Wrong, wrong, wrong. It seems the designer is as prone to being misunderstood as he is for spawning trends.
In a wide-ranging interview, Gvasalia cleared the air on a number of misconceptions about his design process, confessed to reading “The Power of Now” daily, articulated the thinking behind Balenciaga’s unconventional Instagram account, and also let slip he’s had it with pre-collections, and all-night partying.
Oh, and the designer who initially made waves by draining collections of seasonal themes and narratives, simply drawing up lists of garments before embarking on a new collection, is now getting in touch with his cinematic side and eager to tell stories on the runway.
“If I wasn’t making clothes, I’d probably be making movies,” he said over a plate of perfectly piled French string beans at Caviar Kaspia in Paris, his lanky frame shrouded in a roomy black Vetements hoodie with an arm patch reading “One size fits most.” “We work kind of like in a movie, dressing this cast, this community of Balenciaga people.”
In fact, his next Balenciaga show in the French capital, scheduled for March 3 during Paris Fashion Week, will be the first to showcase a chosen narrative, tackling the mythic Parisian and her legendary style.
While it’s rare for a designer to divulge the theme of his or her show ahead of time, Gvasalia rarely goes the stereotypical route, and has confessed his affection for grittier, alternative parts of the French capital — and a desire to expose this reality.
It’s also rare for a designer to arrive at an interview so well prepared, and so much on his mind that he allotted two hours to chat and welcomed follow up. He scrawled his talking points in red ink on two folded sheets of paper, and let rip.
First topic: Appropriation.
Gvasalia is held up, and occasionally derided, as a visible pioneer of appropriation, first at Vetements with Paris fireman polos, DHL T-shirts and the like, and later at Balenciaga with his take on Ikea’s blue shopping bag and rubber car mats turned into clothing.
“It’s a big word everyone is throwing around left and right, but nobody really knows where it actually comes from and why. And that it’s not Demna who started this,” Gvasalia said of appropriation.
He accepts that he recently popularized the lifting and referencing of obvious signposts of consumer culture, but he traces the practice back to French artist Marcel Duchamp, a pioneer in taking found objects and presenting them as artworks. A bottle drying rack signed by Duchamp in 1914 is considered his first “Readymade,” while his autographed urinal, titled “Fountain,” is considered among the most famous and influential works of the 20th century.
An immense fan of Duchamp’s work and approach, Gvasalia is tickled that the term Readymade echoes the later invention of ready-to-wear, creating a mental link between Duchamp’s artistic practice and the designer’s playful send-ups of ordinary objects, usually culled from outside the realm of fashion, into covetable items.
“I have discovered Duchamp by discovering myself in a way as designer, because it explains to me how I work,” he said.
Gvasalia pointed out that Cristóbal Balenciaga similarly lifted ideas from the everyday, and thrust them into the rarified realm of haute couture. Fishermen in Spanish villages inspired some of the late designer’s most iconic looks, including a loose shirt known by its French name, “Vareuse,” and a hat with long, sloping brim at the back that has prompted comparisons to Darth Vader’s cowl.
“It was a uniform of the poor that he turned into an icon for the brand,” Gvasalia said of the Vareuse, whose shape he has transposed into short dresses in several recent Balenciaga collections. “I just wanted to point out that appropriation didn’t start as a concept in fashion with me. I’ve just maybe modernized it in a way that’s understandable for my generation of consumers who I talk to. Because we grew up with the same values, the same interests, and I would call this the first Internet generation.”
And a footnote about his DHL T-shirt for Vetements, famously modeled by Russian designer Gosha Rubchinskiy in 2015, sparking a maelstrom of indignation in the mainstream media, given its $300 price tag: It was derided variously as anti-fashion, a scam and a subversion.
Gvasalia now contends it wasn’t even strictly appropriation. “It was just a joke actually,” he said. “But I don’t usually joke when I make fashion. I’m really serious about making clothing.”
In fact, personal stories typically underline Gvasalia’s appropriations — indeed most of his work in fashion. For example, he did a version of the Ikea Frakta bag for Balenciaga, in blue leather and retailing for $2,145, because of a fond memory of using the $1 shopping tote when he was a fashion student at the Royal Academy of Fine Art in Antwerp.
He and other classmates used them religiously because they were affordable, and large enough to tote a Stockman, on which students present their design prototypes to teachers.
“It’s a perfect example of Readymade, but there is a little bit more to it,” he said. “We changed the logo and we made it beautifully out of leather and that’s why it costs so much money.”
