From The Archive: Alexander Fury Speaks To Demna Gvasalia
Unlocking the Ten Towers vault again this AM and digging out this gem – that time when Alexander Fury had a gab with uber-talented designer Demna Gvasalia back in Issue 42 of 10 Men. Why today? A special Monday treat? Some higher purpose? Bit of both – today we are celebrating Mr Gvasalia’s CFDA International Award which he will receive for his work at Balenciaga at a ceremony in New York this evening. Which is not, as it might seem, a spoiler. He’s already won and was, in fact, the only one announced in the category. He’s that bloody good. Here, Mr Fury talks to Demna just after his SS16 Vetements show, just as he was, quite literally, about to take over the world…
Demna Gvasalia is the titular head of the design collective Vetements, which makes him the most interesting man in fashion right now, for two reasons. Firstly, because he has recently been appointed artistic director of Balenciaga. But he is also the most interesting man in fashion right now because Vetements is the label influencing what other labels are doing.
Vetements is almost-French for clothes (there’s no circumflex accent on their label, the word vêtements being unwieldy to copyright, apparently). “We thought about it – what is it about? It’s really just about that,” deadpans Gvasalia. Then he smiles. “I mean we’re based here [Paris], so we thought it sounds kind of fancy in French – ‘Vetements’,” he falls into a heavy, cod- Clouseau Gallic accent. “Some nationalities can’t even pronounce it, which is even cooler. It really was very logical for us.”
What has been logical for Vetements has caused a shift in the contemporary fashion landscape. Maybe it’s a blip, a speed bump that just slows down the hurtling progress of the industry today, rather than changing its course. But maybe it’s the start of something big. It’s difficult to tell, especially because Vetements is barely two years old; their SS16 catwalk show was only their third ever.
Those plural pronouns – “us”, “they” – are an important element: Vetements is a design collective, comprised now of some 20 people, originally founded by three. They were all hired hands at other houses, Gvasalia himself working for Maison Martin Margiela from 2009-2013, when the house was thrashing to locate its identity in the aftermath of the founder’s departure. And then, from 2013 to 2014, at Louis Vuitton. Vetements was his sideline, a moonlighting gig, until the first season netted more than two dozen stockists. Gvasalia jacked in the day job and began focusing full-time on Vetements.
Vetements’s vêtements warrant attention. It’s they that got the relatively unknown Gvasalia the Balenciaga gig, as well as a place on the shortlist for the 2015 LVMH prize. Having the two largest luxury- goods conglomerates in the world fighting over you is a position many designers would envy, or perhaps also fear. But it doesn’t appear to have altered the collective’s point of view. That point of view is decidedly lo- fi, even messy, with garments haphazardly layered and shown on non-model types. Menswear and womenswear are mixed together: the designer Gosha Rubchinskiy was the opening model for their ostensibly womenswear show last Paris Fashion Week, staged in a slightly scuzzy Chinese restaurant. Before that, in March, Vetements commandeered Le Dépot, a gay sex club in the Marais, to show an autumn/ winter collection generally acknowledged as their breakthrough. It was the first time the place had let women in. The photographer Harley Weir shot models lounging in fisting slings backstage: I had to explain their function to the unsuspecting editors of a few women’s magazines.
It’s pointed that the word vêtements makes no particular division between male and female, and the label’s garments are as likely to be bought, worn and modelled by one gender as the other. Ask Gvasalia about the latter, about the 30:70 ratio of men to women in Vetements shows, and he insists it wasn’t intentional, and still isn’t. “The male models at the beginning were really because we didn’t have enough female models,” Gvasalia reasons, smiling again. “And we really wanted to have those looks in. The clothes really allow you to do that.” It’s a bit of a joke, how broke Vetements are. It also bears noting that they’re still ferociously independent. Gvasalia is working with the Vetements stylist Lotta Volkova at Balenciaga, but the rest of the team remain separate.
When you bring up the editorials featuring Vetements on male models, Gvasalia pulls a face. “They shoot it on tall skinny models – it’s fine, they can wear the skinny trench, but a normal guy could never wear that… Then we were like, ‘We should do pieces really made on guys, fitted on guys. From the beginning the idea was, one day, to make clothes for our male friends. So now it makes sense.” The show planned for March will feature just that.
