Demna Gvasalia’s penchant for oversize fashions is no streetwise affectation, nor a wink to the underground club scene, nor a taste acquired during his stint designing for Maison Martin Margiela.
In fact, it’s a personal carryover from growing up during Soviet times in Georgia, where clothes were in such short supply that it meant purchasing them three or four sizes bigger and growing into them.
“My whole wardrobe was like this. My jackets were always too big for me because they were supposed to last for two or three years. I think the reason why I like those kind of proportions and shapes is very linked to that,” said Gvasalia, who on June 5 is to receive the International Award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America for his influential Vetements label and his edgy designs for the house of Balenciaga, which he joined as artistic director in late 2015.
The designer called the recognition from America’s preeminent fashion body flattering and also motivating, given that “it was a bumpy road for me to start Vetements.”
While his collections have been influential — igniting a trend toward streetwear and spawning a sea of overly long sleeves and extra-large coats, suits and dresses — Gvasalia is keenly aware that his designs have been controversial, and not unanimously hailed. “I’m probably the worst critic of myself and my work. To get this prize, it’s soothing,” he said.
He bristles at suggestions that Vetements is deliberately disruptive or “anti” anything.
“We’ve been just trying different tools and instruments for doing things in ways that work for us, just following our opinions, not necessarily certain rules and regulations about how things should work. It might look different to the common rules that have been established for decades,” he said. “Even if we did things slightly differently, it was because it suited us better. It doesn’t make me consider our brand being disruptive, or against anything.”
Yet Gvasalia, interviewed by telephone from Balenciaga’s Paris studios, where he was doing fittings of the pre-spring collection, said he was not surprised his sweatshirts, bomber jackets and reconfigured jeans struck an immediate chord with consumers.
“I’m not surprised by the fact that people are more reactive to something that is quite real and associated with things they know. Vetements was always based on things a lot of people could relate to. And I think that’s maybe one of the main reasons why there’s suddenly this trend of street or casual apparel being so important in fashion. I think because it speaks to a broad audience. People get it actually. Even if sometimes they don’t get completely what you meant, they still understand that it’s still a parka, that it’s a trenchcoat.”
Not that Gvsalia is standing still.
While he’s been lumped in with other designers who have popularized an Eastern European esthetic in fashion — such as Gosha Rubchinskiy, who opened Vetements’ spring 2016 show — the designer said he is “so bored of it.”
“I feel like we did this for almost three years now. It’s cool. It’s a kind of trend,” he said. “Everything has its time. Our creative approach stays very similar, but it’s taking on a more scientific side, analyzing and working more with professionals who are specialized in certain things to make new clothes. That’s what excites me most and that’s a bit the direction we’re having at the moment. Eastern Europe is over for me.”
Ditto for the underground vibe.
“I’ve kind of digested that underground aspect by now, and I personally want to move on from there and to use other tools in my creative approach, which is more analytical, which is more based on really observing the way we dress, what we wear, why we wear it,” Gvasalia said. “I won’t say conceptual but maybe more analytical and maybe more intellectually involved rather than nightclubs. That’s still part of my life and it’s something that will always filter through in the work, but it’s not the main element, that’s for sure.”
Indeed, his fall 2017 Vetements collection, featuring a diverse cast of characters in their stereotypical social uniforms, pointed to a new direction for the brand.
“It’s less subculture and more about product design,” he said. “It’s more into smart kind of design rather than designing fashion.”
Gvasalia and his brother Guram, who is chief executive officer of Vetements, recently moved the company to Zurich from Paris, also underlining that a new chapter has opened based more on “pragmatic dressing” rather than the decorative, glamorous or thematic approach many designers take.
He hinted that Vetements would embrace more digital tools, including pattern programs and other technologies, while continuing his sociological approach to analyze what triggers consumer desire.
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’s 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 Nicolas Ghesquière, an alum of Balenciaga. In 2014, he founded Vetements, based on the concept of a wardrobe and tinged with Eastern Bloc edginess.
In a wide-ranging conversation, the talked about his processes, the limits of and staying ahead of the curve:
WWD: Does all the attention you get now feel strange, having spent most of your career out of the limelight?
Demna Gvasalia: It’s pretty much surreal to me. You know, three years ago people didn’t know who I was at all. It’s kind of crazy the way things happen now, how speedy and fast everything is. But I feel so hopeful for everything suddenly, for fashion and in general.
WWD: You said Vetements had a rocky start?
D.G.: We had a lot of question marks to be able to stay independent and to evolve the brand, it was quite challenging. It started with dealing with cash flow situations and finished with recruiting people and keeping those people, educating and learning with them: all those elements that are so important for any kind of success in the fashion industry especially.
WWD: What motivates you as a designer?
D. G.: It’s definitely motivating for me to see people wear the clothes. Sometimes I see someone wear a piece or maybe two pieces and I don’t recognize immediately that this is something I did or I worked on because it could be from last year. I tend to forget things and erase them from my mind so I can move on to the next thing.
WWD: What else is rewarding to you?
