Ruslan “Russ” Karablin is a man of action. He’s in New York on this wintery day on behalf of the Agenda trade show. Agenda is where anybody who is somebody in the streetwear industry goes to show their new lines to media outlets and buyers. It’s a dance he’s been doing for years. A cha-cha he can rock with his eyes closed, as he’s been working with garments and art-on-garments for over 20 years. Russ (AKA Ssur forwards) is a survivor, and proof positive that if you stick with it, your ideas will eventually get stuck on the people. His persistence has created a platform for his fine art, and his pieces have become wearable, conceptual pieces in and of themselves. Just ask your man, ASAP Rocky.
Mass Appeal: Tell us about where you grew up.
Russ: I grew up in Brooklyn — the Coney Island section — until I finally moved to Manhattan, close to 20 years ago.
And when you were a kid, what were your influences? What inspired you?
Subway stations, Kung-Fu flicks, Planet of the Apes — shit like that (laughs).
How was your neighborhood like coming up?
It was pretty budget; ghetto-ish, you know. I don’t like throwing around that word too much, but it was definitely the ‘hood.
How did that environment mixed with your background create who you became?
I guess it helped in a way, ‘cause even within my own peers — I’m originally from Russia — I’ve always been kind of an outcast. But I guess growing up in Coney Island around other minorities, I kind of fit in better.
In terms of clothing and streetwear and design, you been around, you seen it come and go, you’ve seen the swings, you’ve seen people who are friends and contemporaries be on top, and be on bottom. It’s a very temperamental kind of world. Talk about what it takes to navigate the fickleness of the whole world of streetwear.
It’s definitely been an up-and-down journey. You get on the pedestal, and then you’ve got to dodge the tomatoes. Persistence overcomes resistance. And doing what you love always, above and beyond anything.
You’ve been in it to win it since ’92. What has changed, in the time since you got wrapped up in all of this, you think?
Really, everything has been said and done. Most of the time people aren’t listening, so we get to do it again but for us, this time, more people listened. I’ve changed. I see it more clearly now.
The Internet wasn’t really poppin’ in ’92. How has the Internet directly affected the world that you’re in?
The Internet has changed everything, man; it sort of makes everything uniform in a strange way. There is not much individuality as there was per se, because if something is sick at the moment, and people are loving it, it spreads a lot quicker nowadays.
What would you say is the philosophy of your brand?
Sex, politics, and protests [Laughs]. A positive message. A universal message.
How would you describe your new spring line?
Blacked out [Laughs].
Most of it is on black bodies of clothing, so yeah, blacked out.
Why did you go with all-black?
It always appealed to me.
Speaking of all-black, how did the whole A$AP thing come together?
Rocky came through to the store and was friends with this guy named Pat who interned for us at a certain point. Pat brought around the A$AP crew. They were feeling the gear. We had a good-ass symmetry—Rocky happens [to be] the golden child of hip hop at the moment, so the timing was right. Everything was just aligned. Preparation meets timing.
“Preparation meets timing” — sounds real ninja-like.
Well it feels like it [Laughs]. We’ve been preparing for quite some fucking time, you know?
And what is the craziest thing that has come out of that whole “Commes Des Fuck Down” thing? Did anyone from Commes Des Garçons call you about that?
Actually, they called me and said they like it. We have an open dialogue now. We’re friendly. They don’t like the bootlegs of the Play stuff — one of the side brands of the brand is called Play.
But, in a way, I guess what you done has probably fueled his sales.
I would like to think that. I think it was a beautiful, orchestrated phenomenon, for lack of a better word.
You’re a true New Yorker, but you’ve been living on the West Coast for how many years now?
Three years out there.
How does your operation work in both coasts?
We’ve got the shop here on Elizabeth Street, and Dave — who has been working with us close to a decade now — is still running the show there. We co-oped with the brand Black Scale in the shop, which has made things a bit easier. But we’re basically set up on the West Coast; we’re doing a lot of our production out there, and shipping and handling from there; the web is completely run from there, but I’m back here in NYC every month or so.
What is the ultimate goal? ‘Cause like I said, the ups-and-downs ebb and flow of the clothing game can really take a lot out of an individual. It probably takes a cunning Russian cat like yourself to weather the politics and drama that comes with this industry.
Umm, I mean, I don’t think I’m special. I just happen to have a heap of energy and I’m pretty determined and most people give up a lot easier, you know? I am willing to push myself past myself.
From here, what’s next?
Work more on fine art projects. More like a world tour, showing people my art and sculpture.
Talk about that. With the line taking off, you probably don’t have as much time for projects like that.
Hopefully now that I’ve got a good team in place I can focus more on fine art projects.
One last thing: [the 1968 film] Planet of the Apes. You know I was down with that shit early too, right. In my old magazine ego trip, we had ill Planet of the Apes ads that we’d make. Shit, there’s a fellow in Japan who started a major brand inspired by Planet of the Apes. What are your thoughts on the Apes phenomenon?
Well, it definitely had an effect on a certain age group. I still think the concept [is relevant].
Do you remember what happened to the black astronaut in the first film?
No, what happened to the black dude in the first one?
Come on man, you don’t remember?!
Yeah well, it happens so quickly that I can’t be totally mad at you for not remembering. They fucking stuffed him and threw his ass up in a museum!
They stuffed him? Doesn’t that always happen [Laughs]? Like, in Star Trek as well??
Planet of the Apes is mad deep ‘cause the light-skinned were in control and were the “smart” ones; the dark-skinned apes were just ignorant, mad stupid, and always down to punch everyone in the face. There are a million places I could go with that, but I won’t. Then the chick who played Nova — Linda Harrison — wow. She was bangin’. She the first white woman I was into when I was kid.
Really? You sure she’s white? She looks like she could[‘ve] been a little mixed.
A little more ethnic, right? She might have had some Russian blood.
This story appears in Mass Appeal Issue 52. Read more stories from the issue here.