Gvasalia also did a version in yellow leather at Balenciaga, also for personal reasons. When he was a student in Belgium, he wanted to have a yellow Frakta bag. “But you couldn’t because otherwise you would have to steal it from Ikea. They don’t sell it,” he lamented. “Some designers get inspired by looking at birds, so they embroider its feathers, but my way of design is looking at some keyholder and making a bag out of it. But it’s never in competition with its original source, obviously.”
Au contraire for the scores of brands that have been inspired by Gvasalia’s designs, much to his chagrin.
“My work is being appropriated right and left,” he contended. “And not my conceptual appropriation of fashion but direct appropriation of products that I produce.”
He said the best example of that is Balenciaga’s Triple S, which dropped in September 2017 and which was widely credited with sparking a trend to ugly “dad” sneakers.
That was absolutely not the designer’s intention.
“Triple S was supposed to be a chunky sneaker,” he said, noting that many executives within Balenciaga were initially skeptical of the offbeat style, with its layer cake of rubber soles, patches of color and grubby aspect. “It was really absolutely a proportional exercise of footwear, and not any kind of a gimmicky play with what was ugly or not ugly in shoe design.
“I’m not part of this ugly fashion. I never liked ugly stuff really,” he stressed.
In fact, Gvasalia has a penchant for shoes as large as his sweatshirt.
“I hate to see small feet visually. A lot of guys don’t like to have small feet,” he said. “To me, large shoes are more stable, and more masculine. Also, I believe when you create a new silhouette, the product succeeds.”
Gvasalia is widely credited with popularizing anew blown-up proportions — to the point where Frankenstein shoulders and sleeves dangling past the fingertips invaded runways in all fashion capitals in recent years, not to mention the high street.
“Oversize, it’s my territory,” he said. “I definitely intend to defend what is my design territory.”
Big clothes are part of his personal fashion lore. Growing up poor in Soviet-era Georgia, he wore hand-me-downs from cousins who were five or six years older than him. New clothes were purchased in larger sizes to grow into. Hence, Gvasalia is like a fish out of water when he isn’t swimming in his clothes.
And that’s why he feels so at home in the house Cristóbal Balenciaga first opened in 1937 and helmed until his retirement in 1968. Among the most famous designs of the late Spanish-French couturier, prized for his spare and sculptural designs, are the cocoon coat, bubble skirt and semi-fit jacket.
“He worked on volumes first and foremost, and not decoration,” said Gvasalia, who in an early collection for Balenciaga transposed the flaring back of the semi-fit jacket into a black sweatshirt. “What I found at Balenciaga was kind of a gift for me. I found Cristóbal Balenciaga’s approach to volume was so perfectly suitable for me with my personal taste for volume.”
Indeed, while stereotyped by some as a maker of expensive streetwear, Gvasalia prides himself in being a tailor — and he intends to flex these muscles more in the future.
“I actually can make a jacket for myself in one day with my own hands,” he said, crediting his Antwerp education for his technical skills and characterizing his four years at Maison Martin Margiela as his master’s degree. “I learned how to work three-dimensionally with garments. That’s what happened there, but tailoring, and the know-how and technical part of dressmaking were always my primary interest actually,” he said. “So far from being a T-shirt and hoodie designer – even though I love those things and I wear them and that’s part of my wardrobe — I know how to make a jacket.”
Gvasalia is also convinced that the success of a product is often linked to its cutting.
“There is a big difference between an oversize shirt and an oversize shirt I make. Because there is a study of an attitude in this oversize. There is a study and reflection behind the product when I make clothes,” he said. “That actually is a real recipe of success behind the product for me. The moment it will not be, I will stop doing fashion and will do something else.”
For the moment, Gvasalia’s unorthodox approach at Balenciaga is working wonders. Anointed one of the fastest-growing brands at French parent Kering, Balenciaga saw sales more than double since the designer’s arrival in late 2015, according to market sources.
In reporting full-year results earlier this month, the French group trumpeted a “stellar” performance from Balenciaga and Alexander McQueen, which are lumped in with “other houses.” (It only details sales and profits results for the Gucci, Saint Laurent and Bottega Veneta brands. Other houses also include Boucheron, Brioni, Pomellato, Ulysse Nardin and Girard-Perregaux.)
Kering chairman and chief executive officer François-Henri Pinault has predicted Balenciaga will top the 1 billion-euro sales mark this year, propelling it into fashion’s major leagues. It counts 150 stores worldwide.
