EXCLUSIVE: Demna Gvasalia Thinks Couture Can Change Fashion

Could Demna Gvasalia, the Georgian designer who ignited a global streetwear trend in recent years, propel fashion onto another new path with his haute couture debut next year?

He’s certainly been dressing the part, trading his signature hoodie, baggie jeans and sneakers for formal shoes, and lean, elegant clothes that reinforce a more ramrod posture when he’s tinkering with Balenciaga’s first high-fashion silhouettes.

And while he’s intent on unveiling his first couture effort next summer with a live runway show, he’s upending several traditions for the rarified pursuit, dispensing with seasons to show only once per year, and including couture for men, figuring how could he not in the year 2021?

“Couture represents freedom of creativity and freedom in fashion. And that’s maybe the reason why I wanted to do it so badly,” he confessed. “I believe strongly that couture actually may save fashion, in its modern way.…It can actually become the driving force of fashion again, because you’re free from the constraints of industrial production.”

A strong-minded designer who frequently bends and reshapes the fashion system according to his latest thinking, Gvasalia is once again shifting his design approach, collection configurations, and methods of showcasing that output. In an exclusive interview with WWD, he revealed plans to:

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• Show pre-collections during Paris Fashion Week, and his main collections in June and December; reversing his previous ordering;

• Abandon his recent storytelling approach to refocus on clothes;

• Absorb the merchandising department into his design studio;

• Pivot future collection reveals toward Balenciaga clients, and not only industry elites;

• Employ a variety of formats to unveil his various collections, with a digital approach for the upcoming Paris Fashion Week in October;

• Ramp up the use of sustainable fabrics, nearing 100 percent for summer 2021.

Speaking for the first time since his March show a gripping and bombastic display of dystopian chic Gvasalia described many epiphanies and personal transformations during the coronavirus lockdown and the aftermath, from losing eight kilograms (almost 17 pounds) to falling in love with fashion all over again.

Balenciaga, fall 2020. Giovanni Giannoni/WWD

Like many people disoriented by the pandemic, the designer, who now lives in the countryside near Zurich, spent the first weeks of lockdown in pajamas, alarmed and demoralized by the death toll, and questioning how fashion might move forward, or not, in a changed world.

“Does it matter? Does fashion make sense in these apocalyptic lives we live through since March?” he asked himself.

And then suddenly, Gvasalia felt “a rush for fashion. I started to dress up every morning just being at home, like a bit of a weirdo, just dressing up for myself, doing research and making the most extreme looks, ” he said with a chuckle, mentioning Gothic fashions, fitted clothes and 30-cm platform boots among ingredients in these costume parties. “Fashion was helping me to go through this period as well….So this playfulness of fashion came back to me. I realized there is a place for fashion, even in this period.”

Pre-pandemic, he had already decided his next collection, for summer 2021, would be to imagine fashion in 2030, not an exercise in retro-futuristic style, but more an exploration of what is necessary and sustainable.

“Do I need 20 new T-shirts or do I just need two really good ones?” were among the questions he asked himself. “I realized that even in the time of pandemic, people still want newness, even more because it distracts them from the horror.”

Hence his new design approach. When Gvasalia first burst on to the international fashion radar with the Vetements brand in 2014, he shunned fashion’s devotion to seasonal themes and instead started with lists of garments. This wardrobe-building approach free of specific themes — a garment-focused orientation he honed over three and a half years at Maison Margiela — was an approach he brought to Balenciaga when he was named its creative director in 2015.

Balenciaga, fall 2017 show. Giovanni Giannoni/WWD

He switched gears at Balenciaga in early 2019 and pursued a storytelling approach exploring the mythic Parisian style, work uniforms and power dressing, and a Goth aesthetic by way of religious clothing producing intense runway fireworks.

“I realized that somehow I wanted to go back to clothes. That’s why I called my brand Vetements [the French word for clothes] at the beginning,” said Gvasalia, who stepped down as creative head of Vetements last year. “For me, clothes are the most important. This is why I do it, because it’s a tool of self-expression creating your identity through clothes. So I realized storytelling is great and I loved doing it. But it doesn’t have to be part of fashion necessarily.”

