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Tolya Titaev – “No One, Nowhere”

Since Russia invaded the Ukraine, life has been turned upside down for Tolya Titaev. The owner of Moscow-based skate shop Oktyabr and Rassvet Skateboards has been jumping through hoops to get permanent residency outside of Russia while trying to maintain a normal life, working on new collections, and keeping his brand, business, and skateboarding on track. We checked in to see what has changed for him both personally and professionally over the course of the past two years. We met Tolya in Barcelona, where he is currently in the process of trying to set up his regular residency and finding his way back into a routine-driven lifestyle, where he spends his days working in between his home and a friend’s coffee shop, taking only certain days off to roam the streets of his exile of choice.

Let’s start with your current situation, getting to Barcelona and the hoops you have to jump through to be and stay here.

When the war started, I was completely lost. I was in Paris at the time, I didn’t know what to do. I was spending time in Europe with my girlfriend for three months and I was running out of days on my visa. When it expired, I had to go back to Russia. My business partners were trying to help me with getting a French talent passport. I was there reapplying for a new Schengen visa, and at that time, there were already moments when they started to shut down and stop giving out visas. At some point, they started to drive people to the army. Me and my friends were like, “What should we do? We just need to leave.” Many of our friends were applying for student visas in Barcelona, so we decided to do the same thing because that was the easiest. We found a school and they were helping us a lot with everything. They helped us to open bank accounts and prepared all the documents. All my friends applied about a week before me. The day I was supposed to apply, the people from the school called me and told me they made a mistake when checking my documents. I was like, “What does that mean?” They said, “No worries, we have a plan for you. You need to go to Andorra and enter with a stamp on the way in, then go out of Andorra without the stamp. Then you’re spending three months here, until you’re going back, getting your stamp on the way back out. And then it means you’ve been out of the eurozone for three months.” Of course, I did that because that was, I think, like the last solution I had to not have to leave. It gave me a little bit of time as well. Then, when I came back from Andorra, I had already gathered the documents to apply for the student visa one more time. I waited for nearly three more months and then my application got denied because there was something wrong with the Andorra work-around. I had to leave the EU and decided to go to Mexico City because I really wanted to just explore Mexico. There, I had the chance to save a bit of money as well. It was a wonderful time. I visited my girlfriend’s family in Monterey, spent one month with them and basically five months in Mexico City. We skated a lot and the guys came over while we were filming for the “Blue” video. And now I’m back and I’m on my journey to apply for another visa.

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Most of your Russian crew is doing the same thing, right?

Yeah, most of the guys applied for the student residency and then they basically joined the school. They’ve pretty much learned Spanish by now and are reapplying for the second year. I think you can do it for up to four years. They never had to leave.

Are you free to go to Russia now or what happens when you go back?

I mean, of course, I’m free to go back to Russia, but the thing is, if you’re staying somewhere for more than six months, it means you are not a tax resident in your home country anymore. Also, when people come back after a period of more than a year, there can be some interviews and they’ll probably want to check if you’re not a spy or were recruited by another country or something like that – so there are going to be many questions. Since I’ve never joined the army, it could also happen that they immediately take me there to serve or something. I wouldn’t like to try going back, especially if I don’t have any residency anywhere. Until I have my European Schengen visa in my passport, I’m kind of like no one, nowhere. I’ve been away from my country for too long and I’m not getting any documents in Europe either. I really hope that it’s going to work out with the documents that I’m in the process of getting right now. I basically provided everything I have. We’ll see. Fingers crossed.

What’s happening with your skate shop “Oktyabr” in Russia?

