Enter the Style Zeitgeist: An Interview with Eugene Rabkin
To succeed in the world of fashion, one must have connections and relationships with their communities and peers. Whether through family, fame, or fortune, connections matter, and those without them are often left on the wayside. In many ways, this is what makes Eugene Rabkin’s writing stand out from the rest of the pack. Coming from a background without connections made through family, fame, or fortune, Rabkin pulls no punches in his critiques, and takes no prisoners either. As is the case with many outsiders that pry their way into the world of fashion, Rabkin’s story is one of both happenstance and a drive to offer something new to the elitist world of fashion criticism.
Born in the USSR, Rabkin emigrated to New York City at the age of 15 to “pursue the American dream”. Within his young mind, this entailed working on Wall Street, something not typically associated with the world of fashion, nor the role of opinion writer. What would eventually put Rabkin onto the path he followed would be something quite ubiquitous for the 1990’s: a music video. As Rabkin recollected being interviewed by Rick Owens, his interest in fashion began to pique around 1994 when clothes and the feelings they reflect clicked into place. As he said to Owens, “you know when the light bulb went off for me about what clothing can do? It’s when I saw (the) March of the Pigs video by Nine Inch Nails in ’94”. This realization of how clothes can be another way of expressing what you feel within to the outside world was a game changer.
Eugene's Nine Inch Nails hair cut circa 1994
Rabkin’s new found understanding, when combined by a visit to Barneys in 1998, further pushed him towards his final stepping stone into the industry of fashion. Rather dissatisfied with the typical American Dream and Wall Street, Rabkin’s exit from that elite world and into fashion criticism and writing as a profession would be the catalyst for his new creation: avant-garde menswear forum, StyleZeitgeist, and its companion magazine. StyleZeitgeist, both as a forum and as a magazine, were rather unique in 2006 when they were founded. No other forums or large scale online spaces were being dedicated to serious discussions about avant-garde clothing, and in particular avant-garde menswear. From this, Rabkin was put onto the path that would land him in the pages of Business of Fashion, Vogue Russia, Highsnobiety, and other mainstream publications. Since beginning his career, Rabkin has played a variety of roles, from critiquing the rank profit motives of fashion conglomerates to interviews with designers such as Haider Ackerman and Rick Owens. The writer has kept himself occupied but thankfully, Rabkin worked in enough time to answer some questions with ARCHIVE.pdf. We discussed his life, his journey, and his thoughts on the world of fashion.
Eugene at the SZ Popup during Atelier 2016
From the first designer that struck your soul to your first published work, we would love to learn of your journey into the fashion industry.
I immigrated to the US with my parent when I was fifteen. We came from a Eastern European country where nothing ever grows - Belarus - to a Brooklyn neighborhood where nothing ever grows, aptly called Gravesend. The "grave" in Gravesend stood for culture, of which there was none, and "send" for sending people towards it. This was immigrant / working-class Brooklyn of the early '90s, a place where gentrification still has not penetrated and probably never will, a dead end. My high school, FDR, at one point had a roughly 70% dropout rate and kids got robbed outside of it for their Starter jackets. Out of the twenty or so kids I hung out with on handball courts only two went on to college.
In such a milieu music and books were my salvation, but I'll concentrate on music here. While most kids listened to gangsta rap, few were into metal, industrial, and alternative. I brought my love for synth pop, and Depeche Mode in particular, with me from Belarus (Eastern Europeans are fanatical about DM - no one exactly knows why). One day a friend put on The Downward Spiral, a record by Nine Inch Nails, and my world fell apart in the best possible sense of the word. From Nine Inch Nails I worked my way back to industrial, goth, and post-punk - Sisters of Mercy, Joy Division, and so on. There was a rage and darkness in the music that perfectly corresponded with my teenage angst. Like most teenagers I began to dress like my music idols - black leather, jeans, combat boots, and band tees were my uniform.
At the same time - like many members of disadvantaged groups - I felt the pull of aspirational consumption. Designer clothes were huge in the Russian-speaking Jewish community - we could not wait to signal fast enough that we are set on climbing out of poverty. For me it manifested in techno club culture in particular - I did quite a bit of clubbing at Limelight and Tunnel in the '90s, and that's where I wore my reflective DKNY, D&G, Moschino, and Iceberg. Eventually the goth side of me won out though.
My older brother had a friend who was an aspiring fashion designer who noticed my interest in clothes and suggested that I go to this store called Barneys. I first walked into Barneys in 1998, and that was my entrance into the rabbit hole. I discovered the Belgians and the Japanese and it all absolutely blew my mind. Before that I did not realize that fashion and luxury can be two different things. I fell in love with Ann Demeulemeester, Helmut Lang, and Yohji Yamamoto. Ann in particular stole my heart. These were clothes similar to what I wore already but infinitely more elegant, better fitting, and well made.
