Only 2 years ago this man was working remotely from his house. Nowadays Demna Gvasalia is the boss of Balenciaga, and one of the favourite designers of the most famous women in the world.
Many people think that the giants in fashion are all the same, and nothing new is invited “into the house”. If you are one of those people, I present to you the château-style headquarters situated in Paris. The complex owners a luxury conglomerate in which name A means Alexander McQueen, B means Balenciaga, and C means is for Costly (or Crazily so).
The building that was a real 19th-century madhouse is now a home for a number of the most expensive and fashionable brands in the world. Here, in one of the yards, you can see a bench on the right from a beautiful row of pleached limes. There is a girl in her twenties, clothed in red boxing shorts, high-tops, and a vest. She is sporting not so much a haircut as a hedgecut – all chewed ends – and she is smoking with considerable focus. Not very Marie Antoinette.
Anonymous cool girl is taking a break from work in the Balenciaga studios, where the true cuckoo in the nest, Demna Gvasalia, is to be found. Gvasalia, 35, is the Georgian designer who first got the fashion world’s attention two years ago with his hip label Vetements, then got the rest of the world’s attention one year ago when he flogged a now infamous DHL logo T-shirt for pushing 200 quid. Next he made more headlines when he was the surprise appointment as creative director at the notoriously snooty house of Balenciaga. (Its founder, Cristóbal Balenciaga, gave up designing in 1968 because, he said, “There is no one left to dress.”)
Inside the Balenciaga studio, the buzzcut-sporting, hoop-earringed, electric-blue-tattooed Gvasalia is wearing Reebok high-tops that are even more knackered than his colleague’s, and a once black Sisters of Mercy T-shirt. (The ex-Maison Martin Margiela and Louis Vuitton alumnus wears his goth influences proudly.) The designer who gave the world 800 quid jeans is wearing a pair of faded black Levi’s that you can pick up for under £50. But the charming Gvasalia is smiling too broadly and – even before we sit down – speaking too fast, to brook dissent.
Two years ago Gvasalia and his Vetements “collective” – yep, that’s how zeitgeist this lot are – were working out of his bedroom. Now it, and they, are the hottest brand in fashion, its very name having already acquired adjectival status (as in, “That is so Vetements”).
Has he been surprised by the speed at which Vetements became a thing, and the speed at which that thing then led him to one of the most illustrious design houses in the world? (He divides his week between the two.)
Growing up in the former eastern bloc, you were told you should be a banker
“Definitely. By the fact that it happened, and by the speed with which it happened,” he says in rapid-fire English, one of his five languages. “But we live in this kind of time. Everything is much faster than it used to be ten years ago. And I think the fashion industry, especially in Paris, has been a bit calm for a while – so I guess that also played a role in Vetements becoming so visible.”
The Vetements effect first became properly discernible among the hipper attendees at the catwalk shows, in the shape of the label’s free-form floral dresses with jersey inserts. Then came the oversized shirts, jackets and hoodies – sleeves too long, shoulders too high, a punchy logo here and there. The look was avant-garde, yet the clothes themselves were, well, clothes, insists Gvasalia. Still shirts, still jackets and hoodies, a sort of tea dress, just not quite as we knew them.
Indeed the 20-strong collective behind Vetements called the brand Vetements, “clothes”, because that – in contrast to the accessory-focused high-fashion industry – was what they wanted it to be about. “My interest is completely in clothing,” says Gvasalia. “I never did a bag in my life until quite recently.” Each Vetements collection starts with a kind of shopping list, an approach he has upheld at Balenciaga. “It’s a very pragmatic list of types of garment. Outerwear, tailoring, different dresses.” Gvasalia claims to be inspired not so much by the people he services – the fashion-forward, well-funded residents of Paris’s 10th arrondissement, London’s Shoreditch, New York’s Lower East Side – but by the rest of us.
“We look at how people dress and then we question why they dress that way,” says the designer, who in the past has worked with a sociologist friend conducting street-based research. “Then we try to translate it, to make it look different. I mean, we all know a hoodie, a bomber jacket, a flower dress. People can go to Gap to buy a hoodie. They can buy a vintage flower dress. How do we make them go to Vetements instead? The challenge is always to reinterpret something, almost to give a second life to something we know. Normality has so many ways of being inspiring.”
So what he and Team Vetements are trying to do is speak a language people understand, but in a slightly different way? “It’s trying to create our own accented version of the same language. I mean, nobody ever created a new garment …” He pauses briefly, the only hiatus in our hour together, then laughs. “Actually, we recently did a dress that is a bodysuit at the same time. Which is probably as far as we went in creating something that didn’t, to my knowledge, exist before.”
