SSUR: Where Russian Culture and Hip-Hop Culture Collide

Russ Karablin and Ben Baller
Russ Karablin and Ben Baller
Noel Vasquez

You may not know it, but there's a tiny Russian neighborhood in West Hollywood.

Spots like Bar Lubitsch, Anteka Pharmacy, Mechta Deli Market and a handful of other Russian businesses stretch across three blocks of Santa Monica between La Brea and Fairfax. There's parking signs written in Cyrillic ,and Russian newspapers stacked in the doorways. Residents, mostly elderly Russian immigrants, call it "Little Russia."

A few weeks ago, a prominent New York City-based streetwear brand called SSUR opened its first L.A. location on that block.

It probably would have made more sense for the storefront to move onto Fairfax, where most of the trendy streetwear shops can be found. But owner Russ Karablin has always rubbed against the grain. A Russian immigrant who grew up in Coney Island, Karablin wanted to steer clear of the Fairfax scene and to inject SSUR with some of his Russian heritage.

SSUR (Russ backwards) is a 20 year old company that rose to prominence in 2012 with a line parodying Commes De Garcon's trademark high-fashion logo: hats and shirts reading "Commes de Fuck Down." The satirical logo made waves throughout the hip hop community, and was rocked by A$AP Rocky and other rap stars. It launched Karablin into streetwear fame.

SSUR: Where Russian Culture and Hip-Hop Culture Collide
Courtesy of SSUR

Even beyond "Commes de Fuck Down" Karablin is a parodist, a sort of court jester of the fashion game. Another popular SSUR shirt takes the Chanel logo and turns it into "Channel 0," a reference to Public Enemy. At apparel expo Project Vegas, instead of displaying his new line at a booth like everyone else, Karablin set up an art installation featuring severed limbs and bricks of cocaine. 

The L.A. store was preceded only by locations in New York and Shanghai. Its opening party was a strange intersection of Russian and hip-hop cultures. Sneaker geeks with backpacks, guys with chains to the floor, ladies with pierced cheeks, and old tattooed Russian men crammed into the backyard. Caterers served perogies on trays and free Hennessy. Erin Wassen, the fashion model, was there, right next to performers SZA and Dirt Nasty. 

"I think there's a very strong connection between hip-hop culture and Russian culture," said Russ, sitting in his private studio in the SSUR store, which is decorated with a chrome bust of Beethoven with Joker face paint. "When Russians came to New York in the '80s and '90s, they were all about Versace, Louis, Gucci. Hennessy too. Russians love Henny."

Karablin himself came to New York as part of the Russian Jewish diaspora in the 1970s, when he was only five. The same diaspora gave birth to Little Russia. SSUR sits right next to a Russian Jewish synagogue.

He plans to build out the concrete backyard into a venue where streetwear fanatics can partake in Russian cultural events — the kind of place where skateboarders will stop by for Russian tea. A 1969 Russian Volga GAZ-21, which Karablin is currently refurbishing, will adorn the space. (It will also be for sale.)

Karablin is a countercultural artist who turned into a businessman out of necessity. He sells expensive things that undermine the materialism of expensive things. He acknowledges that contradiction, but believes that his products speak against the extreme materialism of hip-hop culture.

"Kids want to be the first to get it and the first to not wear it," says Karablin, "it's good for the brand, but it's not good for the kids camping outside the store."

A grocery store in Little RussiaEXPAND
A grocery store in Little Russia
Isaac Simpson

He gazes at the painting outside his studio, a version of "Last Supper" with the disciples wearing ski masks and drinking Stolichanya. 

"At some point, they need to calm the fuck down."

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