There are few words as misunderstood and misappropriated in today’s lexicon as the term “street”. A word that still prompts mental caricatures of late ’80s Brooklyn and the adidas Superstars, boomboxes and graffitied subways that are inescapably conjoined to the era, street culture has been hijacked by marketers, retailers and high-flying brand ambassadors to sell the impossible illusion of impoverished luxury, while ignoring the present microcosm of cultures and influences belonging to those who live and breathe the street as they walk it. One such figure that grew up immersed in the reality of the street from a young age is Ruslan “Russ” Karablin, head of streetwear and urban art label, SSUR.
A respected authority on street aesthetics, Karablin’s impact on shaping the scene for over 20 years is as understated as his humble approachability, sitting somewhat at odds with the discourse of disobedience found in his graphic apparel and artworks. Ironically, despite his standing in American street culture, Karablin hails from an empire that stood as one of the country’s most feared enemies: The Soviet Union. Sitting in the newly opened Habitual creative space on the launch of his first solo art exhibition in Singapore, Eternally Bonded, the streetwear veteran reminisces, “I was brought to the States by my mum at a young age. It was a culture shock. I grew up in a neighbourhood that was sort of like ‘the hood’. Growing up around people that were different from me, I sort of embraced and became more like them. That definitely drove the style of what I do”.
Immigrating from Odessa, Ukraine during Soviet rule to Brooklyn, New York at only five years of age, young Karablin arrived at a time when fears of a Communist invasion panicked the American people. Plunged into foreign surroundings as an outsider and perceived saboteur of freedom, Karablin muses whether his Russian background predestined his proclivity for going against the grain. “Coming from the Soviet Union, it was already embedded in me to be anti-establishment,” says Karablin, admitting, “Russians are good villains, man”. Perhaps it was this innate antagonism that prompted him to create the iconic “Rebel Ape”, combining Planet Of The Apes, one of America’s most beloved pieces of sci-fi cinema that serves as a metaphor for the Civil Rights Movement, and Che Guevara, one of the most adored figureheads of the Communist Cuban Revolution (“Now the conservatives are wearing Che Guevara shirts,” he quips).
"Maybe if I had the fame of Kanye, I could dangle sh*t on a wire and call it an earring, but I try not to be that way. I try to be honest with people and make stuff that I really think they'd enjoy."
As the brainchild of iconic designs that include “COMME des FUCKDOWN” and “CHANNEL ZERO”, SSUR’s appropriation of luxury brands’ insignias and translating them to accessible, tongue-in-cheek (and sometimes acid-tongued) urban aesthetics is a complete reversal of fashion’s archetype of looking to the street to sell to the rich. Karablin is a fashion vandal, operating only under his mantra of “sex, politics and protest”. When asked if any of those three pillars have shifted over the years, he responds, “Sex is still good, and politics and protest – man, if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything, right?” However, contrasting street artists like kidult, whose protest is manifested in physically defacing storefronts with extreme prejudice, Karablin takes the logos and branding that fashion houses have created to support their exorbitant price tags, and deconstructs them to create something far removed from their original intention; distorting rather than destroying.
However, when part of your craft involves appropriating the work of others, one can find little justification in claiming to be a victim of the same class of piracy. After the likes of A$AP Rocky launched the COMMES des FUCKDOWN design into the limelight, a wave of counterfeit apparel flooded bootleg stores and street markets on a global scale. Naturally, Karablin isn’t too miffed, chortling, “Oh man, I see knock-offs all the time. I’m happy with that, to tell you honestly, because you have to worry when people aren’t knocking it off and bootlegging it. Once it reaches that sort of status, I’m blessed. I’m happy to be able to leave a mark like that”.
By shying away from trends and avoiding obvious points of current public discourse, SSUR never has to fear polarising its audience, nor producing anything with an expiry date. Revisiting the aforementioned kidult, the anonymous street artist recently released a limited edition tee depicting Donald Trump in a Supreme top, posing as Morrissey did for his controversial collaboration. Exemplifying a punk ethos by pricing it at €0.01, the shirt sold out within seconds. While the Republican presidential candidate serves an easy target, Karablin has no interest in cashing in on Trump. “He’s got enough press, I don't need to give him any more. Every time he says something stupid, he makes us look ‘not great’ as a country. But, unfortunately, he is the voice of a lot of American people”. Drawing a parallel between politics and streetwear as two unchanging elements of society, he explains, “As much as we think things change, they really don’t. There are slight variations, but it’s an ebb and flow. Everything circles back around”.
To today’s devout streetwear disciples, the SSUR moniker may not command the same attention that brands like Yeezy, Supreme or Off-White might. However, rather than take cues from the trailblazers that currently dominate social media feeds, Karablin intends to retain the identity of his brand by ignoring the hype and continuing to deliver products that speak to his consumers, remarking, “I always want to look for new ways to send a message across, but I’m not going to fix it if it’s not broken. If I do find a more intelligent way for people to absorb what I’m saying, I will definitely work towards that, but I’ll do what works.” And when it comes to the legion of streetwear fanatics that line up to purchase the latest Yeezy Boosts or a logo-stamped brick, Karablin admits, “I hope my kids don’t become a part of that, but I do appreciate the people that do, because they’re the audience. I think there’s definitely a lot of crap out there, but that’s how the good stuff stands out”.
“Maybe if I had the fame of Kanye, I could dangle sh*t on a wire and call it an earing, but I try not to be that way. I try to be honest with people and make stuff that I really think they’d enjoy.”
Text Trent Davis