Three times a week, Demna Gvasalia makes his way across Paris from a down-at-the-heels studio in the 10th arrondissement to a chic one, in an ornate Beaux Arts–style building, in the 6th. Gvasalia, one of the founders of the much-buzzed-about indie label Vetements, was named the artistic director of Balenciaga last fall, an appointment that not only requires him to divide his creative focus but also to be, quite literally, in two places at once. When we meet in December, he is still processing the transition. The details of his first collection for the French house recently vacated by Alexander Wang are gestating in his mind, so discussion about Balenciaga is strictly off-limits, except for the commute. “It takes me 40 minutes,” he kvetches. “For Paris, 40 minutes to get to work is a lot.”
The distance between Balenciaga and Vetements is not just physical but also ideological. Founded in 1919, the house of Balenciaga reflected the froideur of its namesake, Cristóbal Balenciaga, who worked in total silence, refused to be photographed or interviewed, and turned down repeated offers to capitalize on his name via ready-to-wear spin-offs with the declaration “I will not prostitute my art.” Balenciaga’s clothes were strict and rigorous, cut with a minimum of seams, inventively constructed, and superbly finished. His favorite fabric, created specially for him by the Swiss textile firm Abraham, was gazar, a high-twist silk that enabled the couturier to achieve the sculptural, monumental shapes that became his signature.
At Vetements, the fabric of choice is polyester. Or maybe nylon. In any case, materials so synthetic they crackle with static electricity as they make their way down the runway. The label’s references are trashy, deliberately off, unfashionable, or unpleasant. There are strong whiffs of early ’90s sportswear, T-shirt and sweatshirt shapes, and shoes that resemble cheap socks with plastic BIC lighters standing in for heels. If there’s any link to Balenciaga, it’s that the clothes are exciting, innovative, and uncompromising. “At Vetements, it’s always very much: ‘It’s ugly, that’s why we like it,’ ” Gvasalia says, his smile wide.
Gvasalia’s ascent has been breathtakingly swift. After working in the design departments at Maison Martin Margiela and Louis Vuitton, he started Vetements just two years ago with a team of friends, out of his apartment. As of last July—before the Balenciaga announcement, before Vetements’ critically acclaimed spring 2016 show—the label was operating from a new studio, in the cellar of another apartment. “It was still no bigger than my bedroom,” Gvasalia says. “I had to share a table with four people.” Now, after the second move in two years, Vetements occupies a proper studio, and Gvasalia has taken up residence in the northern outskirts of the city. “A lot of people move there because it’s unaffordable to live in central Paris. It’s really ugly, with bad architecture. But, in a way, when I go there, it feels quite fresh.”
Gvasalia, 34, was born and raised in Georgia—the former Soviet republic, not the American Deep South. An obedient son kowtowing to his parents’ wishes, he studied international economics at Tbilisi State University. “When I was 16, I told my parents that maybe I wanted to go to an art academy or to the fashion school in Georgia,” he recalls. “They said no way. First of all, it’s not appropriate to do fashion—and a guy doing that? Georgia is a supercrazy homophobic country.” His parents still aren’t quite sure about his career path. “When I told them that I was leaving Louis Vuitton to start my own brand, they said, ‘You’re crazy, you have a good job—it’s safe…you can work there for 25 years!’ ” He shrugs.
In 2001, his family relocated to Germany, where Gvasalia was offered a job in finance. “I thought, I’m going to die. I’m going to spend the rest of my life doing that,” he says. “That’s when I decided: just do it. I had no money, but I went to Antwerp to study at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. I don’t know how I survived for four years. I was eating lots of canned tuna. If I had to buy five meters of fabric, I knew that that day there probably wasn’t going to be dinner. But that was also the fun part, because I managed to make things out of nothing.”
After graduating, Gvasalia moved to Paris. In 2009, he wound up at Maison Martin Margiela, shortly after Margiela had departed. Four years later, Gvasalia went on to Louis Vuitton as a senior designer of women’s ready-to-wear, under Marc Jacobs. It was there that he began to develop the idea for Vetements with two friends from Margiela. “We had these frustrated talks about fashion, hating everything, hating our jobs, even though we had good salaries and we could have a nice lifestyle,” Gvasalia says candidly. “It was not meant to be a commercial project, because we didn’t have time, and all of us had other jobs.”
The word vetements—French for “clothing”—was initially a smokescreen to disguise the identities of the three moonlighting collaborators, but the name stuck. “We’re based in Paris, so we thought it sounded kind of fancy in French,” Gvasalia explains. “Some people can’t even pronounce Vetements, which is even cooler.”
