Demna Gvasalia… the mysterious name whispered across the front row of every major show this Paris Fashion Week, as the build up to the most widely anticipated show of the AW16 season finally released itself unto an audience hungry for the cutting-edge. Currently among the most feted and copied figures in fashion, Gvasalia is dominating fashion's march towards the new: heading the charge into a new system, new silhouette, and new sense of exploratory avant-garde possibility. Who is this creative genius recently revealed as Vetements anonymous designer and now artistic director of Balenciaga? Let’s take a closer look.
Born a child of the 80s in Soviet Georgia, Gvasalia felt he belonged in the fashion world by the age of 15. As a teenager, he spent a great deal of time running around the streets, while absorbing a sudden influx of the subcultural influences that made it to Georgia, like goth and raves. Tellingly, the first designer he discovered on his own was Helmut Lang, who preferred classic tailoring with a distinct peculiar fit. (Lang was also notably among the first designers to put nonprofessional models in his shows, which Gvasalia does as well.) This fascination by how clothes were constructed lured him into the world of fashion, and he has been entranced ever since. Gvasalia enrolled in the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, a school that produced the first wave of iconic Belgian designers in the ’80s. He had little understanding of high fashion, but went on to lead design teams for the Belgian conceptual brand Maison Margiela, where he spent three and a half years before joining Vuitton. Gvasalia undeniably acknowledges that the Margiela influence — the wit and wonderment of conventional shapes blown up massively or re-created in a novel way — is stamped on Vetements, as well.
Today, he still calls Paris home, in a popular, diverse neighborhood filled with barbershops, cafés, and cheap clothing stores, including his favorite thrift chain Guerrisol. “For me, observing people in the street is very important,” he says. “In Paris, you have a lot of characters. And those people who might inspire me, I don’t see many of them on the Left Bank,” where Balenciaga’s offices are located. It seems obvious, but, as Gvasalia notes, sometimes the most predominant people in fashion are not the best sources of inspiration, because they’re already dressed in what’s trending. Media exposure tends to rob even the most interesting runway garments of their singularity. So Gvasalia likes to see people who are inventive out of necessity and, more crucially, lack fashion self-consciousness. After seven years in Paris, and nearly 15 in Western Europe, he is hardly an outsider, but that thinking nonetheless subtly informs his approach to fashion.
Gvasalia is perhaps most prominently regarded as originator of Vetements, the brand the world can’t stop talking about. The label was dreamt up as a creative collective by seven designers who initially remained anonymous due to contractual commitments elsewhere. Each designer had shared frustration in the mundane business fashion was becoming, and Vetements became their pure expression of escape. Named Vetements, French simply for clothing, because they hoped for customers to look past the branding that permeates the fashion industry. Mr. Gvasalia only stepped out of the shadows recently, coming forward to take place at the creative helm, although a strong collaborative spirit continues to charge the studio. Guram Gvasalia, his brother, now handles the commercial side of the business.
The brand is back boned by a cultivation of dissatisfactions with how the relentless cycle of production has sucked the soul of creation. Gvasalia and his cohorts are responding by defiantly tearing up the rules as they know it, and creating new ones with brooding attitude. He felt pieces were being made because they had to be, not because they had a reason to be. The Vetements idea from the beginning has been that it is about the product and it’s about the clothes that people need to be wearing. That’s the biggest compliment for a designer, to see people wearing your clothes, not to be in a fashion book once or twice.
Now, Gvasalia balances two leading brands, as he dedicates half his time to the prestigious Balenciaga house. Disrupting the fashion system he feels just doesn't work anymore is a key attitude Gvasalia brings to Balenciaga from Vetements. This whole vicious circle turns and turns at a very fast speed and kills both the creativity and the business. Ready-to-wear, which is the platform and the base of fashion, is really in the shadows today, and Gvasalia is trying to pull it out again. It has become less about making a new garment that does not exist, and more about taking a shirt apart to make a new shirt. Picked up from his influential time at Margiela, the core of Gvasalia’s method of working is understanding the construction of a garment through deconstruction, “I saw the pieces that were done at the beginning of Margiela at the beginning of the 1990s. It was investigative fashion. They took a shirt, they took it apart, and they made a new one out of it. This whole idea about understanding the core of what you are doing, to make something new. You really needed to know and to kind-of be in love with it in order to make something out of it.” And these ideas transcend across both his Vetements and Balenciaga collections this season.
Needless to say a busy week for Gvasalia took off with his debut collection for Balenciaga that attracted attention from style-set movers and shakers alike. The clothes felt fresh, unforeseen, and of-the-moment, but still displayed a mastery of tailoring, color and print combinations, and couture proportions relating to foundation laid by Cristóbal Balenciaga. The show notes described the collection as “a translation, not a reiteration. A new chapter.” With the refined silhouettes and elevated craftsmanship of a couture house colliding with the attitude of what has become the industry’s most buzzed-about brand, that couldn't’t be more true.
The couture forms for which Balenciaga is known—cocoon shapes, gently sloped backs, skirts that jut away from the body—were reincorporated into sportswear garments like windbreakers and puffers that open up in a feminine V, away from the collar bone. These are the kind of streetwear staples that Gvasalia's line Vêtements is known for—and with this collection for Balenciaga he proves he can translate that feeling of realness and urgency to something more refined and luxurious. “The most Balenciaga was the architecture of those garments, and most me was the choice of garments...we tried to construct the attitude into the garments themselves. Normally for me, attitude is one of the key elements”, says Gvasalia. On the topic of what luxury means today his words resonated with current conversations spinning around the pace of fashion. “It is time, I think time is the most luxurious thing in the world. And youth. Youth is freedom.”