He confessed to feeling liberated by this decision “because you have less obligation when you don’t have storytelling. When you design a garment, you just make a nice coat. You make a nice pair of jeans and you don’t need a whole story around it.”

Gvasalia knows personally from a young age the power of clothes.

“I was bullied when I was young, so I dressed in a scary way when I was a teenager so people would not come close to me,” he said. “I was actually a fragile, hopeless romantic deep inside, but I didn’t look like that and it helped me to survive really….I realized that’s what fashion is for: It’s for yourself, first of all, and the way it makes you feel.”

Indeed, the designer stressed that he does not plan to return to the impassive, dry, merchandising way of making a collection. “I would say it’s more based on feeling rather than a thought. Do you want a new pair of jeans or are you happy with the pair of jeans you have? It’s more intuitive and emotional and instinctive, true to yourself and less market-oriented,” he said.

He explained that Balenciaga’s true followers relate to the “more conceptual and intellectual part of fashion. They always react to an authentic idea. And this authentic idea never comes from the commercial list.”

That said, Gvasalia is all for reining in the scale of collections, deeming a “do less and do it better” focus a more sustainable approach to creativity. He acknowledged that this strategy was somewhat forced on the industry due to the pandemic, given that factories were shut or at reduced capacity, and distance working, especially for fittings, is more time-consuming and yields fewer looks.

He also ratcheted up his use of sustainable fabrics for his next collection, given his idea about fashion in 2030.

“It’s not 100 percent, but maybe 98 percent,” he said. “In 10 years it will be a norm. It will have to become a general rule.”

Balenciaga, fall 2017. Giovanni Giannoni/WWD

Lifting a veil on his summer 2021 pre-collection, which will be unveiled on Oct. 4 during Paris Fashion Week, Gvasalia said “it’s a lot about old clothes and cherishing something that you have for a long time, wearing your favorite T-shirt or a trench coat for 20 years. So things look a bit old and destroyed and the beauty is in that as well. At the same time there is also technology and some high-tech elements, and a lot of recycling of the old clothes into new ones, giving them a second life. There’s no ‘Space Odyssey’ element. It’s much more down to earth actually than how sometimes we imagined fashion in the future. It’s much more based on what we know about fashion now.”

He allowed that “fashion a decade from now” is a theme, “but there is no storytelling behind. It’s all about clothes.”

Famous for his gripping and dramatic fashion shows in a mammoth television studio on the edge of Paris, Gvasalia had no choice but to abandon such mega productions, given restrictions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, and pursue a digital unveiling for the summer 2021 collection.

“But I don’t believe in digital couture. I need to be hands-on. For me, it’s about dressmaking. I can’t show couture on the screen,” he said. “I feel it’s something that it’s really something unique that you need to see in real, and so we decided to delay it.”

When couture week in Paris was canceled last July, Balenciaga initially said it would shift the show to January. Now Gvasalia has decided Balenciaga couture will be shown once a year in July, without any defined season.

A look from Balenciaga’s 1963 summer couture show in Paris. Courtesy of Balenciaga

He said the once-a-year timing reinforces that couture is “something quite special. We have to learn again to be patient to wait for special stuff. Doing it once a year, you have enough time to do really something special, to develop something that is not easy to copy. So it can really be a true couture.”

And a couture that is gender-inclusive.

“I think men came to the point that they want to wear couture as well, and I know that we have some customers that will love that,” he said. “I want to kind of erase the gender identification of couture being only for women, or only for older women who have money to afford it.”

It is clear Gvasalia is relishing the opportunity to make couture.

“You know I dress differently when I work on couture. I wear different kinds of clothes. I listen to different kinds of music,” he enthused, citing Vivaldi and Hans Zimmer among artists on his playlist at those moments. “There is a whole mood set around it to put you in that very elevated kind of spirit of dressmaking, which I love. And I think that’s the reason why I do fashion.”