D.G.: Very often in fittings you see things and it’s really not good and it doesn’t work and you try to rearrange it or you just cancel it. But sometimes you see things on the hanger and you say, “Wow, Let’s try it” because you believe in what you see, you think that it’s gonna be great, you put it on and it’s actually good. And then that’s when you get this — well, I call it adrenaline. There is a certain chemical reaction that happens and that is very satisfying and very motivating. And that’s probably one of the main reasons I do clothes.
WWD: So you’ve moved on from the underground association?
D.G.: I actually moved to Zurich not to be in any kind of scene, that was one of the main reasons, to be in a very pragmatic surrounding where people don’t consider the aesthetic side of clothes but more about functionality and the practical side, very down to earth. I really wanted to be away from fashion in its classic sense. Fashion became too much about fashion and forgot about the essence of where it comes from — and that is the product. Whether it’s a couture dress or a pair of socks, it’s still a product.
WWD: What are you feeling next?
D.G.: Next is more concentrated, more about product design. What we have in Zurich is a creative lab, a library of ideas and concepts and observations that will become products. It’s the same approach, but it’s less subculture, less underground nightclub scene. It’s more into a smart kind of design rather than just doing fashion. That’s the next chapter.
It’s looking into clothes from a different perspective, also looking at clothes from the digital point of view, how clothes are manufactured in the industrial process and using those things as an inspiration for new clothes.
WWD: Can you give an example?
D.G.: I’ve been looking at a lot of workwear for people who work in the mountains — farmers, lumberjacks. You have modern kinds of workwear, not just ones in blue cotton: pieces of clothing that are made specifically for those kinds of jobs that consider the temperature, ease of movement, the softness or stiffness of the material — all those things that are very technical that can be a source of many different ideas for new garments that would be considered fashion. It’s not made to be embellished, or decorative or flattering. It’s made for it to be functional and I think functionality is one of the main things.
WWD: Social media has helped propel Vetements. Do you foresee any changes there?
D.G.: It’s such an important tool for us. But it evolves almost faster than fashion does. It’s part of our general long-term strategy to really work on that — again, with people who know more about it than we do. We will never be able to function without it anymore.
WWD: How do you keep your Vetements and Balenciaga projects distinct?
D.G.: I’m one person so things overlap, but for me, the identities are very different. Personally, I learned in the last one-and-a-half years to erase and disconnect. When I go to Zurich and I work on Vetements, I completely forget what I did at Balenciaga in Paris and vice versa.
It’s important for designers to switch and to forget and to start from zero. I’m actually using a lot of meditating techniques. Every morning I do meditation for one hour to start the day from zero, with a white page, and it does work. I started it not so long ago and I was quite skeptical about it. It takes some time to learn it, but it does work. Holistic fashion. It helps to calm the mind. It’s kind of a new tool.
WWD: Men’s wear is still quite new for you. Do you find it easier, given that fashions for men are more limited?
D.G.: I do project a lot of myself when I work on men’s wear, being kind of a normal person. Very often we work on models and in real life the situation is not the same. I think the reality of it is important. Men’s wear is easier for me because I can directly project it on myself and my friends.
The process of making the men’s wear collection is much easier than making women’s wear, because it’s much more direct.
WWD: Are you consulting the archives more at Balenciaga?
D.G.: I had to go to the archives to establish a dialogue with the past and what I stand for.
For me, archives are very important because I work for a house that has a history and a DNA that I have to consider and I have to know and understand. But on the other hand, it’s also my story now and it’s something that I want to communicate directly from within myself and my creative vision. And more and more, this becomes more dominant when I work on the collection, my story. Considering where I am and the history of it and trying to understand how Cristobal created and how he made in that time, and trying to do that in 2018. This is the challenge that I have here that is different from Vetements, where we don’t have a history.
WWD: Can you elaborate on the thinking behind the new store concept for Balenciaga?
D.G.: I wanted to bring it down to a certain pragmatism, to go to the source. I saw the space Balenciaga has for the dispatch of the collections in Italy and in Switzerland. It’s like a depot where all the products arrive and they’re sorted and packaged and sent to different customers.
It’s really inspired by the depot…but then made in more precious materials and considering all the conditions you have to consider in a store — lighting, etc. But it has something brutalist to it because it comes from a warehouse.
WWD: Is it working well?
D.G.: Well, when I’m in the store, I don’t want to run out of the store, that’s already an important thing. It’s so hard to get people to the stores today because it’s so much easier to click on the screen of their smartphone. So once they come to the store an important part is for them to not want to leave it as soon as possible, which has to do with light, with the way the product is merchandised.
WWD: What can be done to excite the consumer, who seems more interested in experiences these days?
D.G.: I think it’s an exciting time for everything. We have a fourth industrial revolution around the corner, or probably happening already right now. I’m very optimistic about everything somehow, including for fashion, because it’s a time of change. The consumer is not so easily excited anymore because there is so much information and so much of everything available for them only a few clicks away. My challenge is how to excite myself doing what I do. I think that’s a key element as well. As long as people who create those products can be excited about them that means the consumer that it’s meant for has a better chance of also being excited by it.