Putting the, er, dress-bodysuit to one side, then, what Gvasalia is proposing is a kind of normcore – that self-consciously bland, casualwear-focused, non-trend trend (keep up) of recent years. Normcore is about clothes that people actually wear in (very) real life, rather than catwalk fantasies. Yet to complicate matters further, the Vetements iterations are amped up into the most supra-normcore imaginable, not least in their prices. After all, many of us would struggle to describe as normal, never mind wearable, a dress with shoulders that are several centimetres above our own, or be prepared to pay many hundreds of pounds for it.
Whatever. What’s important is that people are coveting – and buying – Gvasalia’s clothes. And other labels, not to mention the high street, are copying him. (“You do one thing, then a season after you see five brands doing that thing, then you see ten brands …”) Natalie Kingham, the buying director at matchesfashion.com, says, “Demna’s preoccupation with the cut of clothing, with off-kilter silhouettes, and with how people want to wear clothes, appeals to a wide range of customers globally.”
The influential Dutch trend forecaster Li Edelkoort goes further, naming Gvasalia as the man responsible for a wider move in fashion away from image creation and storytelling to actual clothes, to straight-down-the-line product. “I see it as a mega-trend,” she has said. “It’s going to go far.”
My interest is completely in clothing. I never did a bag in my life until recently
Gvasalia credits what he calls his “pragmatic approach to fashion” in part to his first degree, undertaken reluctantly, in international economics at Tblisi State University. (“Growing up in those [former eastern bloc] countries you were told you should be a banker.”) He may have spent as much time as he could sketching clothes in the margins of his textbooks, but he came out the other end a rationalist of sorts, with a firm grasp on matters fiscal. “I don’t see fashion as an art. For me it is product. We are creating product that is supposed to be bought and worn and liked.”
Whereas, unbelievably, some catwalk designers feel sullied if they are even within earshot when someone says the word “commercial” – high fashion’s very own c-word – Gvasalia tells me, “It is not a bad word. It is a really good one. It makes fashion live; it keeps it alive. The overlap between the commercial and the creative, this is where fashion happens. A label that produces things nobody can buy and wear, that can only go in a museum, that will soon not exist. But only being commercial, just doing leggings and T-shirts, that will soon not exist also. In this kind of balance is where, to me, we find the true fashion.”
Just one example of his clear-sightedness when it comes to the bottom line – together with that of his brother, Guram, who is chief executive of Vetements – is that they now show each collection two months earlier, during couture week, rather than with all the other ready-to-wear labels. (To pull the schedule forward the first time they worked with 17 different brands, from Champion to Manolo Blahnik. “I told Manolo Blahnik we’d probably want to wash, boil and burn the shoes. Is it OK for you?” recalled Guram recently. “He said, ‘Please!’ ”)
This step change gives the label more time to meet production deadlines, and helps it hit the sweet spot in the biannual buying budgets of the key stores worldwide. It’s a small but significant tweak to the increasingly impossible modern fashion timetable, and it’s a small but significant brand, not one of the powerful behemoths, that had the brains, not to mention the balls, to do it.
As for the creativity, wind back further into Gvasalia’s past, to his childhood in Georgia, before the family moved to Dusseldorf, and more light is shed upon the world of Vetements. “There was no fashion at all,” remembers the designer. “I mean, there were about 15 factories in the whole of the Soviet Union that produced clothes, so everybody was dressed the same. And people would customise it. My mum had a coat that her sister had, and that a friend of hers had, so she would make it shorter, cut off the collar. My grandmother lengthened and dyed her skirt. You had to improvise, be creative. That for me was an important part of becoming curious about clothes.”
Gvasalia would dress up – or, as he puts it, “style myself” – with “whatever I had”, which usually meant the living room curtains, not to mention the cushions. “I was quite experimental, I must say. It was such a little-gay-boy kind of thing,” he laughs. Could it be those early forays into upholstery chic that informed his love of tailoring that bulges unexpectedly? (Like the Mr Strong tweed jackets, for example, in his debut autumn/winter collection for Balenciaga.)
When Gvasalia was at home he would change his look as much as four times a day. At school, he would often be sent home because of his sartorial improvisations, like when he shortened his trousers (“I wanted to see white socks”), or graffitied lyrics on his young-pioneer-style kerchief.
Eventually, after that economics degree, and having been offered a job in finance – “I thought, I am going to die if I spend the rest of my life doing that” – he made it to fashion college, at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp. But even there Gvasalia’s sartorial ambitions were frustrated. “It was extremely good creatively, but there was no technical base at all. There were five sewing machines but only one needle, so everybody had to share. There was no one to explain properly how to make a jacket.” So he set about teaching himself. “I had to open up a cheap old jacket completely, and learn how to make it.”