Of course, we were unsure what we were going to do with the shop when the war started. We had to change the supply chain, and many different brands stopped providing their clothing or whatever else they’d been selling to us. For the first six months, we tried to see how it was going. Of course, there was the question of whether we were going to close or not, but now it kind of stabilized, I think. Many people say like, “Oh, you’re paying taxes to your government there, so you’re supporting them.” My main point to keep it open, however, was to have this place of clarity during everything that’s going on, that we had before. If we closed Oktyabr, I feel like there wouldn’t be a space for younger generations to come and talk about their thing, giving them the chance to purchase products that they have in other countries, or for doing premieres, little zine presentations, or something like that. For me, it’s like a place that still needs to exist, where the skaters can talk about any topic and just basically discuss whatever they want. We will give them the knowledge that they need to have rather than what’s been going on in the country. I think that’s the main reason to have this place, because without it, the scene will die. Yes, we’re making money, but we also get our team out to Turkey for two weeks, produce the boards to give to them, create opportunities, and give the stuff to people who will not stop skating. I think Oktyabr is the clearest part within Russian skateboarding now because everything else is just the federation and the government’s money and then there is nothing going on except that.

"Rassvet is more than just five Russian people."

What changed for Rassvet ever since the war started and how do you position yourself?

Since the beginning of the war, we’ve been very clear with our “I missed you” video. We say what we think about the situation on our Instagram. We stand with the Ukrainian side, of course, and support it. We worked really close with the “Paris help Ukraine” initiative [@paris_help_ukraine on Instagram]. We bought a big number of much-needed supplies for Ukrainian people, like medicine, shots of painkillers, and things like that. The highlight still exists in our stories. You can go there and see where and how you can help from any country around the globe. I think we as a brand get lots of support as well because especially me, as a Russian person, saying things like that means that I can get in trouble if I’m going to go back to Russia. However, many Eastern European countries also stopped supporting the brand. I mean, we all understand why it’s happening, but overall, Rassvet is more than just five Russian people. We have a global team, we’re a group of skaters from around the world. And that was the main idea for me, making this brand to grow internationally, not locally like “Rassvet from Russia.” I always tried to do a brand that was going to be worldwide.

How are you involved with the “Comme des Garçons?”

From day one, we’ve been with CDG and now we are under the “Dover Street Market Paris” umbrella. It’s basically the same thing. They just opened another office and we had to re-sign everything. Rassvet was never based in Russia, I was living in Russia, but the brand was always registered in France from the very first collection. We’re doing all the operations from France. We are not paying anything to the Russian government. Our warehouses and everything are based in Europe.

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Switch Frontside Heelflip

You started the brand with Gosha Rubchinskiy, right?

Yeah, we started with Gosha. I wanted to create the brand and I didn’t know how to do it and he was already working with CDG, so I asked him for a favor to see if that can be a thing for me as well. He talked to people from CDG and they said, “Yes, of course.” I just had to provide the first collection and then they can have a look – and that’s basically it, that’s what I did. I worked on the first collection for almost one and a half years, I guess. It was nearly two years before the collection came out. We presented it first at the Dover Street Market in London in 2016. I basically started to work on it in 2014 and made a small video with all my friends. Everyone liked the collection, and I was really excited because it was my first experience as a designer.

So you’re in charge of designing the collections?

Yes, I’m designing them all. At first, it was all, like, kind of from my perspective. Now, however, it’s a totally different thing because we get a lot of input from the whole skate team, pitching new ideas and stuff like that. Then we gather everything together, go through everything back and forth, and start to build a list of everything that’s going to be in the collection. We’re also working with different artists. Basically, we’re listening to everyone who’s involved.

How do you balance skating and the work for Rassvet?

That’s basically the craziest topic for me, I guess. The past two years were really hard because of mental breakdowns. I’m constantly working on myself as hard as I can for my everyday life and not to go crazy. And for now, it’s getting slightly better. I’m trying to come into my routine. In Mexico City, it was going pretty well. I’m basically trying to work for three full days in a week: Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. On two days of the week, I’m skating (and also on one of the weekend days), but still, it’s kind of hard. The last thing that I need to get is my documents, and then I will try to build a proper routine because I also want to do many other things besides skating.

"Oktyabr is a place that still needs to exist, where the skaters can talk about any topic and just basically discuss whatever they want."

As in other exercises?

Yeah, maybe me and Josha [Aicher] will go boxing. I really tried to make it work in Mexico City, but because of the time difference and another collection coming up, I’ve just been going to yoga two times a week and that’s been helping me. I think, for me, it’s important to have these copy-and-paste weeks down.

