See it here first: Bella Hadid in next season Balenciaga
Demna Gvasalia sounds off on authenticity, the future and his creative process for The Get Up Stand Up Issue.
During the SS16 shows in Paris there were plenty of rumours that Balenciaga was going to appoint a new creative director, but nobody was expecting it to be Demna Gvasalia. Not even Demna Gvasalia. “I was never on the list,” he once recalled. “Obviously.” That same week, just before he was announced, Demna spoke to a journalist about Vetements and his unique approach of chopping up and remaking clothes in mostly gigantic and rather monstrous silhouettes, and how quickly the brand — which he has just recently parted ways with — had grown into a phenomenon.
“Now it’s kind of massive, which is interesting,” he said. “Because it shows that what we’re doing speaks to a wide range of people. I don’t think this would have been the case 15 years ago.” The popularity of his designs has grown exponentially since. At Balenciaga, Demna has given us new kinds of luxury products, everyday garments reimagined as huge and strange and beautiful, and in doing so has become the most influential designer of the decade. His oversized, broad-shouldered cut is the silhouette of the 2010s. But the question remains: why now? For his recent SS20 show, he built a parliament; a downward spiral in EU blue velvet. To set the mood, artist Sissel Tolaas was commissioned to make four scents that wafted out from behind the tall curtains and down from the ceiling: blood, money, antiseptic and petrol. That’s what power smells like. That’s what makes the world turn. The whole collection was a riff on power brokers, politicians and bureaucrats and how they like to dress for different occasions.
Demna has in the past compared himself to the early 20th- century conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp, who invented the idea of the readymade (taking a found object, like a urinal, and exhibiting it as an artwork). Demna also likes to appropriate things, only his readymades are found people and found ways of dressing. For AW17 he put together a notorious Vetements show based on archetypes of how ordinary people dress: rich lady in furs, tourist, demeure Parisienne, punk, office worker, goth. The show was both loved and hated, lauded and slated. Now he’s done the same thing more luxuriously for Balenciaga, only this time he’s taking apart, contemplating and reimagining the codes of political dress.
The show began with old men in loosely tailored suits wearing VIP lanyards and corporate Balenciaga logos on their lapels. Their enormous trousers billowed in the blood-fragranced air like sails, like pop art, like a Claes Oldenburg sculpture of a suit; all vast and saggy flowing waves of drapery. In Demna’s hands the oversized becomes a sculptural exercise, what he calls, “a study of an attitude”. Then came studies of campaign dresses inspired, for the most part, by Angela Merkel’s taste in tailored day wear. In the past he has wanted to dress us as policemen and spoken of his admiration for those whose job is to protect others.
Now he’s going to dress us as desperate politicians and glum bureaucrats. The dream of prosperity has faltered. The 80s aren’t coming back. This is the new power-dressing; attired like the people that are supposed to protect us but don’t anymore. Suiting for an age in which our leaders are breaking the law and can no longer pretend otherwise. The rest of the show brought smart-casual weekend looks, baggy teenage grunge, the wilder side of club gear and finally some evening wear and ball gowns. All so mitteleuropäische. One could build a family from these archetypes: the Brussels MEP with a love of S&M; her dutiful businessman husband; their ketamine-addled, stay-at-home techno producer son; the hetero-pessimist performance artist daughter preparing for the ball.
Some of the dresses are printed with illustrations of typical Balenciaga products and watermarked all over with the brand’s name like a stock image. A shot of happy Balenciaga models on a long-sleeve T-shirt is also very like a stock image. The whole show is a collection of stock images come to life, as such it brings to mind another of the dominant creative influences of the decade, New York’s DIS art collective, who built their whole aesthetic around stock images, taking groups of well-groomed men in suits, young people in chinos and blonde girls in pink velour and making them uncanny.
Demna did the same in his show by giving Bella Hadid — who stars also on these pages — sharp prosthetic cheekbones over deep shadowy hollows. Other models had their lips blown up to exaggerated proportions. The whole look, from the geometric cuts of the tailoring to the augmented faces, is prosthetic. At the end of the last decade, in his final show, Alexander McQueen sent strange alien creatures down the catwalk in otherworldly garms. Now, at the end of this one, Demna suggests that the aliens were us all along; that we’re the weirdest things out there.
The perversion of the stock image has been a project of the 2010s — from DIS, to Balenciaga, to the bad boyfriend meme — and one that expresses a growing realisation that nobody is quite what they seem. Until this decade, when social media laid bare our innermost psyches, we perhaps never acknowledged how weird we all are inside, how most people are just thinking the most unusual things all of the time. Normality doesn’t actually exist. And now we’re struggling to cope with this realisation as a society.
What we all share, however, is a common strangeness, and the reason Demna is so successful and of the moment is exactly because his clothes speak to this strangeness. He thinks our clothes shouldn’t be façades to hide behind. Not even our work clothes. They should show us for what we really are. Everything should be taken apart and made authentically weird. “Authenticity,” Demna once said, “is about going back to the original archetype. Every garment I do is based on a garment that already exists; I don’t invent anything new.” He’s not interested in inventing anything new, or in paying respects to the archive, but rather in unspooling what’s already there and revealing what’s hidden inside. “Reality?” he asked backstage after the last show, “I don’t think it gets more real than this.”
Balenciaga, like so much contemporary culture, like so many posts on the internet, is hard to parse. Is this genuine? Is this ironic? His project is widely misunderstood. Many assume that he’s joking around, or running his studio as some kind of art project, but the truth is he’s always been focused on clothes and how we dress and what that says about us. Sincerity is a luxury now and his approach to design is very sincere; it’s just that he’s holding his distorting mirror up to a crazy world. These days, he is less interested than before in Total Fucking Darkness or lighting his way with the bridges he burns.
Demna lives with his boyfriend in the Swiss countryside and keeps to a healthy lifestyle and tries to remain hopeful. So what is going on in his blue parliament? What do they want, these politicians? Balenciaga’s SS20 manifesto, or something approximating that, might be collaged together from feel-good, made-up headlines and printed over two of his long flowing trench coats: “Be kind to animals… Make the world a better place… Tell someone you love them today…” all good common-sense policy, writ large on these clothes for the end of the world.
Photography Oliver Hadlee Pearch
Fashion director Carlos Nazario
Hair Cyndia Harvey at Art Partner using Oribe.
Make-up Lauren Parsons at Art Partner.
Nail technician Ama Quashie at Streeters using Dior Vernis.
Photography assistance Albi Gualt, Joe Reddy, Sharam Sadaat and Bella Sporle.
Styling assistance Raymond Gee and Kevin Grosjean.
Hair assistance Pâl Berdag.
Make-up assistance Izzy Kennedy.
Production Emilie Dumas at Art Partner.
Production assistance Maddy Thompson at Art Partner.
Casting director Samuel Ellis Scheinman for DMCASTING.
Model Bella Hadid at IMG.