Demna Gvasalia of Vetements on Race and Those DHL T-shirts

The most controversial man in fashion speaks about the cult status of Vetements

Fashion designer Gosha Rubchinskiy on the runway for Vetements, sporting the cult DHL T-shirt. Picture / Vogue Runway

When Demna Gvasalia - shaved head, hooded sweatshirt - rushes into the Rose Bakery at the London’s new Dover Street Market he could be any other street-savvy customer, but for an oversized, brightly striped leather bag on his shoulder, recognisable as one from the next season’s Balenciaga catwalk collection and tipped to be the hot accessory of the autumn.

“This bag,” he says, rolling his eyes as if he’s talking about some garrulous, attention-seeking pal. “This is just a prototype but the number of people who have stopped me in the street to ask where it’s from. Even an old lady came up to tell me this morning that she had the same one at home. I thought, 'I don’t think it is …’”

The man turning fashion upside down
Unassuming, fast-talking, eyes constantly moving, the 35-year-old Georgian is a co-founder of the French label Vetements, artistic director of Balenciaga and one of the most talked about men in fashion right now. He has rocked the industry with clothes and accessories that attract the same level of attention as his proto-type bag. And he’s rocked it because in a world more accustomed to gloss and polish, Gvasalia’s aesthetic is the anti-thesis and what he’s achieved doesn’t quite make sense.

Inspired by streetwear, by heavy metal, by hip-hop, by skateboarders and random pop cultural tit-bits found on the internet, the Vetements look is oversized, kind of ugly and a bit hard to get your head around. Mis-shapen hooded tops bearing rude or consciously vacant slogans, oddly-cropped trackie bottoms, long vintage-style floral dresses with exaggerated sleeves, re-made jeans and most infamously of all, a yellow t-shirt bearing the DHL logo, (yes, that DHL), which has become a sell-out cult item. Gvasalia has taken the everyday, given it a twist and turned it into something desirable (those Balenciaga bags are a riff on cheap supermarket shoppers sold in Thailand).

And he’s not selling this look in cool skate shops to teenagers and 20-somethings but to grown-ups who buy luxury labels at the poshest stores in the world, such as here at Dover Street Market, where Vetements has a shop-within-a-shop in which I’ve just witnessed a trio of women cooing over one of his yellow nylon raincoats.

READ: What Makes a Cult Fashion Item?

“We never expected a reaction like this,” says Gvasalia in his eastern-European accented English. “That people would desire what we do. We live in a world where clothes… I mean they don’t really matter, do they? But then then they do if you can speak to someone like that.”

And why does a $421 DHL t-shirt speak to someone, right now? “Well, he likes it,” he says archly, pointing to a man who is walking past at that exact moment in that exact t-shirt. “Let’s ask him. [We don’t.] For me, it was such a recurring topic in my life. Every day someone was saying, 'The package didn’t arrive, we have to stop working with DHL, we will be bankrupt by DHL.' DHL seemed to be more a part of my life than anything else so I thought, why isn’t it in the show?”

After some persuasion and in exchange for 20 T shirts for its staff, DHL gave Vetements the copyright to the logo and lo, the unlikeliest of fashion hits was born.

'My friends very often can’t afford the clothes'
Much has been made of the high price of this streetwear luxury product – those jeans are $1730 - and Gvasalia does come across a bit sheepish about it. “At the beginning it was just very hard. We were very small and you have to fight with factories about quantities and they give you prices that are absolutely unworkable. But my ultimate goal is to be able to offer different things so the people who can’t afford to buy a leather jacket can buy a trench. We have this one raincoat [black with Vetements printed in white on the back] which I see everybody wear because it’s $324. My friends very often can’t afford the clothes. Like myself, I wear prototypes but I don’t think I’m crazy fashion enough to go and buy those things. I’d rather go on holiday. I feel like it brings more use. Holidays are important. Holidays and quality time on your sofa.”

Raised in Soviet-era Georgia and Germany, Gvasalia studied fashion in Antwerp, worked with the menswear designer and member of the avant-garde Antwerp 6, Walter van Beirendonck. He moved to Maison Martin Margiela, where he came to love the deconstructed element of the clothing and where many of the team at Vetements, which is a co-operative with his brother Guram as CEO, also worked. He then worked for Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton - "With Marc I learnt how to have fun. We had a karaoke machine in the studio. Marc would sing and smoke, Kate Moss would come in and it was a party.” In comparison, working with Jacobs’ successor Nicolas Ghesquiere was "like a laboratory – precision, perfection, you know."

READ: 19 Ways to Nail Winter 2016

From Vetements to Balenciaga
His appointment to the prestigious, 98 year old house of Balenciaga, after just three seasons helming Vetements, was a big surprise to the industry and one that he could not fail to embrace. “To go to this very beautiful couture house that has a heritage, to consider that and to merge it with my aesthetic is amazing. I could never do there what I do at Vetements but then again Vetements is not just me, it’s all the people involved.”

The influence of Margiela is clear in Vetement’s deconstructed clothes – although Gvasalia says that also comes from Comme des Garcons – but the difference, he says, is that he is not trying to be avant garde or conceptual. “It is not about exhibitions, it’s about someone’s closet. It’s a business first of all and it’s about people wearing the clothes and the more the merrier for me.” So what is he trying to say with Vetements? “Not really much,” he shrugs.

The story behind those shows
Nevertheless, there is a certain snarly attitude that emerges at a Vetements show – which have been staged in a sex club, a Chinese restaurant and a church. The models race along the catwalk at an amphetamine-fuelled pace, deliberately unglamorous. There was no ambiguity about the sweatshirt for next season that proclaimed: You F**** A******.”

This was angry fashion with inspiration taken from heavy metal bands and fans, had the terrorist attack at the Bataclan music venue had been playing on his minds. “Oh, no, no, no, no, no,” he insists and then considers. “But living through that in Paris… I remember the morning after walking through Paris and it was zombie land. Maybe the anger somehow was present in our last show, yeah, but it was totally subconscious. In the same way, before Charlie Hebdo we had made all these security and police sweatshirts. Something is in the air, I guess. It’s strange. At a certain time you feel certain things and then it filters through to the world.”

On using an all white cast of models
What didn’t filter through at that particular show was any sense of ethnic diversity. There were no non-white women in Gvasalia’s first Balenciaga show, a few days later. Wasn’t that strange for a brand so influenced by urban Paris? “Well, I thought at a time when Donald Trump might be a President of the United States that I, a clothes maker, have to make political statement about ethnic diversity is funny,” says Gvasalia, not looking remotely tickled. “Our criteria for choosing models was purely based on the idea of diversity of character. We had very different types of girls but Lotta [Volkova, stylist and model] who works with me, we come from this cultural background where [race] is not even an issue. We don’t even have that thing to think we have to be politically correct. I guess the criticism is justified but from my point of view it was the attitude of those girls that was important for me not the shade of their skin or their origin.”

It is the only time in the interview where Gvasalia appears ruffled. I imagine the same mistake will not be made again at either house. It is a shame it was made in the first place because Vetements has shaken up the fashion industry and made a lot of people look. When a brand has the world’s attention it makes a statement even if all it wants to do is sell some clothes.

- The Daily Telegraph

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