Since I started spending time in Georgia, there had always been a large abandoned building adjacent to the Courtyard Marriott on Freedom Square with a screen cloaked over it. During the Soviet occupation, the Tbilisi Department Store was in the space but that had been left in decay for some time. For years, I had heard rumours about the site being used for various purposes that never came to fruition. With Tbilisi’s facade transforming rapidly thanks to the state’s embracement of neoliberal economics, this vacated prime real estate existed as a reminder that the evolution of Georgia from the turbulence of the 90s to a modern, neoliberal state had not quite been complete.
At last, the wait came to an end and a multifunctional shopping centre called Galleria removed some of the shame of the past to make way for a commercial future last November. Owned by The Georgian Co-Investment Fund, which is backed by Georgian oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili – who also started and funds the governing political party Georgian Dream – Galleria promised to transform the centre of the city into an exciting commercial space housing a food court, movie theatre, and a host of different Western brands like Armani Exchange, Lacoste, and Georgia’s first Apple Store. Hardly the first major mall in the city, this almost 100 million dollar investment still represented a significant transformation of the centre of the capital.
The flagship store for the mall would be the Swedish clothing brand H&M. In many ways, the opening of this store gathered more excitement than the mall itself. There had been rumours for years about the store opening a branch in Tbilisi but at last it had happened. The store opening involved a party of 900 people, including Georgian stars, fashion bloggers, and models in an epic spectacle for a brand famous for its poorly made products. For its public opening, almost 2000 people lined the streets to get in. They even had a countdown.
Unlike other brands, H&M not only carried mainstream fashionable clothing but also was not completely inaccessible from the small middle class in Georgia. For many years, H&M had been one of those brands that the lucky few that had the opportunity to travel abroad would rush to while in Budapest and Istanbul to purchase all the styles unavailable in Tbilisi. Market research had indicated in 2013 that it was the most desired brand in Tbilisi. It hit that equilibrium between affordable yet fashionable that was absent from the Georgian retail market. After many years of waiting, H&M was in Georgia.
The opening of H&M comes as a natural development after nearly 15 years of neoliberal economics in post-independent Georgia. With a heavily deregulated economy and little worker’s protection, there is plenty of economic incentive for Western brands to open up in Georgia. Equally, Georgia has begun to carve out an identity as a fashion capital, with the likes of Situationist and George Keburia establishing themselves as world-renowned designers. Completely absent from the conversation regarding the opening of H&M though, was how the second biggest clothing retailer would affect both the economics and fashion of the city.
The overwhelming coverage of the opening of the store revolved around the relief that the store was finally arriving. Headlines included exclamation marks and notes about how the store offered not only good deals but also amazing fashion. One article in the Caucasus Business Week newspaper ludicrously claimed that the brand was a supporter of sustainability. Within the comments section, people shared their delight and relief that the store was finally opening. It was meant to signal a step towards greater Westernization of Georgian society and its economy. It was presented as another puzzle piece that would eventually assemble a vibrant, modern society. The opening of this brand was not just about the clothing – it was significant societal progress.
Questions must be asked as to why the opening of a chain store is viewed as progress, when it promotes cheap, disposable clothing that is manufactured in the global south where workers are easier to exploit. Progress should not be a brand of clothing that is one of the biggest culprits of an environmentally destructive ‘fast fashion’ culture, where clothing is produced unsustainably. H&M in no way helps foster Tbilisi’s local fashion industry but just undercuts it. H&M is not progress but merely the growth of a corporate power and environmental damage. However, whenever a major chain or service is opened in Tbilisi then it is framed as progress. Examples as diverse as Dunkin Donuts and Rooms Hotel have been equally hyped as the next step in a new modern Tbilisi but the reality is that it just the furthers the corporatization of the city.
What has become so troubling about Tbilisi’s ongoing process of Westernization is that it is just neoliberalism that contributes so much to exploitation and inequality but lauded as progress. Since the rise of Saakhashvili in the early 21st century, neoliberalism has been presented as an alternative to post-Soviet stagnation and Russian domination. It has been celebrated in the mainstream media with the growth of tourism and Tbilisi’s dynamic counterculture, yet what has not been mentioned is the continuing inequality, gentrification, and oligarchical control of the Georgian economy. The hype of the H&M store opening within the mainstream media is symptomatic of the broader destruction of the country.
The struggle for Tbilisi is how to both progress as a city, where the ghosts of Soviet occupation and a brutal civil war are still present, while also not exasperating social inequality and disenfranchisement. Critics of neoliberalism in Georgia have been accused of wanting to return to the dark days of the 90s. What is important is that a more progressive vision for Tbilisi emerges that brings not only new ideas forth but allows the city to grow more sustainably and be more just. How this vision can manifest itself remains a bit vague, but used clothing shop Day Off! offers some insight into what that may look like.
Day Off! is located in the Old Town of Tbilisi, behind the Tbilisi Wall on Vertskhli Street. Co-founded by Georgian-born Lasha Prazdnik and Olga Kulaeshvili (and later Aliona Vasya) almost two years ago, who both grew up in Russia but moved to Tbilisi later in life. In contrast to many of the used clothing stores in Georgia, they look to heavily curate their selection, so you’re not dealing with the usual massive piles of clothing. The store seeks out clothing that is both high quality and stylish that appeals to young Georgians that want to be fashionable without falling into the trap of continuous consumption and the environmental damage that follows. They actively bring in new items and have attracted a decent social media following, posting their new finds daily.
Day Off! helps envision a more progressive Tbilisi while not offering another neoliberal solution. The store owners both embrace their post-Soviet heritage while bringing together new ideas. All those that help operate the store grew up during the 90s, when many individuals in the former USSR had to purchase used clothing because of the dire economic circumstances of the time. As Lasha said, “It wasn’t ever a stigma in Georgia to buy second-hand goods, as the economic situation after the 90s was just catastrophic and there were no other ways. It was considered as normal.” Used clothing markets emerged out of poverty, but Day Off! looks to show that used clothing shopping doesn’t have to come from desperation. They prove that thrifting can be fashionable, socially just, and far more economical than shopping at giant multinational stores that fuel endless consumerism. They are hardly the first store to do this in the world but they are offering a new twist on a post-Soviet experience that is progressive and exciting.
None of the three who manage the store had ever been business owners before setting up Day Off! Instead, they were just individuals interested in ecology and DIY culture that wanted to find an ethical way of supporting themselves. Looking to open something that made Tbilisi more interesting and which reflected their ideology of sustainability, they poured their savings into the project. Speaking about their store’s ethics, Olga says a lot of people don’t realize just how damaging the clothing industry is on the environment but also on people psychologically: “This so-called ‘fast fashion’ is based on dishonest marketing that mainly consists of different ways of psychologically manipulating people to force them to spend more money. They release a new collection every two weeks, so people who can’t afford to buy the newest feel like they are worse than those who can”, she argues. Refreshingly, Day Off! looks to encourage people to express themselves and feel good while not damaging the environment.
Day Off! offers something new and dynamic to Tbilisi. They’re a small business that provides a product that most people can afford and that is cool. They offer an insight into an idea of Tbilisi built upon small businesses started by young people that are looking to support themselves while also making the community more sustainable and ethical. They show that new ideas and new businesses don’t need to exclude working class people and hurt the community. It would be unfair to call them the anti-H&M but they are offering a solution to all the problems started by morally bankrupt corporations. Although they are just one store, they are glimpse a vision of Tbilisi that is progressive, refreshing, and socially just.