“Post-anti-fashion? Yeah, I like that. No one knows what it means.”
Greta wears all clothing Vetements
Tell the French fashion folk you're about to interview Demna Gvasalia, and they'll react in no uncertain terms. "He is the coolest man in Paris, non?" It's a true story, and one that makes the unassuming Vetements frontman laugh. "We should have a print like that," he quips. Gvasalia and the co-designers he handpicked from Parisian fashion houses were still anonymous when, in March 2014, they sold Vetements' debut collection to 84 stockists worldwide. It catapulted a hype machine of epic speed, accelerated by the mystery surrounding the label. The original team of Gvasalia and his two friends had met at Margiela - "when it was still Maison Martin" - and since worked together at Louis Vuitton. Disillusioned with the industry, they founded Vetements as an outlet for their own vision of clothes over fashion, sidelining it with fulltime jobs at other houses, which contractually prohibited them from putting their names to eponymous projects. "We actually wanted to do it for the sake of garment and product, so naturally it was the idea to be in the shadow of it," Gvasalia explains.
"Because we had this association with Margiela aesthetically, which was built there - I mean, it's not like we're trying to continue Margiela, but it was a very impactful experience - a lot of journalists were saying, 'Oh, they're anonymous? Is it like Margiela?' For them it was a PR strategy. For us, we just didn't want it. So I had to put a face on it." The face of Vetements is friendly, bearded with a shaved head and a stretched ear piercing that hints at a punk past. When the French call him 'cool', the insinuation is 'anti-chic': this new, less 'Euro' breed of Parisians, who live north and don't iron their jeans, and whose lifestyle is rooted in the perhaps more authentic socialist spirit of France. "I've been to Saint-Germain-des-Prés maybe three times in my life" - the posh left bank of Paris - "and I felt very uncomfortable there," Gvasalia laughs. "The classic model of fashion houses in Paris is making people dream with fashion. For us, we absorb what's around us. It's everyday life. I write so many ideas on my iPhone standing in the supermarket line observing freaky people."
French simply for 'clothes', you could say Vetements wears its manifesto on its sleeve. The now seven designers concern themselves with the sociological meaning of real clothes rather than fashion trends, and even keep a sociologist on payroll solely to research social dress codes. "I find it interesting to enquire about the way people dress and what it does," Gvasalia says. "We get inspired by normal things, but at the end of the day the things we produce are just a bit off. It has to have that weirdness to it that makes it Vetements." Case in point: a classic MA1 flight jacket for fall/winter 15, blown up to mad proportions with sleeves so long they're immobilizing. (They're adding zips now, Gvasalia adds reassuringly. "A friend of mine, she broke so many bottles of beer already by trying to drink with those sleeves.") As part of that collection, presented only weeks after the Charlie Hebdo terror attack in Paris, Vetements showed looks inspired by police uniforms, which instantly earned them the label of 'political fashion'.
"We're not trying to be political at all," Gvasalia says. Those looks were done before the attack happened, and so weren't inspired by Charlie Hebdo but it was—I dunno—a kind of subconscious reflection of it." And yet, their approach is undeniably anti-establishment: in the studio, designers box shipments side by side with interns, and the brand's fall/winter 15 show took place in a cruising club where fashion's elite rubbed shoulders with poppers machines, lube and glory holes. Is it a socialist label? "I would say so." Are the designers all very left wing? "Yeah." Is it the new anti-fashion, like the Belgians and Japanese of the 90s? "No, they were consciously anti. They hated everything. We don't really hate anything. We work in this industry so we have to use its tools. We do a showroom; clients come. We do a show—off-schedule, but still. We don't hate it, but we don't agree with it," Gvasalia says. How about 'post-anti-fashion', then? "Yeah, I like that. No one knows what it means."
