On Chavchavadeze Avenue, in downtown Tbilisi , knock-off European clothing brands sit next to high-tech shops, in-vogue peep-toe platforms pose near the trendy iPad. However Samoseli Pirveli has little to share with them: the shop doesn’t sell the latest outfits, but the ultra-traditional Georgian chokhas. Sewn from thick fabric, tight at the waist and loose at the end, the chokha is the traditional male dress in the Caucasus, its use dating back to the 9th century.
By the 1920s chokhas started becoming a rare sight on the street: now they usually only feature at folk-associated events like weddings and similar celebrations. However the pride for traditional Georgian clothing seems to be returning.
Levan Vasadze and Luarsab Togonidze are old friends that share a passion for traditional Georgian clothing. They felt the market was ready for an old-fashioned clothing company that looks at the past but meets the demands of today’s customers. Luarsab Togonidze, now Samoseli Pirveli’s General Director, says that the company was established over a year ago, but the shop was opened in March this year.
They used the months in between to carry out historical research of the style, the fabrics, the design, the master tailors, and the accessories of chokhas through the centuries. “We also looked at how much theatre and cinema changed the real style of clothes,” explained Togonidze. The entire collection is created in Georgia by the 40 people employed in the company. Most of the designs are based on old photographs, so the chokhas produced are mainly from the 18th and 19th centuries.
Wearing chokhas in the 21st century is not exactly comfortable. The thick fabric makes them unbearable in the scorching Caucasus summer sun.
Who buys chokhas today then? The buyers are Georgians who want them for special events, like weddings, or foreigners fascinated by the style. So the prices in the shop are not very expensive. In other European countries national costumes cost even more, like Scottish kilt prices which start from 90 EUR and can go up to 900-1,000 EUR. “The prices range between 250 and 1,040 GEL, which is reasonable for chokhas,” explained shop assistant Irina Alelishvili. Some orders also come from corporate customers for their parties.
Over the last few weeks, orders have been up to 5-7 in a day which is quite a good number, say company representatives.
The General Director of the company says that there are certain impulses which different outfits give to the person wearing them. “In these ancient clothes we can see the character of our ancestors, their style of life and their nature. I don’t want to give the Chokha some sacral meaning but it certainly has some sort of metaphysical power,” he said.
The company owners plan to enlarge their business, opening branches across the capital and beyond. Contacts with the Georgian diaspora may lead to opening a similar shop in Turkey.
In Georgia there used to be different variations of the Chokha in the different regions, therefore shops that sell them should provide a variety of traditional clothing. For example there is the Kartli-Kakheti chokha, which is longer than others, with a V-neck on the chest and worn without a belt.
The most popular one is still the classic black and white, which is most often chosen by bridegrooms. Traditionally the Chokha needs many little details such as ornamental daggers and cartridge belts to complete the image of the old fighting and defensive traditions of Georgian men. They cost extra and almost every Chokha shop supplies them. These plus black polished boots create the image of a man from the 18th and 19th centuries in Georgia.
After the Second World War traditional Georgian clothes became less popular. It was associated with the showing off of nobility. The Soviet regime drastically changed the mood of the population. In recent years the Chokha has become popular again. This was the will of the Catholicos Patriarch of all Georgia Ilia II, who the idea of creating the brand “Samoseli Pirveli” is contributed to as well. The company owners say that the brand will definitely be successful because the idea and mentality of the typical Soviet soldier and his clothing has departed and the country is restoring its traditions in the same way as many other European countries have done.
Despite its original flair, Samoseli Pirveli is the latest addition to the already established, albeit niche, business of traditional Georgian clothing and accessories.
Art Saloon on central Rustaveli Avenue has been selling chokhas for 20 years. All the traditional items of clothing are sewn by various Georgian tailors who also stitch together puppets and papakhi, the round sheep’s wool hat, common in the highlands of the country. Pridon Magradze, the store’s director explains that each style, each piece of clothing, has a history. “In the old times women would spend several years sewing garments for their future husbands, which their husband would then wear during battle.”
There are many different sizes of Chokha. The prices start from 120-130 GEL but don’t include the accessories which are necessary to complete the traditional look.
Keti Topchishvili works at Art Saloon: she reckons that about 15-20 chokhas are sold every month, a number that doubles during the “wedding season”, when there are no fasting days. “Generally 7 out of 10 chokhas purchased are for a wedding,” she said. As for the style, foreigners tend to go for purple while Georgians stick to the traditional black-and-white scheme.
In most cases the customers ask for a costume to be made specially for them. This takes a week. The service is as fast as possible. The dresses and Chokhas which are for different celebrations in real life are thicker than those which are used for stage, as the dancers should feel free in them. Unlike “Samoseli Pirveli”, Art Saloon on Rustaveli has Chokhas for stage but dancers mostly buy their outfits individually. The shops don’t receive large scale group orders. Sometimes they send their outfits abroad. For example they sent four highland dresses to Singapore for a Georgian wine festival there.
Samoseli Pirveli doesn’t have a women’s department yet, but they say that in the autumn they are going to launch a women’s line as well. The designers are in the process of creating a dress line for the part of society which spends the most on clothing. But buyers can even get some accessories for women now. These are scarves with traditional Georgian decorations. One can also get tiny Chokhas made for infants and little children. The shop representatives say that many people buy outfits for the younger generations.
Chokhas are mainly for men. But the revival of traditional clothing has touched upon women as well and the demand for female garments has increased. Ana Ninua, a young costume artist, is working on the women’s collection at Samoslei Pirveli. She says that the traditional Georgian woman was very feminine and beautiful. Long skirts decorated with ornaments are going to be preserved in the 21st century collection as well. This will show a return of traditional Georgian women’s clothing, just as the chokha has returned to the lives of Georgian men.