Vetements, the design collective led by Demna Gvasalia, has created an earthquake during Paris fashion week over the last few seasons. Mr.Gsavalia is also the newly appointed creative director of Balenciaga, replacing Alexander Wang. His first collection for Balenciaga is as ground breaking as the Vetements collections are. To get to know him a bit better, an interview about how it al started, his experience working with other designers and how the Vetements brand works.
Interview with Demna Gvasalia
How did you first get interested in fashion?
Well, I grew up in Soviet times in Georgia, which meant that me and my friends, we all had the same clothes. It was such a unified society that was deprived of information and of many things, which probably pushed me from early on to discover certain excitement in things that I didn’t know.
Then we had the civil war in Georgia, where we had to leave the place where I grew up. We had this gypsy lifestyle for around 7 years, finally moving to Germany. So, I really had to adapt to a lot of situations and people within a short period of time, to be adaptable, to know how to integrate.
I really wanted to study fashion at the time — it was my ideal, but in Georgia people didn’t really believe fashion was a profession, and especially, it was not a profession for a guy to study. It was some weird, capricious thing for rich kids and was not considered a job.
I moved to Düsseldorf because my family moved there, and studied International Economics in Georgia. I was supposed to start working at a bank in Germany but that prospect was so depressing. I realised that I would be the most unhappy person in the world.
So, I went to Antwerp to try and enter the Academy there. I didn’t really know much about it and the whole Belgian avant-garde that had happened. I went literally because it was the only school I could afford. At the time it was 500 or 600 euros a year, I think because it was a state-owned school. That’s how I got to Belgium and studied fashion.
Vetements A/W 2015
But it sounds like you were interested in fashion from the beginning.
I was interested in fashion, I just didn’t know much. Some people came to Antwerp and knew everything. At the entrance exam, one of the panel asked me who I knew from the Belgian generation of fashion designers and I just said Dries van Noten because that was the only name I actually knew and could pronounce. The person who asked me that was Walter van Beirendonck, who was part of the Antwerp Six. To me, he was just a weird guy with a beard and rings. He ended up being one of my teachers and I actually worked with Walter after I finished at the Academy.
How did your training at the Academy shape you as a designer?
In many ways, we had to learn things about ourselves to discover our own aesthetic and what we liked. They try to push creativity — it’s not a very technical school. No one really explains how to construct a tailored jacket, you have to find out about that yourself, which is a hard process but it absolutely pays off. By discovering it on your own, you actually learn a lot more about it than if someone explains to you how to do it. So that was a blessing in disguise.
There was a lot of influence from this whole Belgian aesthetic: and the deconstruction, and Margiela and Dries. I mean we studied works and the names and methods of work that we heard about every day. So naturally it had an impact on me. But I cannot say that during these four years that I actually found my aesthetic — I don’t think so. I think I really started to understand what I liked and what I didn’t like afterwards, when I actually started working in fashion.
What did you work on with Walter van Beirendonck?
When I worked with him, it was on menswear, but at one point I just realised it was a bit limited for me. I decided to do something for womenswear and I applied for jobs etcetera. One of the options I had was Margiela, so they called me and I moved to Paris to do womenswear for the first time.
What was it like to work in that mythical place?
It was exceptional. That period of my life was probably the most formative in terms of fashion. My real studies, where I learned about clothes, was working at Margiela, especially in this kind of transitional period after Martin left; when the company was trying to modernise its DNA and find ways to continue its history. For me it was like an MA in fashion.
When you’re a student at a fashion academy, it’s all really theoretical. Here it was real, it was something that people made — that people wore. The most amazing thing was actually discovering the archives and looking at how the pieces were made and learning the way that the clothes were designed.
I saw the pieces that were done at the beginning of Margiela at the beginning of the 1990s. It was investigative fashion. They took a shirt, they took it apart, and they made a new one out of it. This whole idea about understanding the core of what you are doing, to make something new. They needed to take a shirt apart to make a new shirt. They didn’t come up with a new garment that didn’t exist.
It became a method of working for me. You really needed to understand the construction of the garment and to kind-of be in love with it in order to make something out of it. That’s something I learned there.
Vetements S/S 2015
Why is that important to you?
A garment is a product. It’s not made to be in a museum. It’s meant to be in somebody’s wardrobe. But then again, you need to like what you do. You don’t just need to like your job, but you need to like the product. I don’t want to compare it to an artist working on an artwork — but it’s the same. You are kind of subconsciously in love with what you do, and I think as I am working on a hoodie, I love to work on that hoodie. That’s what enhances your ideas and your creativity.
After three and half years at Margiela, you decided to leave. Why?
It was so intense; this challenge and possibility of actually being there and learning there, but it was too much. At one point I realised, either I am going to stay there for the rest of my life like some people do, or I’m going to discover other parts of fashion that I didn’t know.
Margiela is a very specific company with a very different way of working. It’s not a classical model like the old houses. I wanted to see the other side, the more corporate side and the luxury product, because Margiela, for me, wasn’t really a luxury product, it was more investigative fashion rather than about the product itself.