As for Balenciaga ready-to-wear, Gvasalia has in recent years designed one big collection containing the main show lineup and the next season’s pre-collection, which followed the same inspiration and narrative. Now he will put pre-collection on the runway and show the next season’s main collection later, saying it is logical to show looks that might require five fittings for pre-collection first and the main “show” looks that might require seven fittings later.

“So basically, the pre-collection is the part of the collection that can be made and developed faster, but not necessarily less strong, or less conceptual anymore,” he said.

While perceived as a fashion showman with some out-there ideas, Gvasalia described his wish to change the dynamics between the creative studio and merchandisers — typically an at-odds scenario with designers rolling their eyes at “commercial requests” and merchandisers rolling theirs at “crazy design ideas.”

In his view, “commercial and creative visions should be aligned. I want a true collaboration where we exchange on a daily basis, respect each others’ ideas and share. It’s basically creating this harmonious kind of coexistence of business and creativity.”

A look from Balenciaga’s 1963 summer couture show in Paris. Courtesy of Balenciaga

And so “the merchandisers report to me now.”

Gvasalia lamented the time crunch after August holidays to ready a show collection, which has everyone hyperventilating in September.

“I realized that it’s quite a handicap,” he said. “It’s not good for the product, not good for the creativity, not good for anything. So the only logical again solution was to basically swap that,” he said.

So how might he present the so-called main collection in December, when most other brands are showing pre-collections?

Gvsalia doesn’t wish to ruin the surprise, so he wouldn’t say. But he did cite a wish to break away from the hamster wheel of doing a fashion show every six months.

“The fashion show in itself has been in the rule book of fashion for decades: you do a fashion show during fashion week when everybody’s in Paris,” he said. “I felt like I need to do it in a different way so it’s actually available for a bigger audience. Also for the audience that is a more professional audience obviously. But what is the focal point for me is actually people who consume what I do.”

He noted that roughly 700 editors, retailers and celebrities typically attend his physical shows, while more than 100,000 customers and fans are watching the livestream.

“I love doing shows, and I would not give some blanket statement that I’m not going to do shows anymore,” he said. “I want to do shows because I think it’s a very easy tool to show fashion.”
But there’s the rub.

“I think fashion shows have become too much of a comfort zone,” he said. “It’s a little bit too easy. And like, I don’t believe in easy solutions being the best necessarily. And I also don’t believe that fashion should function within the comfort zone. The comfort zone is where we stagnate. And given that fashion has to keep engaging people. I realized there are many other ways.”

And he isn’t just talking about digital solutions like video, VR or AR.

A look from Balenciaga’s 1963 summer couture show in Paris. Courtesy of Balenciaga

“There are other concepts that we can introduce, without them becoming the rule. Every season I would like to create a new experience with every output, meaning four times a year,” he said. “Each of these times I want to be either memorable or touching or evoking some kind of emotion — something that stays in people’s minds.”

“I don’t want to deny the fashion show is a great tool,” he continued. “As I said, couture for me is a live event….But we don’t need to do it every time four times a year.”

Gvasalia cited an example of an unusual format out of Balenciaga’s archives. He had been watching some of founder Cristóbal Balenciaga’s couture presentations from the Sixties, and noticed that there were always many empty chairs — a world away from today’s rammed benches. Oh, and there were ashtrays so people could smoke.

It turns out the couture displays went on continuously for almost a week, so clients and others could drop in and out at their convenience.

“How amazing is that? I’m not saying I want to do that and have models walk around for one week. I’m just saying that we don’t even have to be very technological and futuristic to do something different. It’s in the archives here. I just saw it,” he said. “Fashion has become such a checklist. And I feel like I personally want to try to do it differently.”

See Also:

After the Pandemic, Will the Fashion Industry Rebuild Sustainably?

Fashion Weeks Tilt Toward Coed, Buy-Now Formats

Demna Gvasalia on Appropriation, ‘Ugly’ Sneakers and the Curse of Pre-collections


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