It was not long before Gvasalia quit his day job and sank his savings into the first Vetements collection, for fall 2014, a thrifty affair comprising a rail of clothes shown in a tiny gallery in the Marais. “It looked like a supermarket,” Gvasalia recalls of that presentation. “It was horrible, actually.” Despite these humble beginnings, Vetements quickly established instantly recognizable signatures that include reworked and re-stitched DHL T-shirts, deconstructed dresses, and military-patched sweatshirts worn by the sapeurs-pompiers, the French fire brigade. Indeed, the label has acquired adjective status—as in “that’s very Vetements”—the way you generally hear names like Prada or Gucci thrown about. What Gvasalia doesn’t appreciate is hearing his oversize tops or patchwork jeans referred to as “very Margiela.” Vetements, he maintains, a bit defensively, isn’t conceptual. “To be honest, the best conceptual period of Margiela didn’t sell. Sometimes, you can end up with garments that don’t make any sense—as an idea, yes, but not as a product.”
Vetements may not be about conventional notions of luxury, but its prices are. The sweatshirts come in at $700; leather jackets are around $3,500. These extraordinarily ordinary clothes have become somewhat of a uniform for Vetements’s now 20-strong crew of young, idealistic creatives, including the stylist Lotta Volkova, who also works with Gvasalia at Balenciaga. (The rest of the team will focus solely on Vetements, which remains independent from Kering, the fashion conglomerate that owns Balenciaga.) Volkova closed the spring show, stomping down the runway with a motley cast of models and friends that included the Russian men’s wear designer Gosha Rubchinskiy. And while, technically, Vetements is a women’s label, men feature in the shows—and wear the clothes. “The male models were there, really, because we didn’t have enough female models,” Gvasalia admits.
At the showroom-slash-studio, in a former furniture salesroom stripped back to bare concrete walls and outfitted with rudimentary steel-and-Formica tables and chairs, I encounter Nicola, a 24-year-old Romanian recruit via Milan, and Phillip, 22, who is a student at Central Saint Martins, in London. They’re both dressed in head-to-toe Vetements, or so I presume: slashed-up sweatshirt (definitely Vetements); shredded and faded jeans (perhaps Vetements); scuzzy gray sweatpants (quite possibly Walmart). The big idea behind the label, says Gvasalia—who resembles a street thug, with his shaved head and hoodies—is that there’s no idea. “It’s very item-oriented. If you go to somebody’s place and look at their wardrobe, there is no concept. It’s a flannel shirt. It’s an evening dress.”
That no-nonsense attitude seems to have pricked a huge, pretentious fashion bubble. Now even Donatella Versace is talking about the “reality” of dressing. Gvasalia would be the last to claim ownership of a cultural moment, but it’s undeniable that his ideas have found traction. After only two seasons, Vetements was nominated for the LVMH prize; it didn’t win but still stole headlines. When I saw the designer Raf Simons in Paris in January, he immediately asked me what I thought of the label. Simons—a huge fan of Martin Margiela, it should be noted—says he thinks what Gvasalia is doing is interesting, honest, and feels very new.
I think Vetements is very interesting, too, not least because the label operates as a collective. Gvasalia is the official head of Vetements, he is quick to point out, only because he shelled out the startup cash. The spirit is one of democracy, not dictatorship. “Back in college, my friends and I worked together, we shared stuff,” Gvasalia recalls. “We’d get a box of red wine for, like, 3 euros and just draw and get drunk. It was very productive creatively. It’s not me deciding; it’s like in parliament. Every time we have a fitting, we invite girls who wear our stuff. Even though sometimes they can’t afford to actually buy the outfit, we always inquire, ‘Would you wear it? How?’ ”
Hearing the head of an avant-garde band of miscreant designers talking about sales bucks every assumption about intellectual fashion. But what might be truly revolutionary about Gvasalia is that he is not just determined to redefine high fashion but also to unabashedly get it on people’s backs. “Sometimes, I hear designers from older generations saying, ‘Oh, fashion needs to make women dream,’ ” he says. “I feel that this is really difficult today. I think it’s dated. Fashion shouldn’t make you dream in 2016. It should just be there, for us to wear.”
Watch W's most popular videos here:
Styled by Lotta Volkova. Photography assistant: Simon Wellington; fashion assistants: Ting, Laura Tanzer.