Regardless, retailers such as Dover Street Market (who’ve sold out, to the piece) have already reported an early uptake, with men buying certain pieces as voraciously as women, namely the signature hooded sweaters and chopped- and-pasted-together T-shirts. One, bearing the slogan “Antwerpen” – a direct reference to Gvasalia’s time studying at Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts – has been especially prevalent, while Kanye West’s sporting of a hooded sweatshirt branded with “Vetements” helped launch the label into a wider consciousness. You can buy a multitude of fake version on eBay.
“That was a little bit where we had a problem,” Gvasalia says of the prevalence of editorials featuring Vetements on men, I mean, rather than the eBay fakes. He doesn’t really care about those. “Too many fashion people wear it, too,” he says, unexpectedly. “We made these denim pants with a push-up butt. It’s nice on a girl, but on a guy… ” He winces. “It’s not really a man’s product.”
Gvasalia often uses the term “product” to describe Vetements’s clothing. It’s not by accident. “It’s very product orientated,” he insists. “There’s no illusion about it. We’re not like, ‘Oh, we’re going to create a dream about fashion.’ Really, we just want to make clothes that people want to have.” That pragmatic approach is, of course, born out of necessity – Vetements is a fledgling operation, with no outside investment. If it doesn’t sell, it can’t continue. But it’s also a new way of thinking about clothes, stripped of marketing and hype.
I can’t help but relate that pragmatism to Gvasalia himself, who is decidedly no- nonsense, a notion that filters through to clothes that feel as if they should throb with conceptual undertones, but are actually just clever in their physicality and design. He’s 34 and was born in Georgia, in the former Soviet Union. I think that influences his aesthetic. It’s natural to ally what Vetements are doing with, for instance, their model, friend and fellow designer Gosha Rubchinskiy and his references to athletic gear behind the Iron Curtain, patriotically emblazoned with Cyrillic text – that whole Soviet Bloc, early- 1990s sportswear thing. Vetements have done a football scarf scrolled with Russian characters, but that’s about it.
“The 1990s are important to me – I was 12 when it was over, the Soviet time,” says Gvasalia. “Gosha is very patriotic about it. He’s very Soviet. For us, what we work on is more relevant to the things that we see today in the West. I mean, hoodies in Russia didn’t really exist. They were too American. But probably this whole obsession with the street, youth cultures, all that, it is linked to that. To the hunger, the creative hunger that we had,” Gvasalia shrugs. “We didn’t have anything.”
The street is where Gvasalia sees his clothes coming from and ending up. “It’s more real, it’s what you see on the street,” he says. When I ask him about that mix- up of male and female models, he states plainly, “You don’t see a street where only girls walk!”
But it’s about more than aesthetics – it’s about the ethos of the street, of the everyday, and about glorifying that. Again, I can’t help but think of Gvasalia growing up with nothing – his parents were normal, uninterested in fashion; he studied international economic relations at Tbilisi State University at their insistence – when I’m considering Vetements’s twisted normalcy. Maybe I’m making too much of the past of Gvasalia, who always states he’s one voice among a chorus of others. “We come from very different backgrounds,” he says – the 20 employees originate in, roughly, 15 different countries and speak an average of three languages each. Gvasalia himself moved from Georgia to Düsseldorf in 2001, then on to Antwerp to study fashion. It was hardly splendid isolation.
What Vetements do today may be undeniably informed by a certain 1990s aesthetic – Helmut Lang and Martin Margiela hang in the air, as well as references to sportswear, band T-shirts, army surplus and, simply, the ubiquitous style indicators of the decade, such as boot-cut jeans or the sort of skinny-ribbed turtlenecks sported by Posh Spice circa 1998 – but it’s rooted in the here and now.
“We see people on the street, I mean here in Paris mostly, and that’s where we define the garments we want to work with,” states Gvasalia. “It’s really this kind of garment, a singular approach without having a global concept, that I think makes it, because I think that people feel as though it’s like when you go to somebody’s place and you see their wardrobe, there is no concept – it’s a flannel shirt, it’s an evening dress.”
It’s just clothes. How many designers do you hear saying that?
Text by Alexander Fury
Photographs by Jason Lloyd-Evans, backstage at Vetements SS16
Taken from Issue 43 of 10 Men, THE DARK LANDS, on newsstands now…