As a child, he would ‘style’ himself with curtains and cushions. ‘I was quite experimental’
Gvasalia pulls a face when he recalls “all the dust and dirt that comes out of 40-year-old seams”. But he says he learnt far more in those years from the doing, or rather undoing, of clothes than he ever could have from being taught more conventionally. And how does Gvasalia design today? By buying up clothes, cheap vintage or high-street items – “There is a shop across the road where you can buy a three-piece suit for ¤50” – then cutting them up, splicing them together, re-engineering them. He never sketches, he tells me, because “making clothes is sculpting. You need to see it on someone. You need to see it in motion.”
It is this, more than anything, that unites his vision, his process, with that of the ultimate sculptor of clothes, Cristóbal Balenciaga. “For me, that was the most important link,” says Gvasalia. “We are from a different time zone, but we have the same way of approaching the relationship with the body and what is on the body.
“To go to this very beautiful couture house that has a heritage, to consider that and to merge it with my own aesthetic, is amazing,” he continues. “What I love about fashion is the construction, the technical challenge. How to make perfectly fitted trousers that actually make your waist look smaller without suffering, without wearing a corset, that is what interests me.” (It is trouser waists, particularly the height thereof, that have been occupying the Balenciaga Massive on this hot summer afternoon.)
It is the kind of stuff that would have been music to the late Spaniard’s ears. And while Señor Balenciaga might have reeled in horror at the idea of, say, a waterproof walking coat reinvented as opera jacket – one of the stand-out pieces in the new Balenciaga collection – when he stopped reeling, he might have recognised in its exuberant redrawing of the female form, complete with vast, splayed Maria Callas-cum-Chris-Packham collar, a hand that shadowed his own. Pauline de Rothschild, a long-time client of Cristóbal Balenciaga, once observed that his skirts were cut like a “sea swell”. Gvasalia’s speciality – be it at Vetements or Balenciaga – is to take a familiar item of clothing and transform it so it’s all at sea.
As for those much derided £800 Vetements jeans, when I challenge Gvasalia as to their price, he describes an intricate multi-stage production process – starting with a hunt for two vintage pairs that will, in colour and texture, come together perfectly as one – that strangely seems, in all its obsessive attention to detail, of an earlier epoque.
While there can, at times, appear to be an emperor’s-new-clothes element to Gvasalia’s aesthetic – an aspect the ever vigilant designer is aware of, and indeed plays up to as well, with improbable nose-thumbing bestsellers such as that DHL T-shirt – the fact is that women want it.
Take that floral dress: as Gvasalia points out, “It actually works. So many women have told me, ‘Oh, there are three people in my office with that dress.’ And they wouldn’t just buy it and wear it because it’s Vetements, because when it first came out nobody knew Vetements. That isn’t why they bought it. It’s the product itself.”
So much so, says Gvasalia, that clients are already asking when certain pieces will be, as he puts it, “re-edited”; in other words, brought back. She is already loyal, you see, the Vetements woman, if a two-year commitment can be deemed loyal – which, in the fly-by-night world of 21st-century high fashion, it indubitably can. This re-editing is a prospect he is happy about. “Fashion is about newness, but you can’t reinvent new stuff every six months with the same force, so it should also be about accepting that if something really works, it can work for a long time. We are going to start reproducing things that we feel have a reason to be there, continuously.”
He’s more than happy, too, to see his pieces mixed up with other things, treated with the irreverence with which, in one sense, they were created. (In another sense, when it comes to the more intricately constructed tailored pieces for Balenciaga, there is no contemporary designer more reverential than Gvasalia.) “What I enjoy most is seeing women mixing our clothes with whatever other brand, high fashion or no fashion. The less fashion the better, very often,” he declares gnomically.
No-fashion fashion? No one said looking this cool was easy. And, of course, for every woman who covets Gvasalia’s oeuvre, be it that £1,495 hybrid walking-opera coat from Balenciaga, suited more to Shoreditch than to either Snowdonia or La Scala, or a £490 hoodie from Vetements with the singular legend “Total F***ing Darkness” (courtesy of your favourite band and mine, Cradle of Filth), there will be countless more left scratching their heads.
Gvasalia is OK with that. “Today’s consumers are looking for originality. They want to stand out. People wear our clothes because they want to be looked at. They want a reaction.”
And if they don’t want that? Gvasalia is OK with that, too. “That’s fine. They still have Gap to go to, or some other brand. They can buy a normal hoodie. I love my normal hoodies. I mostly wear those, by the way.” A cuckoo indeed.