Cristóbal Balenciaga looms large in Demna Gvasalia’s men’s collection for the storied couture brand.
Large because a life-size photo of the enigmatic Spanish couturier is propped against the wall of Gvasalia’s spare office at the Parisian fashion house, forever gazing out from tinted lenses in an impeccable double-breasted suit.
“Every time I’m here and I see that photo, it makes me feel responsible,” Gvasalia says, dressed in Vetements’ Titanic hoodie, with each arm blaring “Coming Soon” in big, bold letters. “There’s a certain part of him that I find very dignified and noble, and this is something I really tried to translate in this collection.”
And large because an unfinished beige coat he unearthed in the archive, which Balenciaga had made for himself, was the starting point for the spring 2017 effort, defining the main silhouette: boxy and exaggerated.
Although the house, founded in 1937, has a faint men’s wear legacy — the company only introduced the category commercially in 2004 — Gvasalia found plenty of relevant heritage upon which to draw, principally the founder’s obsession with architectural shapes. The couturier earned acclaim for his cocoon coats, balloon skirts and sack dresses, design innovations that brought radically new silhouettes to women’s fashions in the Fifties and Sixties.
In fact, the coat Gvasalia discovered was missing a sleeve, presumably because Balenciaga was not yet satisfied with the way it fit. “I felt like we were obliged to finish it, to put the sleeve in because the sleeve was also a big challenge,” he says, noting the founder was known to be particularly obsessed with shoulders and the way sleeves connected to them.
Gvasalia relates perfectly, agreeing that shoulders are pivotal to men’s wear, broadness telegraphing formality, power and authority. Reprising an idea from his women’s wear debut at Balenciaga for the fall, he pitched prominent shoulders slightly forward, “to give some movement,” while keeping the allure masculine.
“It’s all about the shapes, the contrasts, the silhouettes and the volumes that actually change — and challenge as well,” he says, firing up a Parliament Light. “It is a certain way of refinement and elegance; something quite classic in a way, but turned into something new at the same time, in terms of shape and silhouette.”
While square and rectangular silhouettes dominate in his first men’s Balenciaga collection, Gvasalia also mixed in the opposite: shrunken, extremely fitted shapes. “Where there is black, I always need to have some white next to it,” he explains with a wink. “I like the contrast between being too big and something that is almost not your size — and the combination of the two.
“That square silhouette makes you look strong while the shrunken silhouette makes you look fragile, and I think both of those are inevitable parts of modern men,” he muses.
Gvasalia, who founded Vetements, in 2014, based on the concept of a wardrobe, quickly heated up that brand with a streetwise approach tinged with Eastern Bloc edginess that has reverberated through fashion, earning him the post at Balenciaga.
He applies the same creative method to every collection he touches, starting with a list of garments and devising ways to make them crackle with currency and desirability. This garment-by-garment approach stands in contrast to the usual thematic approach of most designers.
Indeed, the day after the exclusive WWD interview, he would start assembling outfits from the individual garments he created.
For Balenciaga men’s wear, the list of garments was long, reflecting his wish to deliver a complete offering, from T-shirts and parkas to formalwear. He even decided to include extremely fancy “almost ceremonial evening coats” with ecclesiastical airs, all shiny and buffed to a high polish for very special occasions.
It might seem like a stretch for Gvasalia, who is partial to anonymous black jeans and T-shirts, to design such dressy stuff. He confesses that he only owns one suit. “I never wore it, because it still has the tags on it. I keep it for the Met,” he says with a sly smile, referring to the annual gala at the New York museum’s Costume Institute.
Gvasalia actually specialized in men’s tailoring when he studied fashion at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, in Antwerp, the famous fashion school that produced the likes of Dries Van Noten, Martin Margiela, Ann Demeulemeester, Haider Ackermann and Kris Van Assche.
It wasn’t completely his choice. His teachers found his women’s designs “too sexy and too romantic,” so they encouraged him to specialize in men’s wear, which he ended up relishing.
“I think that really sparked my passion for men’s jackets, because that’s the most complex piece to make,” he says. “I think it was very formative for me at the time, to do men’s wear and to learn how to make a jacket.”
It also wasn’t the first time he landed in hot water with teachers. As a boy, he went to school in Tbilisi, Georgia, during Soviet times, and was admonished for customizing his uniform. “I cut the pants. I liked the ankle length because I thought it made me look taller,” he recalls. “The teachers complained to my parents. I also wore my pioneer scarf differently. I rolled mine in a very San Francisco way, but they were supposed to be very triangular and stiff.”
Gvasalia’s first job after graduating was in men’s wear, working beside maverick Walter Van Beirendonck, now head of the Royal Academy’s famous fashion department. He focused on women’s wear in his subsequent jobs, at Maison Martin Margiela and then Louis Vuitton, which he left to start Vetements.
To be sure, the designer’s personal style is more heavy-metal groupie than Cristóbal crisp.
In fact, his criteria for his own clothes include “things that don’t wrinkle, because I don’t own an iron.” He owns at least 30 pairs of Levi’s jeans, “all different colors, shapes and wash options, but I still wear two of them all of the time.”
Gvasalia sometimes breaks out of that mold, slightly, and wears military or uniform looks, “because it’s easy to wear, it’s a uniform. You don’t have to think about it. I wear dark colors because it’s easy.”