That’s when I had an opportunity to go to Vuitton, which was a complete contrast. I did two collections with Marc Jacobs, from the moment I arrived, and then I did two collections with Nicolas Ghesquiére. It was good timing because I could work with Marc and see his way of working and then work with Nicolas, which was very different.
How would you compare their ways of working and what did you learn from those designers?
Vuitton is such a big company and there are so many possibilities — technical possibilities. A huge atelier and everything. The sky is basically the limit of what you could do. Working with Marc was very different and a lot of fun. His way of working is about fun. Making a collection, but not doing it for six months. He would make the collection two or three weeks before the show. It was a very spontaneous way of making fashion.
Nicolas was a perfectionist. It was about working in detail. We could fit the same jacket 20 times before getting the perfect one he wanted to have. That was a very different approach and it was important for me to see and understand, to take elements from all those things and re-appropriate them, and to build up my own methodology.
That’s a pretty fortunate set of circumstances there, working with those designers, in those houses.
I must say that I was really lucky to work with all the people I worked with. I learned an immense amount and different ways of doing things. I mean Marc, and Nicolas, and Margiela — and before that Walter. There were so many different things to learn. At one point I realised I wanted to be in a position to develop something on my own and to really have my own creative expression somewhere, and that’s when the Vetements idea was born.
Let’s talk about that moment, when Vetements was first seeded.
It was conceived basically between me and a couple of my friends. We would meet and share our opinions about the industry and what was going on, and what we agreed on and didn’t agree on. The pre-collection, the collection, all the things that we had to do. We thought the same way and shared [something] aesthetically as well, so we thought, why don’t we put something together in our spare time?
I could have continued doing that job for another 20 years. It was quite a fortunate position to be in, but I felt like it wasn’t enough. There was something else I wanted to do. It was not to do something commercial at all. It was really just to not get creatively frustrated and to do something we liked aesthetically. It was not supposed to be a concept or a statement, but really to make clothes, not for ourselves but for girls that we projected on that we liked, and for our friends. We started doing it on the weekends, at night, after work — just as a fun project.
My brother Guram knew that we were working on this. At one point, he thought there was definitely a market for this so we should try to sell it. It was really his initiative to commercialise it, make a showroom, invite buyers, etcetera. This is how it all started in my bedroom.
Vetements A/W 2016
I have rarely seen a brand gather as much momentum in such a short time. Why do you think that happened?
Well, I think the way we work is very intuitive. We don’t force things. We always work on one garment at a time, and for example, if we spend more than 20 minutes on it, we just cancel it because it doesn’t feel right. On the other hand, I think I am quite fortunate to have Guram working on the business. The way he does market research is very different because its very closely linked to the creative process and what we do. He would never come to me and say, “We need to do that because that’s what the market asks for.” He will do his utmost to sell what we believe in as a brand, what we create. If next season we do a capsule, I know he will be behind it and try to sell it to the client.
You expressed a shared sense of frustration with the industry among the wider Vetements team. What types of things were you talking about?
Well, basically the frustration was with the cycle. The creative cycle that didn’t really coincide at all with the production side, and the demands and the number of pieces that we had to make. The pieces became kind of soulless, you know, because they had to be made, but didn’t really have a reason to be. That was the most frustrating part for me. You need to have a jersey top because that’s what the market requests — I can’t do a jersey top at that very moment, you know?
Our idea was to make things that we really felt confident about and wanted to see people wear. I wasn’t doing that in any of my previous professional experiences.
What do you mean?
At Margiela, of course, it was all very conceptual and had to be a very different concept every six months. It was about a certain statement. At Vuitton, it was about the product and clothes that were meant to be worn, but it was not necessarily clothes that I wanted to see people wear. My idea from the beginning in fashion is that it is about the product and it’s about the clothes that people need to be wearing. That’s the biggest compliment for a designer, to see people wearing your clothes, not to be in a fashion book. I didn’t really feel satisfied at that time with what I was doing.
How much of that, do you think, came from needing to say something of your own?
A lot of it came from that, and because I realised we could do something on our own and it would be saying something different and in a different way. Not necessarily new or avant-garde — not at all — that was not our idea. What we do is nothing new, it’s just things that people want to wear. That was my creative motivation and the motivation of the people that I started with. I knew that it was a risk. It’s always a risk to do something like that, but I felt it was right to do that.
In the sea of stuff out there, how do you think people pick what they want?
How do you make something that people already know, but they still want to buy because they don’t have one? This is the challenge we have to face every six months, which is an exciting challenge for a designer I think. That’s what motivates me. Every time we are having a fitting and we are trying things on we say, “Ok, what do we do with this one now to make it wantable?” That’s hard. It’s much harder than decorating something with beautiful material and shapes.
Balenciaga A/W 2016
Balenciaga is one of the most prestigious houses in the world. How are you splitting your time between the two?
I split my time in half basically. The good thing is both of them are in Paris and my studios are 25 minutes away from each other so practically it’s a reasonable situation. I work two and a half days at Vetements and two and a half days at Balenciaga a week.
Interview by Imran Amed for businessaffashion.com
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