PARIS — Demna Gvasalia is making the leap from sudden underground fashion hero to artistic director of a storied couture name.
Balenciaga has tapped the founder and ringleader of hot Paris fashion label Vetements to succeed Alexander Wang, who staged his swan song here on Oct. 2 after a three-year tenure, WWD has learned. An official announcement is expected as early as today.
This story first appeared in the October 7, 2015 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“We really wanted somebody that has a vision, and someone capable of reshuffling the cards,” said Balenciaga chief executive officer and president Isabelle Guichot, divulging the hire during an exclusive interview. “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.”
She said Gvasalia, 34, would stage his first show for Balenciaga in March during the women’s ready-to-wear week here, and continue with his Vetements project.
“I am extremely honored and excited to be given the opportunity to bring my creative vision to Balenciaga, a house with such an exceptional history of pushing the boundaries of modernity in fashion,” Gvasalia, who starts this week as artistic director of collections, told WWD. “I am looking forward to further [expand] the DNA of the house and, together with the team, to write a new chapter in its history.”
The appointment ends the fevered speculation that has gripped the fashion industry, sparked when Balenciaga confirmed in August that it would part ways with Wang at the end of his contract as the American designer turns his focus on his signature fashion house, which may soon welcome a new investor.
While the Balenciaga business progressed under Wang’s creative leadership, logging double-digit growth in retail and wholesale channels in the first two quarters of 2015, Guichot acknowledged that it was a “very challenging exercise” for the designer to dedicate the time and presence necessary, given the demands of his New York-based fashion house.
Wang was hired in December 2012 as the successor to Nicolas Ghesquière, who exited after a 15-year tenure and subsequently joined Louis Vuitton, which shows Wednesday as Paris Fashion Week draws to a close.
In an interview at Balenciaga headquarters, Guichot praised Gvasalia’s understanding of the brand’s legacy and methodologies, drawing several parallels between him and the Spanish founder Cristóbal Balenciaga, who moved his fashion house to Paris in 1937, becoming famous for his semi-fit jackets, cocoon coats, balloon skirts and sloping flamenco evening gowns.
“Even in the Thirties and until his retirement, he was not someone who stuck to the rules of the time,” Guichot said. “He was always reinventing the way he was working, reinventing the way he spoke to the client, reinventing the way he presented his collections, to the point where at the end he was doing a show without any press in the audience.”
Gvasalia has a similar penchant for challenging convention, questioning standard industry practices, taking a sociological approach to analyzing what triggers consumer desire and “understanding the mechanisms of seduction,” according to Guichot.
She also highlighted his garment-focused, wardrobe-building approach free of specific themes — an orientation he honed over three-and-a-half years at Maison Martin Margiela. He subsequently worked at Vuitton before launching Vetements in 2014, which he quickly heated to the boiling point with his radically reconfigured, oversize streetwear and electric fashion shows.
Born in Georgia, Gvasalia first studied international economics at Tbilisi State University before he enrolled in Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts, which spawned the original Antwerp Six in the early Eighties. He graduated with a master’ degree in fashion design in 2006, later that year collaborating with Walter van Beirendonck, one of the Six, on his men’s collections.
He joined Margiela in 2009 after the Belgian founder retired, and was responsible for the women’s collections. In 2013, he moved over to Louis Vuitton, where he was senior designer of women’s ready-to-wear collections, initially under Marc Jacobs and briefly under Ghesquière. But it was his Vetements project — billed as a creative collective and with Gvasalia’s brother Guram functioning as co-owner and business head — that thrust him onto the international radar. His raw and electrifying fall 2015 show, staged in the basement darkrooms of the seedy gay club Le Dépot, attracted a battalion of major editors and celebrities, including Jared Leto and Kanye West.
To show his spring collection on Oct. 1, he chose Le Président, a sprawling Chinese restaurant in the Belleville neighborhood that is neither pretty nor spotless, and paraded oversize workwear shirts, logo hoodies and apron dresses made of plastic tablecloths.
Named after the French word for clothing, his label spells out a purpose: creating a wardrobe based on the staples the young and plugged-in wear today — jeans, hoodies, T-shirts, bomber jackets — all injected with attitude.
The upstart fashion house almost doubled its distribution for fall 2015 to 85 doors internationally, with particular strength in the U.S. and Korea, although revenues are still south of 2 million euros, or $2.2 million at current exchange.
“It’s really a very product-oriented approach creatively,” Gvasalia told WWD in a recent interview. “The garment itself is for me the most inspirational piece, the way it’s constructed. In our aesthetic, what’s most important is the attitude this garment brings to the person wearing it. I feel that the clothes we do are quite wearable and that’s why people relate to them.”
Asked if Kering or Balenciaga might take a stake in Vetements, Guichot replied: “It was never part of the conversation,” although she did not rule out discussions in the future.
In her search to find a successor for Wang — one of the darlings of the American fashion circuit with his music-scene buddies, groovy T-shirts, studded handbags and high-impact fashion shows — Guichot noted she considered a variety of profiles, including star designers, hidden studio talents and young independents. Yet “very early on,” she detected a match with Gvasalia, whom the executive had interviewed for internal design posts in the past, impressed by his charisma, design talent, and “deep understanding” of the fast-changing fashion business, roiled by the social media and Internet revolutions and an overheated, accelerating pace.
“We needed somebody that respects the legacy of the brand but also that injects a totally new take on Balenciaga,” Guichot said.
She scoffed at the suggestion that Gvasalia might steer Balenciaga in an edgy, streetwear direction, given his gritty approach at Vetements. “Definitely not,” she said. “You could have said exactly the same thing the day Martin Margiela was appointed at Hermès, or Jean Paul Gaultier at Hermès. But it didn’t go that way.”
She said Gvasalia would be charged with energizing an array of product categories, particularly men’s wear and footwear, continuing efforts undertaken by Wang. “The wardrobe approach that Demna has is what we would need to fully exploit the brand in all the categories,” she said. “In each and every category, there are some untapped opportunities.”
Market sources estimate Balenciaga generates revenues north of 350 million euros, or $394.5 million at current exchange, and is profitable.
Yet Wang felt the tug of his fast-growing signature brand, having recently planted his 25th — and largest — store in the world on London’s Albemarle Street, and has suggested he wanted to focus on his own New York-based brand and bring on a new investor. It is understood Wang is negotiating with General Atlantic, the New York-based growth equity firm that is headed by ceo William Ford, as reported.
Gvasalia joins Balenciaga as it gears up to mark two major milestones in 2017: the 100th anniversary of the founding of the label, and the 80th anniversary of its landmark store on the Avenue George V in Paris.
“It would be an ambition for Demna also to project the brand into not only the anniversary but into the second century of the brand,” Guichot said. “You can be super commemorative, but you can also be forward-thinking. I bet Demna will have a new take on how to celebrate that.”