The pursuit of meaning is second nature to the Vetements founder. Raised in 80s Soviet Union Georgia, his childhood was shaped by the aggressive gang youth culture of the area, and the cultural censorship of the Iron Curtain. He was a teenager when his dad moved the family to Germany. "He imported caviar and sparkling water into Europe. That's why nobody in my family eats caviar. Everything was always so close to being overdue, we had to finish it all," he laughs. "It sounds kind of bohemian but it wasn't at all!" Gvasalia's new home was Düsseldorf where the sensory overload of the Western world was like coming out of a coma. "There was this kind of hunger for discovering everything. I pierced myself, got tattoos, listened to hip-hop and goth and gabba. I was almost hyperventilating, getting as much out of it as I could. I had to discover it all at the same time." He eventually moved to Antwerp, graduated from the Royal Academy in 2006, and worked with Walter Van Beirendonck for two years before heading to Paris.
"Friday at six, Vetements turns into a nightclub, basically. It was supposed to be just a drink, and now friends and models come over, because they know we have free wine there - it's in our budget, we considered it - and people hang out until two o'clock in the morning. We had police come twice. It's every week. It's holy now," Gvasalia professes. It's a Vetements thing, one of many polar opposites to the formal professional lives he and his team left behind at houses such as Balenciaga, Céline and Givenchy. After leaving Margiela in 2012, Gvasalia worked at Louis Vuitton: two seasons with Marc Jacobs, two with Nicolas Ghesquière. "Aesthetically, I didn't fit with Marc nor with Nicolas. For me, it was more working with the product. With Marc it was like Project Runway: 'Okay, designers, you have one week to make a collection. Let's see what happens.' And with Nicolas, it was really working and working with the piece for six months. It was like an MA in Fashion working there. I really appreciated it." What would eventually fuel the conception of Vetements was an overriding issue with a fashion industry that Gvasalia feels mistreats its talent.
"I think it's a horrible industry. It pressures creativity. It kills it, very often. It pushes certain rules and frames on designers that really don't work long-term. You can't make a collection over three months and still be creative and have time enough to analyze and think," he says. "There's a lot of thinking needed to make clothes. There are so many clothes out there. It's over-consumed and terribly perverse. But we have no choice. It's like a machine: we have three months. It goes on sale. Next! It's a terrible thing, and that's what the industry does to it." Unsurprisingly, Gvasalia swears they will never sell out to a conglomerate, and although menswear is in the cards, Vetements have no plans of launching pre-collections. "Do we need every two months a new wardrobe? Yesterday someone posted a picture of our new winter collection already in the store! Who wants to try a lamb's wool knit in the middle of the summer? I just don't get it."
Sure, that's easy to say for the coolest man in Paris right now, and for the currently most hyped fashion label in the industry. But these things are smoke and mirrors, Gvasalia says, created by that omnivorous industry rather than the consumer it caters to. "As long as we can make clothes that people want to wear and they find them cool and relevant, that's my understanding of hype. We don't target fashion people. We target people, who wear the clothes. Of course there are fashion people in there, but what the industry actually thinks of a brand, for us, is less of an issue than what the person, who has our clothes actually thinks. And I think that's more long-term." What happens, then, when Vetements becomes fashion's youngest, most independently wealthy fashion brand? "We'll still do the Friday drinks."
Text Anders Christian Madsen
Photography Willy Vanderperre
Fashion Director Alastair McKimm
Hair Duffy at Streeters London, session and Editorial Ambassador for Vidal Sassoon
Make-up Lauren Parsons at Premier using Chanel Le Lift and Le Volume Ultra Noir
Nail technician Kim Theylaert
Digital operator Henri Coutant at Dtouch
Lighting technician Romain Dubus
Photography assistance Aaron Lapeirre
Styling assistance Lauren Davis, Katelyn Gray, Sydney Rose Thomas, Inge Theylaert
Hair assistance Ryan Mitchell
Make-up assistance Hannah Wilson
Producer Floriane Desperier at 4oktober
Production director Isabelle Verreyke and Production manager Lora Wouters at Mindbox
Production assistant Willy Cuylits, Dieter Blonde.