Rassvet is in a unique spot with a super core skate team, but it’s also a lot about fashion.

What do you think about the balance between fashion and core skating?

For me, it was kind of a core thing for the first four collections, but when you go to fashion weeks and see all the different brands, you’ll just start to get into this world more and more. We have the background of the CDG, you always see their showroom, so your style is changing as well, as a person. At the point where we are now, the “cut and sew” part in the collection is just taking over because that’s what the fashion accounts like and that’s who we sell to the most. We’re trying to have a little balance and have a kind of core skate logo line or more of an interesting T-shirt design for skate shops as well. But of course, it’s just my evolution overall and having the background of the CDG. I personally like it as well, however, and I think it’s this kind of niche that hasn’t been filled in skateboarding before.

Did you learn about the fashion cycles and stuff as you went?

Or did you know about fashion and how it worked beforehand?

I had been working for lookbooks and going to Paris a lot before I even started Rassvet. You just naturally start to get more interested in these sorts of things, seeing the runways, the brands, going to more high-fashion shows, and constantly just looking at the stuff. I don’t think I particularly learned that, I just started to get more involved and began to see more of it in my daily life.

Have you ever seen any celebrities wearing your stuff?

Justin Bieber has been wearing lots of our things. He played a concert in London, I think, and two days in a row, he wore a pink long-sleeve and yellow Rassvet T-shirt on top. Then a couple of seasons ago, he was also wearing our flannel suit. Fully. Also, the Formula One driver, Lewis Hamilton: he wore the same suit as Justin Bieber at the same time from the same collection. He’s really sick, really stylish. I mean, Kanye was rocking the Carhartt Rassvet jacket, the red one. There were definitely a few ones I can’t remember now, but yeah, it’s pretty cool when you see people wearing it because we are not sending them anything. Travis Scott was wearing the jeans jacket. That one is especially funny because that was my father’s jacket that I copied for Rassvet and then you see Travis Scott wearing it. It’s pretty insane. I also know that there are many celebrities in Asia that always wear Rassvet.

What are the future plans for the brand, as in collabs etc.?

We have a couple of things planned that I think should be out when the interview is coming out. We’re still working with more and more artists. That was one of the ideas with Rassvet: to give the younger artists space in our collections or even have separate collections altogether. So now we did the collaboration with Julian Klincewicz, my longtime friend. We’ve always been working on different projects together. I think I hit him up and said, “I think it’s time for us at this stage to make a proper separate collaboration and I would love to work with you, Julian.” He also worked on the Blue video, so that was a really nice addition and I think he put his touch in there. This collaboration is coming out in March already, and I’m really stoked. We’re going to have a collaboration with Retrosuperfuture sunglasses, which I’m really happy about as well. We’ll focus on opening our website and having our spot in Paris as well. Those are the two main goals. And as always, we’re never going to stop doing the new projects with our skate team, especially now that Remy [Taveira] and Austyn [Gillette] are on the team. We have many riders and many cool new little projects that we’re going to do over the season.

How did Austyn end up on the team?

The main connection was Val [Bauer] joining Globe shoes. Austyn started hanging out with us more and then he just voiced his interest. There was no doubt that it would be awesome to have him. I’ve been a fan of his skating all my life and I think he fits the brand perfectly. And then same with Remy: I think the Atlantic Drift board was supposed to come out and then it didn’t happen, so he was thinking about where he could fit in and that just happened naturally for both of them – and I’m really, really stoked.

You said you’re also getting more and more into photography, and you also shot a Carhartt editorial.

Are you eventually going to shoot more for Rassvet yourself?

Yeah, I started to shoot photos maybe like around three years ago, just for myself, trying to make additional content for Rassvet. I started to follow many cool photographers and started to look at interviews and just tried to understand how to properly shoot the photos. I really love to shoot photos and especially film, but it could also be on my phone. I just had my first professional work as a photographer. I did a shoot for the Carhartt WIP magazine, in which I’m going to have a small editorial, so I’m really happy.

