Complex Made Simple

Demna Gvasalia: Balenciaga’s new creative director

During the international marathon of fashion weeks, a number of collections follow a familiar formula: Such-and-such artist or musician or film or personality or geography or historical period inspires X designer. The show notes typically wax poetic about how these influences are expressed in X’s collection, and journalists and bloggers dutifully regurgitate this.

And then there’s Demna Gvasalia, the red-hot designer of Vetements, who starts each collection by simply listing the garments it will contain, like a banal shopping list: pants, cocktail dress, uniform top, sweatshirt, bomber jacket. Occasionally, an image sourced from Google represents the style. Sketching comes last, but not before each garment has been rethought, repurposed and injected with a nuclear-strength cool factor.

“The idea was really to work on a collection that is completely product-oriented, one by one. We select what we like, what kind of garment it is, and we see what creative concept to apply to it in order for it to become new or desirable — something that is kind of ‘actuel’ for today,” he says, employing the French word for “current.” “We’re not trying to push the boundaries of fashion, but just make clothes people want to have.”

In less than two years, the Georgia-born designer has catapulted his Paris-based brand and himself to the forefront of the international scene, electrifying fashion week with his brash, high-energy shows and pointing to a new path for fashion based on garments and wardrobe-building rather than seasonal themes or narratives.

He also became the talk of Paris Fashion Week when Balenciaga named him its new artistic director of collections, thrusting him from sudden alternative fashion hero to the creative head of a storied couture name.

He takes over from Alexander Wang, who logged a three-year tenure and was the original successor to Nicolas Ghesquière, who exited after a stellar 15-year tenure and defined Balenciaga’s inimitable brand of future-flecked and experimental couture. He subsequently joined Louis Vuitton.

“We really wanted somebody that has a vision, and someone capable of reshuffling the cards,” Balenciaga CEO Isabelle Guichot tells WWD about the daring appointment. “I was really amazed by his ability to develop an approach to the brand that was really new and that was really his own …. What should be the attitude, what should be the silhouette, what should be the volumes.”

Gvasalia has yet to detail his intentions for the French house, other than saying he would “further evolve the DNA of the house and, together with the team, write a new chapter in its history.”

To be sure, Gvasalia is an atypical and low-key fashion star who totes around his wallet and other affairs in a paper shopping bag, and who feels right at home in the nondescript cafes and bars of the gritty 10th arrondissement in Paris. All this heightens the underground, alternative penumbra that has accrued to Vetements, his brand named after the French word for clothes.

“Fashion used to create a dream: People used to dream about an amazing dress that they will probably never wear in their life, but that created an idea and an illusion,” says Gvasalia, dressed head-to-toe in coal-black denim, with a satin bomber jacket tossed over, for an interview. “Now it is much more about product, and much more about somebody wanting to have it or wear it.”

Grounded in the real world, Gvasalia says he gets inspired by observing people, whether on the street or in line at the supermarket, and prides himself on creating wearable clothes for the young and plugged-in — all injected with attitude.

“For me, fashion is something practical,” he says. “It’s made to be worn rather than change things; otherwise you will be an artist. I think and consider myself more like a dressmaking brand.”

But it is a dressmaking brand that comes to life in the basement darkrooms of a notorious gay club in Paris, or in a borderline grubby Chinese restaurant in the city’s Belleville district. Those venues for Vetements’ last two shows helped amplify the buzz as a cast of edgy characters barreled through narrow rows of chairs, imparting a sense of energy and urgency, two powerful emotions where fashion is concerned.

Trend forecaster Li Edelkoort sees Gvasalia as an emblematic figure as fashion moves away from narration toward a focus on the essence of clothes.

The idea harks back to Martin Margiela, a Belgian fashion maverick who became famous for repurposing vintage clothes, supersizing others, moving seams into clear view and wearing a white lab coat.

“There’s a focus on what is a garment; what is a cut; what is a shape,” Edelkoort tells WWD. “This is about more reconstruction than deconstruction. It’s a playful research on volume, details and shapes.”