Described as “a series of couture attitudes transforming a modern, utilitarian wardrobe”, the collection was shown on a mixture of street cast faces, and sought to answer the question of how the legacy of Balenciaga could be reimagined in a new context. Beginning with couture-style suiting in black and grey with shoulders jutting partly forward, then spinning into structured puffa and ski jackets, lurex knitwear, and the kind of more-is-more, vintage-inspired floral dresses that have become a staple at Vetements. Heavy and masculine outfits pair with ultra feminine, crystal embellished stilettos to compensate for the density. Accessories were climactic and spunky, consisting of secretary glasses with super sized chains, motocross gloves, padded scarves, clompy platform-heeled boots and monumental safety pin earrings.
Gvasalia also approached the distressed task of designing bags with the same method of boosting the ordinary till it becomes extraordinary. Sumptuous leather gave subtle softness to bags intended for heavy duty days, resembling toolboxes and recyclable grocery bags gone high end, in an antithesis of daintiness.
The show concluded with multi-floral dresses in a hodge podge of thrift store, Portobello road type patchwork combined with candy cane tights just for fun. Pointed toe, quilted boots matched tapestry patterned dresses and oversized clutches matched the oversized flow of the gowns.
an inspiringly whole and succinct set of wardrobe desires answered. Dresses your granny might have worn are given a modern update with intricate folklore embroidery and wild draping. The show ended, the lights came back on, and the audience was left with an inspiringly whole and succinct set of wardrobe desires answered.
Just days following the ground-breaking Balenciaga show, Gvasalia thrilled yet again as the most talked about man in Parisian fashion right now. Gvasalia and co. presented a collection that evolved the Vetements brand slowly, sending out new versions of their hoodies, ditzy floral dresses, and thigh-high sock boots. As a counter to their continuity was the setting, a church, and the braze nature of certain pieces, like a shirt with an expletive-laden accusation printed on the front.
This collection takes on a darker mood that rebelled against authority with naughty school girl uniforms and nods to stifling femininity. The feeling that a young, outsider energy is rushing into the spiritual vacuum which currently exists at the center of the fashion establishment is healthy, exciting, and perfectly timed. It was hard not to think that that dark place might also have had something to do with the terrorist attacks back in November in Paris, the city that is so intrinsically linked to the making and shaping of the brand. brand’s irreverence was still out in force. “It was a kind of a dark season,” said Gvasalia after the show. “We had a lot emotions going on in the team – not depressed but definitely a dark mood. And when we thought about places where we could show, after a restaurant and a club, a church was the perfect concept.”
Gvasalia’s collective down these sacred aisles, the clothes seemed to wink and nudge at you, in the acknowledgement of authority figures and rebelling against them. Naughty Catholic school girl uniforms, disheveled oversized ties and thigh high socks were like a subversive take on St Trinian’s. Velvet suiting and chintzy florals evoked stifling interiors. Heavy metal and goth references abounded in the guns ‘n’ roses motifs as well as in the finale Sisters of Mercy soundtrack. New silhouettes of shrunken shoulder lines, as well as even more gigantic, boxier ones than before, take place of traditional Vetements oversized slouch. Fast and furious came the ideas: hoodies and sweatshirt-maxis printed with the words Sexual Fantasies; oversize men’s pin-striped shirts, velvet pant suits, legs in a dozen variations on thigh boots—one of them painted like tattoos—or clad in long, sexy white socks beneath miniscule skirts.
And just as Vetements has had an indelible impact on other designers, as seen in the proliferation of oversized silhouettes and baggy hoodies, Gvasalia decided to shrink things up to shake up their own silhouette game. Sleeves were shortened. Shoulders were sharp and controlled or sometimes hunched. Bottoms were gathered in the back to pinch the waist in and belts came high up on the waist. “We did everything oversized for a few seasons now and we didn't’t really feel like this is the only message we want to do in terms of volume,” explained Gvasalia. “It was more about playing with proportions. That silhouette is the opposite of what we did for four seasons now, but it’s also us.”
In such a short amount of time, Gvasalia and his collaborators have established a look, whereby the name ‘Vetements’ could be used as an adjective. With their latest collection, the parameters of that look have evolved but at the core of what they do, it’s the energy that they create, that emanates far beyond shorter sleeves or internet slogans. In this scaled-up venue, you felt that energy bristling from every pew-lined aisle.
Gvasalia is running with every opportunity he has to shake up the center of fashion and he insists on placing his own inclusive values within it. Still, what was noticeable in this mix was that, rather than just being subversive for the sake of the gestural politics, Vetements means business. Its hoodies have a cult appeal in one direction, but for the fashion congregation there is also so much to believe in here: not just the wearable, desirable printed blouses and dresses, but also the hope that this is the beginning of a new chapter in the life of Paris fashion. The challenge of doing things differently, the transitional zeitgeist of this moment and the search for the endless possibilities of making clothes that people want to wear. Gvasalia follows instinct and neglects the trend influences that feel so overdone. ICONHOUSE is thrilled for everything the future holds for Gvasalia.
By Jessica Aurell