Your friends coffee shop “Morrow” is basically your office, right?

Yeah, for now. I’m mostly there when I’m not working on the collection. I’m basically there from when they open until they close. If I’m working on the collection, I’ll spent half a day there working on my emails and current stuff, and then I’m going home to work with my graphic designer and Patrick [Franklin] and everyone.

In the metro, you were taking photos of the walls and the murals that were in there.

Is that process of observation how you find your inspiration?

It’s a really crazy thing. When I’m out, it’s really hard for me to concentrate. I’m constantly getting inspirations. I’m checking out people, with my side eye of course, but I’m checking everything. Outfits, the grandfathers, grandmothers, little things, the details of shitty graffiti or some statue, or something that I just haven’t seen before. Basically, everything outside serves as inspiration for me. When I was young, I grew up on the streets in the suburbs of Moscow. That’s how I got into getting inspired. With my girlfriend, I remember when we started dating, I was like, “Don’t think I’m looking for different people or something like that when we’re outside.” When we were in Amsterdam, the streets were so tiny and, especially in the center, there were so many people passing by, and I was trying to see which shoes they’re wearing, which type of pants, or what’s on their tops. I think Patrick and Julian are the same way. You’re constantly finding inspiration: people’s hats, how they wear their haircuts, how they dye their hair, or the grandpa, which type of loafers he’s wearing. Why is it like that? Why this kind of pants? It’s all for specific types that I have some kind of breakdowns for in my mind. It’s pretty crazy sometimes because you can’t concentrate when you’re outside. You’re just constantly checking everything.

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Melon Grab

Tell me about being sober.

Sobriety, yeah. I’m sober for the fifth year now. I decided to quit drinking because, at some point, I fell into an alcoholic, drug-addicted mode and that was pretty crazy. It was affecting my work, my skating, my productivity, and my understanding of who I am with the amount of work I have as well. I was basically partying, then forgetting stuff, not showing up to the meetings, and totally losing myself in it. When you are like that, you just need something that will tell you, “That’s it, you should stop!” And that’s basically what happened. I woke up in a hospital with my head wrapped up. I didn’t remember anything of what happened the night before. I just remember blood dripping on my face. I had eleven stitches in my head either because I’d been drinking so much that maybe I passed out right before the steps of the club or because I was doing some shit and somebody smashed me with a bottle. I literally don’t remember. I called a taxi, went home, called my sister, and told her the situation. I didn’t want to talk to my mom about it and just decided that I crossed a threshold and needed to stop. When you start drinking at an early age, you don’t even realize how much it affects you in certain ways. Of course, you’re going through a lot of mental things when you’re quitting, but I will never regret this decision. The question to myself was, “If you take the 14-year-old Tolya, who did he want to be?” He wanted to be a professional skateboarder who is active and who people are looking up to. He wanted all the stuff, the new boards, the new clothing that the sponsors give you, and just be a fucking professional skateboarder. And I was like, “That’s still who I want to be.”

"I want to be confident in everything I’m doing and have a clear understanding of what’s going on."

I wanted to have a brand – now I have a brand. I wanted to have a skate shop – and now I have a skate shop. I have so many people rely on me right now. What this small Tolya wanted to be and where I was then, it was clearly not what he wanted to be. So just fucking quit all that shit and focus on who you actually want to be. Not a fucking lost person with lots of anxiety. I want to be strong. I want to be confident in everything I’m doing and have a clear understanding of what’s going on. And that was the main turning point for me. After like a year, I started to skate for Nike SB. It’s just insane how much you gain from just taking the drinking away. There are so many people who can just say like, “I’m drinking today. Two beers and then I’m going home.” But for me, it was a different case, I could not control it like that. My best advice for people (if you know, you can’t stop drinking) is just to not drink at all. And then that’s it. It’s not that big of a deal. You’re just talking about the fucking liquid and the fucking shit that you’re putting in your nose and whatever you do there. It’s super stupid. I will never regret it. It’s the best thing that ever happened to me. I feel like I have another life.