Kvartýra №49 Brings Post-Soviet Streetwear To Iceland

Kvartýra №49 Brings Post-Soviet Streetwear To Iceland

Published April 29, 2019

Kvartýra №49 Brings Post-Soviet Streetwear To Iceland
Aliya Uteuova

Tucked away from the ubiquitous puffin stores and coffee shops of Laugavegur, there’s an oasis at the end of a bright yellow alleyway. There, behind the main drag, is a fish processing centre turned bauhaus artists’ space that today houses a hidden concept store, with a curated selection of the latest streetwear trends for discerning Icelanders. Welcome to Kvartýra №49.

“We wanted to make this place like a living room in your friend’s apartment,” says Natalia “Nata” Sushchenko, the store’s co-creator. Indeed, the word “kvartira” in Nata’s native Russian translates to “apartment.”

“There are clothes, good music, good coffee—and all that’s missing is a carpet on the wall,” quips Nata’s husband and the store’s co-owner Árni Guðjónsson, referencing the quintessentially Soviet decor choice of hanging a rug up on the wall. Whether it’s for decoration, warmth, or sound insulation, no one really knows.

Taking the leap

Nata and Árni are a self-professed husband and wife dream team. Throughout their relationship, music and fashion has tied them together like a red thread. They’ve defied borders, explored new cultures, and overcome their considerable height difference to be together.

They met at a university party in Barcelona in 2012, and three years later, Árni proposed to Nata on his birthday. After graduating from the Design and Fashion School in Barcelona, Nata worked on a clothing collection, and Árni worked on music with his band Of Monsters and Men. Then, in 2017, they decided to move back to Árni’s home country.

“I was really curious what this nation was,” Nata says. “At first the language sounded alien, because of its unusual sounds. Iceland felt so refreshing. It made me see that this is how it’s supposed to be—to live as humans with nature.”

When Nata moved to Reykjavík, she rented a spot in a co-working space for her freelance design work. Just when she finished setting up her studio, the other tenants no longer wanted to continue, so Nata took over. “I cleaned it up and put in new tables,” she says. “But despite paying rent monthly, people would only come in once or twice a month. Fed up with taking care of this underutilised space, Árni and Nata decided to turn it into a concept store.

Capitalism meets Post-Soviet fashion

For decades, gopniks—the rough street boys of ‘90s Russia—were frowned upon. If you grew up in the former Soviet Union, you knew to avoid these men, seen squatting outside apartment blocks, spitting sunflower seeds on the walkway. The go-to style of gopniks were their striped fake-Adidas tracksuits and Puma flip flops.

“The big brands are afraid to change too much. New brands in Russia have nothing to fear.”

Today, post-Soviet streetwear is having a renaissance moment in fashion, and the stripes and flip flops are back. “French brands have been doing fashion showrooms for hundreds of years,” Nata says. “People have seen Italian fashion forever. The big brands that influence fashion have been stable for so many years, and they’re afraid to change too much. Meanwhile, new brands in Russia—like Gosha Rubchinskiy—have nothing to fear.”

Árni views Russian urban fashion as an untapped source of inspiration for Western Europeans. Accustomed to only seeing Russians as movie villains, Russian style was largely overlooked—and that’s precisely why post-Soviet street style is so intriguing today. “Russia and Ukraine definitely became the places to look at,” Árni says. “There’s a boom of creativity happening—they’re exploring the undiscovered freedom that they finally have their hands on.”

Kvartýra №49 has played a pivotal role in shifting the spotlight to Eastern European and Russian designers in Iceland. While knitted sweaters, folksy patterns, flowing minimal shapes—and, for men, beards—are still in the heart of Icelandic fashion, Nata thinks the younger generation of Icelanders are shifting away from that.

“Now I see younger guys shave their heads and wear Volchok,” Nata says, referring to a Russian streetwear brand carried in Kvartýra №49, known for its use of bold Cyrillic typography. “When I see Icelanders dressed like Russian guys, I realise that they actually don’t look that much different.”

Regular customers of Kvartýra №49 could be transported to Moscow or Kiev and blend right in—proving that fashion is capable of erasing borders.

Buyers at large

Since opening a year ago, Nata and Árni have learned a great deal about running a clothing store. “Now we have a better idea of what Icelanders purchase,” Nata says. She realises that the colours and styles she gravitates toward might not be what her customers want. “I would buy the things that I love, but not necessarily things that will sell. Gradually, we learned what customers will like, and what will fit them. It’s all about separating personal taste.”

“I don’t think I would ever have done this alone. Together we’re a power couple.”

“I trust our brands,” Nata says, referring to Kvartýra №49’s top selling Russian brands such as Sputnik 1985, Volchok, and Syndicate. “They just send their collection, and some people buy the whole look from head to toe.”

The couple’s number one priority is that the clothes have to be produced ethically. “There is so much suffering behind $5 t-shirts,” Nata says. “For me, it’s painful to look at this, because if you’ve ever tried to make your own t-shirt on a sewing machine, you’d understand that this job should cost more than five dollars.” Nata’s own brand, Sushchenko, is produced in an atelier in Kiev.

Work life balance

For Árni and Nata, running a business together feels like an extension of their daily life. “We are our own bosses,” Árni says. “It’s a never-ending task. There’s always something more you can do. If we have to do taxes on a Sunday evening, we do the taxes on a Sunday evening.”

One of the challenges for Kvartýra №49 is competing with souvenir shops downtown. “We cater to Icelanders, and it can be challenging to get their attention,” Nata says. “Big advertisements cost half your yearly budget, that’s why small businesses always have to hustle.”

The Kvartýra №49 space is also frequently used for creative arts events and music nights for bands, including their own Pale Moon, which recently released an EP that made it to Spotify’s editorial playlist.

“Two creative people in the business can be a dangerous combination,” finishes Nata. “That’s why we always have to push each other. I don’t think I would ever have done this alone. Together we are a power couple.”

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