Gvasalia doesn’t bill himself as a disruptor, even if his methods often run counter to tradition and his references — scoured mostly from the Internet or what he sees people wearing in daily life — are far from the arch glamour epitomized by Richard Avedon fashion photography.
To be sure, he gleefully upends typical “fashion rituals” such as using a single image-making team. “There is no longer monopoly in my way of working fashion,” he explained. “There is not one casting director, there is not one stylist any longer, there is not one photographer we should collaborate with.”
To be sure, Vetements and Balenciaga have been in the crosshairs over models several times; the former brand criticized for a lack of diversity in some of its early shows; the latter called out in 2017 for making 150 girls wait in a dark stairwell for three hours in order to try out for its show. Balenciaga immediately issued apologies, and made radical changes to its casting process, including discontinuing the relationship its then casting agency.
“Unfortunately, I had to learn my lesson like this through not being experienced in doing this kind of big show with big brands,” Gvasalia said. “I learned my lesson and I think it would be difficult to find a more inclusive and more diverse cast today, so I’m proud of that.”
The designer also took an atypical approach to Balenciaga’s Instagram account, which boasts 8.9 million followers and counting. Gvasalia scoped out about 80 users of Instagram, some stylists and photographers — others true amateurs with negligible audiences.
“And no influencers,” he noted. “Sometimes somebody who never actually had a camera in his life produces a better visual image today than a very known photographer.”
Balenciaga loans its clothes and pays a fee to the Instagrammers for the resulting photos: white boots propped on a plastic patio chair; a cat nestled inside a logo handbag; a man lying on the ground smiling, his face and extremities dwarfed by his multilayer coat.
While not quite as impassive, gritty and disquieting as Vetements’ feed, the Balenciaga account certainly telegraphs an unvarnished, quirky take on luxury.
Gvasalia said some people write to the company asking if the account was hacked. No matter. “It has proven to be a huge success,” he said.
According to figures provided by Balenciaga, its Instagram account had 1.2 million followers before Gvasalia joined. The designer introduced the new strategy in May 2018, and the audience size vaulted 258 percent that calendar year.
“I wanted Balenciaga not to be looking like a brand Instagram, or a corporate brand in fashion,” he explained. “I thought it has to look like somebody else’s Instagram, like a person’s Instagram or a group of people. Basically our Instagram today is a kind of Balenciaga community that we build that visually represents my vision of Balenciaga.”
Balenciaga doesn’t identify its contributors or tag them “because it’s not a promotional platform. It’s the Balenciaga visual expression,” he explained. “They just create visually strong content. That’s my criteria.”
The designer is also going against the tide by scrapping pre-collections at Balenciaga, starting with its fall 2019 show later this week.
“Three months to make a collection? Everyone knows it’s a problem. People have burnout, creatives are going crazy, and merchandisers have no idea what to merchandise. It’s a big confusion going on in our industry and I’m one of the few to speak about it,” he said. “I realized that I cannot go on doing it because it’s somehow almost disrespectful to the creative process, and to someone who wants to transform an idea into a credible product.”
Gvasalia’s proposal for Balenciaga is to now make two large collections a year: one combining winter and spring, and the other summer and autumn, more in line with weather patterns, lifestyles and shopping habits. (Previously, Gvasalia did a runway collection that would inspire the following pre-collection.)
“The idea of seasons today, it’s very theoretical,” he noted. “For spring, I have requests to do fur coats.”
Gvasalia said the new approach would reduce waste, and show that “ideas can be durable,” while still serving the needs of retailers to have multiple deliveries. The spring 2020 offering, already designed, will be presented to buyers during the pre-spring/resort market in May and June.
“The new, more sustainable way of working for me is not only, you know, not using toxic gas etc., but it’s also not throwing out ideas that are sometimes very good,” he said. “I don’t know if people realize that it takes a lot of effort to have an idea.”
Likewise, he also asserted it’s “more sustainable to have two shows per year, and to unify women’s and men’s under one vision,” as Balenciaga has since last fall’s fashion week in Paris.
“For me, luxury fashion in the future is about inclusivity, and gender is part of that, too,” he said.
In Gvasalia’s view, traditional ideas of luxury fashion are outmoded.
“Luxury used to be so exclusive that it would sell a dream to the people who could afford it, and to others who couldn’t afford it to still dream about,” he said. “For me, fashion has to be inclusive and cannot be exclusive any longer to survive. It no longer sells a dream, but it sells an identity to people.”