Edelkoort says “normcore” foreshadowed the current movement, with people consciously choosing to have smaller wardrobes of basic, familiar garments. Designers like Gvasalia are taking that idea further, questioning how the character of clothes can allow the wearer to adopt various moods and attitudes, whether serious, seductive, cool or simply functional.

“I see it as a megatrend, not just something for a season,” she says. “It’s been building up for the last two or three seasons and it’s going to go far.

“It’ll bring more structure to fashion,” she adds, “which we haven’t seen for a long time.”

The 34-year-old Gvasalia says his focus on individual garments was drilled into him over the three-and-a-half years he worked at Maison Martin Margiela designing its womenswear show collection. He kept that orientation, minus the conceptual overtones, noting that oversizing was a common practice, “but most of the time it doesn’t really work. It’s kind of forced on the garment.”

The fashion graduate of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp accepts parallels in Vetements to Margiela in the “approach that I personally learned when I worked there, where you start out basically loving clothes and turning them inside out, seeing how they’re made and being inspired by the actual clothes to make new clothes.”

For the spring Vetements collection, Gvasalia worked on “the attitude of the biker,” incorporating biker jacket constructions into all matter of garments “so basically when you wear it, it creates an attitude.” He also injected jolts of humour, including apron dresses made of printed leather that resembled cheap plastic tablecloths. “One of my best friends texted me and said she never laughed so much during a fashion show,” he rela

After Margiela, Gvasalia spent two years at Louis Vuitton under Marc Jacobs before striking out on his own. His brother Guram is co-owner and business head of Vetements, which launched in March 2014. The label functions as a creative collective, with Gvasalia the leader of its eight members, plus three interns, all of whom are invited to discuss ideas for garments in groups or separately.

Gvasalia has a penchant for questioning the fashion system, whose overabundance of collections puzzles him. “I’m not really sure if the market actually demands all those clothes,” he says, questioning the logic of precollections, increasing show investments and perennial production snafus such as fabric deliveries.

“You know we deliver winter in July; it doesn’t make any sense,” he laments. “It’s just so confused that I feel something needs to happen to find a new mechanism or system to work because it is a lot of money wasted as well, on development, on selling things we don’t really need.”

Told that some fashion folk detect a perfume of Communist-bloc Eastern Europe to his designs, Gvasalia doesn’t balk, explaining that he lived in Georgia before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, meaning he had to do a crash course in Western culture. “I discovered Goth at the same time as hip-hop and rave and all those things that have nothing to do with each other, but it was all the same time period,” he explains.

Gvasalia says he doesn’t consider Vetements to be underground, as Belgian and Japanese fashions were perceived in the early ‘90s, noting that “we play by the same rules” as establishment brands — having showrooms, a Paris fashion show on the official calendar and a designer bio on his website.

One of Gvasalia’s key collaborators is Russian stylist Lotta Volkova Adam, who became an integral part of the Vetements team, from brainstorming to casting to styling — tasks she will also do at Balenciaga, where Gvasalia is to have his runway debut in March.

“She is very versatile in the way she’s dressing,” he says. “She’s more of an interface for me, like I need somehow a woman to talk about the clothes and to get the very subjective feminine opinion about things.”

Gvasalia is also wading more deeply into menswear, opening his spring show with Russian designer Gosha Rubchinskiy in a black shirt and DHL logo top. For the fall, he’s plotting a full wardrobe, including knitwear, leather, denim and tailoring, although he will parade them alongside the womenswear.

“It’s a little complicated because menswear buyers are not there and they don’t have budget, but our clothes are quite unisex most of the time, but they’re more suited on women,” he says.

Vetements will be stocked in about 120 top specialty stores around the world come spring. He considers this almost the limit, though he may add department stores in the future. The collection will also be online at net-a-porter.com, matchesfashion.com, antonioli.com and nordstrom.com.

“For me, the production platform is the most important thing: to really have trusted manufacturers who can deliver on time and understand your language. The two biggest challenges for a brand like ours is cash flow and production. If that works, then fashion is a happy place for us,” he says. “The ambition is really to continue making clothes that people want to have, that they wear from season to season.”