Yet he does project on himself when he designs men’s wear. So consider his first Balenciaga collection an idealized, more dapper Demna.
“It’s very much what I wish I would wear. It’s my ideal of what I maybe could be,” he says. “The fact that men’s wear has been in the shadow at Balenciaga, and that it doesn’t have a historically charged DNA, for me it gives me that possibility much more than women’s wear to reflect that way.”
Gvasalia is adamant that Balenciaga deserves to have a men’s wear business as broad, credible — and exciting — as the women’s side.
“I think it’s a good time in terms of the men’s wear market because men today are much more elaborate and much more sophisticated in the way they shop and what they wear,” he says. “When I work at Balenciaga, for me it’s normal to think that men’s wear has to be on the same level as women’s wear, creatively.”
That’s why he decided to put it on the runway for the first time in the house’s history, choosing an open-air rooftop location to accentuate what he hopes is a “fresh” proposition. The venue, a Jesuit school, heightened the ecclesiastical air of those ceremonial coats.
Given Balenciaga’s faint legacy in men’s wear, the designer felt he had a clean slate on which to construct the new image, one he describes as “more fashion-forward” while remaining tethered to the strict and exacting chic of the founder.
“Masculine, elegant, clean and perfect and sophisticated, but at the same time eccentric in a way,” Gvasalia says, rolling up the sleeves of his hoodie, revealing pale arms decorated with tattoos inspired by the ones Russian prisoners get. “I think the silhouette pretty much defines the creative message in this collection. That is what puts it automatically in a fashion frame.”
Now that he’s back to designing men’s wear, for Vetements as well as Balenciaga, it’s reignited the passion he felt for it while a student.
“I love men’s tailoring,” he says. “Tailoring is the most obsessive part in clothing. That’s what interests me the most, and that’s my starting point whenever I embark on a collection. It’s the jacket — it’s never a dress, strangely.”
While the suit has occasionally felt like an endangered species in recent decades — its popularity eroded by casual Fridays, ath-leisure and now streetwear — Gvasalia believes it is here to stay.
“Socially, we always have a formal necessity of having a suit, which is a uniform,” he says, while noting that the connotation of the suit has shifted in the past decade. That artists such as Jeff Koons wear suits has helped erase its business-only connotations.
“It’s just one of those garments that will continue and it will evolve into something else, which will still be a suit at the end of the day,” he says. “It might be a kind of sun-protection, UV thing in 50 years, but it will still be a suit.
“I think we have to find a new context for the suit,” he continues. “A suit for me is not there to be in the Euro Parliament or to be worn on Wall Street only. A suit needs to be there on the person who actually wants to wear a suit — and who is this guy? This is kind of the question for designers who are designing suits.”
While Vetements has an air of androgyny — it started as a women’s label, but was quickly adopted by men — Gvasalia does not plan to muddy the waters at Balenciaga.
“I look a lot at men’s wear for women’s wear. For me, it’s very natural. I’m never going to make dresses for men, but I’ve always taken a men’s double-breasted coat and reworked it for women,” he says.
Balenciaga chief executive officer Isabelle Guichot has long cited men’s wear as a future growth avenue for Balenciaga, and says Gvasalia can now provide the creative fuel for it.
“It’s definitely a segment that is scalable. We have a clear upside in the category,” she says, noting “only one-third of our stores carry men’s” and acknowledging that Gvasalia’s predecessors were not as involved in men’s wear.
(Gvasalia took over from Alexander Wang, who logged a three-year tenure and in turn succeeded Nicolas Ghesquière, who exited after a 15-year tenure, during which he defined Balenciaga’s inimitable brand of future-flecked and experimental ready-to-wear. Ghesquière subsequently joined Louis Vuitton, and coincidentally had Gvasalia in his studio for one season.)
Yet Balenciaga has made considerable progress in men’s. It has men’s-only stores in Paris and New York and counts 300 wholesale doors: roughly 200 carrying the full range, and 100 accessories only. The Paris house, owned by Gucci parent Kering, counts about 110 directly owned stores, which include freestanding boutiques and shops-in-shop.
Although she declined to discuss figures, Guichot noted that men’s wear has “grown well” while “not all categories have grown at the same pace.” Footwear, for example, has expanded exponentially, driven by demand for sneakers especially. Her goal is to “drive the momentum of the business in all categories at a faster pace.
“Ready-to-wear, being a brand definer, is going to be key in the new men’s chapter,” she notes, citing healthy interest from a wide swath of retailers attracted by Gvasalia’s growing fashion influence.
While stopping short of outlining a rollout plan for men’s, Guichot hints that Balenciaga sees a bright future for the category.
“We’ve been waiting 99 years to do the first runway show,” she says. “Of course we’re going to capitalize on it.”
Gvasalia enters the fray at a fizzy time, creatively and commercially, for men’s wear.
“I don’t like the word gender fluidity or all this stuff, but I think we are at the point where the role of men’s wear gets quite close to the importance of women’s wear,” he says. “We are at the point where men go and spend money on clothes and they want to be different and express themselves with clothes. I think that’s what happened under the founder. He made clothes for women to feel comfortable, to feel good, to be able to express themselves. For me, in the context of 2016, it makes total sense to do the same with men’s wear.”