In Gvasalia’s estimation, people gravitate to a fashion brand not only for the look it gives them, but for the values it upholds and promotes: He wants Balenciaga to be socially involved, and he wants to use “garments as a tool of communication.”
“My actual quest at Balenciaga is to create a modern luxury brand that is inclusive, that is sustainable, that is involved and that is avant-garde, because that is in its DNA,” he said.
Gvasalia’s first project in the socially engaged vein was with the World Food Programme. For his fall 2018 collection, he made baseball caps, T-shirts, sweatshirts and fanny packs bearing the WFP logo. Balenciaga donated 10 percent of sales of these items to the organization, the largest humanitarian aid group fighting world hunger. He recently followed up with a capsule collection for Farfetch that championed species conservation.
“We need to be involved as a luxury brand,” he said. “We live in a world of transparency.”
His commitment to sustainability isn’t there because it’s a corporate diktat from Kering, recently named the world’s second-most sustainable company in the world across all industries by Corporate Knights Global 100 Index. (Danish bioscience firm Chr. Hansen topped the list.)
“I think it’s murderous not to be convinced about it,” he said. “It’s a different mind-set this generation. We can change it still. I’m extremely optimistic at the moment.”
Gvasalia links shifts in his working methods to change in his personal life, and the outcome of “self-exploration and self-discovery” through his repeated reading of Eckhart Tolle’s “The Power of Now,” plus sessions with a therapist.
“I found love and I found home,” he said, the latter a reference to his move to the Swiss countryside when Vetements shifted its headquarters to Zurich from Paris in 2017. “It gave me confidence. I have more belief in what I do.”
Through the self-help book, which he reads every day, he “learned how to be happy and love myself.” He now abstains from alcohol — getting his thrills by wearing wacky Balenciaga and Vetements prototypes to food shops in Swiss villages — and now follows a vegetarian diet.
“I feel good,” he said. “Ever since I moved there, my vision has become so much more clear for me personally, I don’t know why.”
There, he also learned to stop repressing his inner James Cameron. His last two Vetements shows boasted palpable and powerful storylines. The one last July, staged under a bridge with models stomping across banquet tables, explored painful memories of the Georgian Civil War in ways menacing, but ultimately uplifting; while during the men’s shows last January, he delved into the perils of the Internet and the Darknet, including the loss of personal privacy.
“My work is my best tool to express what’s inside of me,” he said.
“It’s important for me to do the storytelling, without necessarily telling it verbally. I realize I was oppressing it in myself. Maybe I was scared of it, not confident enough in myself, listening to much to other people maybe,” he mused.
“That’s the difference now, and the reason why I don’t work so much anymore with the collection plan anymore — you know the lists of T-shirts, coats, jackets — but more with creating this identity and a story, within which there will always be a little black dress, there will always be a sexy, fitted pant for a woman or a man. You know, it’s part of the vocabulary with me that I don’t think it will ever change to be honest. Maybe there will be new additions like, I don’t know, some weird leg warmers or something.”
His future plans include adding more classic products “with a smaller fashion twist” to Balenciaga’s range, such as “a nice, beautiful cashmere pullover” — things even his father could wear, to make the brand more inclusive. “I want to introduce new categories that I haven’t yet done, that are part of the luxury wardrobe, I would say,” he recounted. “And I will do more tailoring, and more exploration of eveningwear at Balenciaga because that’s my platform for exploring a category of fashion that I never do [at Vetements], that I’m extremely excited about, and that I think I have so much innovation to bring to it.”
While strident in his creative methods, planning show themes and venues even years ahead of time, Gvasalia does not take himself — or fashion — too seriously. And while his Vetements shows typically exude urgent, angry airs, heightened recently with his penchant for face-coverings (out of a need for privacy in the all-seeing Internet age), he said he now approaches fashion from a positive place.
“I think before I felt like a lot of artists do, in a way, and fashion designers do — you need to be depressed to be creative,” he said. “But I realize it’s not the best formula. You can be much more creative when you’re free in your mind and actually when you realize what you are doing,” he said. “We’re just talking about fashion, and at the end of the day, it doesn’t have to be all so gloomy.”
In fact, Gvasalia insists he’s not anti-anything. “I’ve never been,” he said. “I’ve been anti people telling me what to do. That’s the thing I’ve always been against.”