Investment Portal of the Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation

Northern attire: Modernity of indigenous peoples' traditional costumes

Synthetic upper fur garment from the neural network

9 october 2023

In October 2023, the Fashion Design competition jury from the Arctic Startup Expedition: Far East and Arctic Russia encountered a significant issue—the project lacked an author. The AI neural network Ivanov has developed a clothing collection based on extensive data gathered from the Russian Arctic Circle. The concept models depict an average design that can be termed as 'pan-Arctic.' The neural network didn't just produce some attractive images, but it also developed a project tailored to modern synthetic materials offering high comfort, thermal insulation and durability. Vladislav Ivanov, the Development Director at Thermopol plant, highlighted that there have been long-standing attempts to create a model range concept based on indigenous peoples' traditional clothing, but these efforts have always been hindered by creative disagreements and technical implementation disputes. 'The neural network, having "copied" our various historical texts from the brand and factory—which is nearly 20 years old!—"learned" in a few hours and proposed those exact versions of northern clothing and sketch collection that will transition from scratch to capsules and materialise,' he added while discussing the robot's performance. The jury has yet to deliver its final decision on the fate of AI Ivanov's creation within the competition. Nevertheless, the existence of a new clothing line indicates societal interest, and consequently manufacturers' interest, in the cultural heritage of the indigenous peoples.

Why are ancestral traditions important?

The traditional clothing of the North's indigenous peoples is a result of millennia of human adaptation to the severe Arctic conditions. In extremely low temperatures, piercing winds and the necessity to work outdoors, the outfit becomes a crucial survival tool. Furthermore, the scarcity of resources and transportation capabilities dictate a strict, highly practical design that can be adopted for creating everyday clothing for a broader audience. The AI neural network Ivanov applied this exact approach, putting an end to years of disputes between technologists and designers.

Nevertheless, there are alternative methods. For example, ethnographer and technologist Lyudmila Rastorgueva opted to use traditional materials to craft modern clothing elements. In doing so, she created an equivalent of insoles from herbs traditionally used by the Yakuts, providing foot ventilation and slight heating. The material chosen was an ion-exchange nanocomposite. Lyudmila used reindeer wool, a common base for traditional costumes, as the foundation for creating insulation in suits and a special half-mask for respiratory protection in severe cold. Consequently, semi-overalls and vests made with reindeer wool are approximately six times warmer than their synthetic and natural equivalents. In 2017, climbers wearing her overalls conquered Everest, and in 2023, they were tested by emergency services during the Safe Arctic—2023 drills. Currently, Lyudmila intends to broaden her production, adding insulators for tents and yarangs, sleeping bags and other items useful in the tundra to her product line.

Beyond its practical aspects, clothing of indigenous peoples is a significant part of the cultural heritage of the northern peoples. Patterns, decorations, colour selection and many other elements carry a vast amount of information. Preserving these elements and reintroducing them into mainstream culture enriches our cultural landscape with fresh meanings and ideas. One such initiative is the ORNAMENT—Ethnic Passport of Indigenous Peoples project, which aims to consolidate knowledge about the traditional costumes of minor ethnic groups. If they win the competition, the creators of the 'ethnic passport' pledge to establish a database that fashion designers can use for inspiration.

What about the tundra?

The distinguishing feature of the current state of traditional northern peoples' attire compared to similar phenomena among other small ethnic groups is that it remains a part of daily life for many Yakuts, Nenets, Sami, Chukchi and other ethnicities. While the European style of dress dominates daily life for the vast majority of Russians, with perhaps some 'national' elements included, in the North it's not uncommon to encounter a reindeer herder in traditional upper fur garment, heading to a nearby settlement for supplies on a snowmobile. Due to its exceptional practicality, the traditional costume has not been fully replaced by mass-produced factory items over the past decades, remaining suitable for everyday wear as well as for holidays or family celebrations.

Just like in the past, most of these clothing items are hand-sewn. Today's nomads of Yamal actively perpetuate their ancestors' traditions, albeit with modifications to suit contemporary narratives. For instance, it's common to see traditional Nenets sarafans made from chameleon fabric or local patterns incorporated into a modern jacket. The creativity of nomadic couturiers, unrestricted by mass production norms, allows them to craft intricate works of art that take years to complete, or to colour malitsas in the hues of the Russian tricolour. This is a sign of a truly vibrant tradition—unlike static museum collections or ceremonial costumes of folklore ensembles, contemporary indigenous clothing maintains its authenticity while also reflecting the influences of the times, representing a unique cultural phenomenon.

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