Needless to say that where I lived no one understood what I was wearing or my love for these strange clothes. The Internet is where I found like-minded people. I stumbled upon the Fashion Spot, the OG fashion message board while searching on the Internet for information on Raf Simons. I joined and quickly developed a reputation for knowing my fashion avant-garde and firing off snarky but hilarious one-liners. In 2006 I founded my own forum, StyleZeitgeist. A year in I got a message in my inbox from someone who turned out to be an editor at Haaretz, the premier Israeli newspaper. I asked him if I could write for them about fashion. And that's how in 2008 I got my first assignment, which was to write about Atelier, the avant-garde menswear store in New York. After that my editor asked me what I want to write about next, which, obviously, was Ann Demeulemeester. When that piece came out, I sent it to Rick Owens's PR, and that ended up being my third piece. My fourth was on Jun Takahashi of Undercover.
Eugene with Michèle Lamy
The first fashion show you attended as a journalist was Number (N)ine’s last fashion show: A/W 2009 ‘A Closed Feeling’. Tell us of your experience with the brand and the show.
Looking back on it, I cannot think of a better show that would be my introduction to Paris and men's runway shows. It was an ethereal, touching experience. Between the clothes, the slow pace and the twirl of the models, the gut-wrenching soundtrack by Beth Gibbons, it all made a lasting impression. I'm an enormous fan of Takahiro Miyashita - both Number (N)ine and TheSoloist - and I am proud to know him in real life.
Number (N)ine A/W09 Runway Show
When I encountered Number (N)ine, I immediately fell in love with it, as I've always gravitated to an elevated version of the goth / industrial / rock gear I've been rocking since I was fifteen. N(N)'s design, quality and fit was just on another level, and I saw that Taka came from the same youth culture space that I did. I will never forget what Jun Takahashi of Undercover told me about Taka, that he designs menswear with the same intensity and complexity that Jun (and most designers for that matter) puts into his womenswear.
I also must mention here the iconic Number (N)ine store in upper TriBeCa, back when there was nothing in that neighborhood. It was an amazing pilgrimage to go to this out of the way store, and of course the salespeople thought they were cooler than thou and you couldn't see shit because it was so dark in there, but it was such a special and unique experience. It was all too expensive for me at the time, but I've recently began collecting garments from my favorite Number (N)ine show, Noir (A/W 2006). These clothes absolutely hold up after fifteen years, not only in terms of amazing quality, wool and cashmere on the outside and silk lining on all the tailoring, but also in terms of fit and aesthetic. And you can't say that about much of menswear from that era.
Number (N)ine store in downtown New York's Tribeca neighborhood
Many consider StyleZeitgeist to be one of your most impactful works in the online fashion space. How did you get the idea for StyleZeitgeist and how did it turn into what it is today?
I was a prominent member of the Fashion Spot, which I loved, but I was a purist and I resented the fact that I had to wade knee-deep in model and celebrity style to get to the meat of what I wanted to discuss, which was fashion design. Also, I've had some run-in with the moderators, and I don't do well with authority, so I eventually slammed the door on the way out by starting my own forum. Without boring you with Hegel, I went through the whole thesis / antithesis / synthesis thing. I wanted the name of the forum to signify two things - my obsession with fashion on a deep, personal level, and that I wanted to concentrate on fashion that has cultural underpinnings. Hence, StyleZeitgeist. I invited only ten people onto StyleZeitgeist from tFS, because I did not want to poach members from it.
Concurrently I began posting on Superfuture, and eventually there was an influx from Superfuture members who were ready to graduate from Japanese denim and workwear. And that's how SZ began to turn mostly male and mostly avant-garde. I steered it, but a forum is a collective effort, and so eventually designers like Rick Owens and Carol Christian Poell beat out designers like Alexander McQueen and Hussein Chalayan. And then I suppose we simply hit that surfer wave - for the first time a critical mass of young men was interested in designer fashion that was not the lowest common denominator and we were the place on the Internet for it.
StyleZeitgeist website’s front page throughout the years
In the meanwhile I was writing for different publications, and eventually my friend Florian Schmitt, who was also a forum member, gave me an idea to start a magazine. I told him I'll do it only if his firm, Hi-Res!, will design it, to which he agreed. I found a business partner, also a forum member, and we launched the magazine in 2011. We did not know what we were doing, but it was tremendous fun to put together photo shoots and a print magazine. I learned a lot through those five print issues we did before we ran out of money because we couldn't find any serious advertisers. In retrospect, it's amazing how much we did with what little we had. I wouldn't be ashamed to put those print volumes in front of any editor today. Eventually my partner dropped off and I continued the magazine in digital form. A few years ago, my assistant editor and my wife, separately, persuaded me to start a podcast, which has been an interesting turn, because when I meet people today the pod is the first thing they mention.
Two things to note here. One, I am not a genius and all of the ideas - to start a forum, or a magazine, or a podcast did not come from me. But I am passionate and I tend to execute where more sensible people would've given up a long time ago. And two, media evolves and one must evolve with it, as evidenced from the death of forum culture, followed by the fact that few people read anymore on any meaningful level. StyleZeitgeist has never made money, and that's fine. It has retained relevance, and that's what matters to me. I also met many incredible, passionate, intelligent, kind people because of it, and I have learned a lot from others, and that is the currency I prefer. I owe so much to SZ, and I shudder to think about what my life might have been without it.
What is your definition of avant-garde fashion and why does it resonate with you?
To me avant-garde means the same thing it means in a traditional art definition of the term - meaning someone who is ahead of the curve. Designers who do not cater to the masses but who are passionate about their craft for the sake of it and wh