashion that I enjoy discovering again and again, they are Alexandre Plokhov, Daphne Guiness, and Rick Owens. Alexandre is simply phenomenal at understanding the pulse of menswear. If you aren’t following Daphne on TikTok you are missing out! Rick, being an American in Paris, for me embodies the golden contrast between hard and soft fashion, he has a unique voice in fashion that has so many layered messages that one can spend an entire career decoding. It is simply pure intellectual fun to follow these visionaries of the fashion world.
What fashion industry trend do you find particularly interesting? What is your take on this trend?
I've recently focused a lot of my reporting on the explosion of mask designers from around the world. This new fashion ‘must’ has enormous global implications for our health, while also challenging how designers think about this small piece of fabric. Not surprisingly, this piece of fabric also has a long fashion history—literally thousands of years long. Those that still think fashion is frivolous should pick up a history book by Valerie Steele.
I understand you’re passionate about fashion diplomacy as well. For our readers who don’t yet know: What is fashion diplomacy, and what does it mean to you?
In basic terms, fashion is a tool that can help countries promote themselves. What we decide to wear every day has clear, defined ‘messaging’ to it. It's a tool that can be used to convey certain meanings or information to the public. Our taste, your individual style is a personal propaganda of sorts. Therefore fashion, just like music or art, is another part of the soft/cultural diplomacy toolbox. Although it is part of soft diplomacy, fashion’s impact is more emotional than hard diplomacy, therefore has a longer lasting impact.
For instance, people want to go to Paris because everything we hear and understand about Paris is being romanticized to us through fashion, food, music, architecture, etc. Soft diplomacy in action. Because of this soft, cultural diplomacy France made 198.3 billion euros in 2018. You can read more in depth about it in my interview here.
Has fashion diplomacy changed as a result of the global COVID-19 pandemic?
Let me start with an example: The infamous ban against face coverings in France. This, in many ways, infringes on the rights of Muslim women to wear their culturally acceptable garment. Nowadays, COVID-19 has forced all of us to cover our faces to protect ourselves from the coronavirus. So our culture is literally changing before our eyes, and I would not be surprised if France changes its laws again to allow anyone to wear face coverings, Muslim or not.
Here is another example: Although we're not going to be able to see the Tokyo Olympics this year, which is quite unfortunate, we already know that the 2020 Olympics will take place next summer. I guarantee you, most national teams will have face masks as they march out during the opening ceremony. So the big question remains, how do you represent your country, not just through the national uniform, but also through the mask? For more on my coverage about olympic uniforms check out my discussion with Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski.
Virtual fashion is something we track closely. From your perspective as a fashion critic, what are the pros and cons of leveraging digital garments?
As far as pros: I see universal accessibility – designers with or without physical means can now create digital collections for anyone to wear online.
I also see sustainability as a major benefit of digital garments. As more and more designers choose this avenue for creating collections, the less fabric is produced, used, and wasted, and the less pollution there is in the world. Of course, digital fashion also leads to endless creative possibilities with zero international geography limits.
For cons, I see the lack of a tactile experience as a major hurdle on adoption: We're human and we're designed by nature to enjoy tactile experiences, which is why magazines and books haven't died out completely despite having iPads and mobile phones. Further, more sophisticated garments require more expensive sophisticated tools. Unless these tools are free, I see issues with equality between designers with means and those without.
Have you ever purchased or worn a digital garment?
I'm still working on my virtual body, so maybe soon. However, if I have to pick a designer I want a garment by Malan Breton.
Now, let’s go deeper on the topic of digital. When, and how, did you first hear about virtual influencers?
The year 2020, mark my word, is a pivotal year for digital avatars and an AR future. As we spend more time at home using our digital tools, we quickly fall in love with their offerings. I am not surprised that coronavirus isolation, with no real-life models available for hire, has given virtual influencers the much needed business boost. In many ways, digital models have far more flexible contracts than real-life models by not requiring travel, food, insurance, or other standard requirements for an editorial shoot.
What role do you believe virtual influencers play in fashion diplomacy?
With the remote work movement and our transition to Zoom video streams, digital documents, FaceTime with friends, I envision virtual influencers becoming a new channel for country promotion. They could wear, for example, the National Olympic uniforms to promote the culture and country's fashion to the world. They could share recipes from their homeland. In short, digital influencers should have a place to call home, a nation to which they belong, and a language they speak. However, they should not just promote everything – when you're everything, you're nothing.
Over the next decade, what will be the most substantial accessory effect of digital fashion's rise?
I see digital influencers, as well as digital fashion, playing a greater role in global equality, inclusion, and diversity movement. As we learn to love our digital sisters and brothers, their content should inspire a stronger respect for diversity and lead to improved inclusion. If we can learn to love something that's artificial, then we, absolutely, are able to love something that's real.
To close, who is your favorite virtual influencer, and why?
That's a tough one. I am really enjoying the journey of a digital influencer Aliona Pole. Her collaboration with a Russian fashion designer Alena Akhmadullina just blew my mind with beautiful illustrations, unique designs, and incorporating masks as well. It all came together for me as an example of a successful collaboration and campaign.
Thank you for your time!