"wearing the clothes inspires new clothes"
At some point Vetements and Demna Gvasalia became the most buzzed-about names in fashion. Words like "covetable" were thrown around when describing their $1200 hoodies. Kanye West was one of the first to wear them. Last year it seemed like everyone had a Vetements hoodie. Then Demna Gvasalia got appointed creative director at Balenciaga, and the conversation shifted somewhat from streetwear to ready-to-wear, and very recently, to couture.
For those in and out of the fashion industry, especially those with their fingers on the pulse, as it were, hungry for the next new thing, fatigue with the "new" had reached a critical point. It felt like the PR machine had been trying to wring the last few drops of blood out of a very tired stone for far too long. But Vetements, came along with a Nirvana-like ability to not only command the conversation, but to make nearly everything else out there feel timid and flimsy. Vetements is nothing particularly new, and it's just clothes, but few lines and creative directors have turned such a critical eye to the way we dress while still turning out such exhilarating and ultimately fun things to wear. It reminds me of nothing so much as playing dress up as a kid, not for the costumeyness, but in the sense of power you felt trying on clothes that didn't belong to you, clothes that had a history.
Perhaps that makes sense given the focus on actually putting on and wearing clothes. Gvasalia himself has said that "wearing the clothes inspires new clothes," and you can see it in his output. The clothing focuses less on form and silhouette than it does on the experience of dressing and wearing.
Demna Gvasalia and his team design like aliens, re-contextualizing found fragments. I imagine him sifting through garbage heaps, or great piles of first-world castoffs, and then Frankensteining together something new from vaguely familiar parts.
You could call it the clothing equivalent of sampling, a process first made famous in hip-hop tracks. Take Missy Elliott's "The Rain (Supa Fly)," which lifts a snippet of Anna Peebles's "I Can't Stand the Rain" and grafts it directly onto the heart of the track. But Gvasalia's process is vastly more complex than sampling. It begins with the concept of need and function. Born in the country of Georgia, little is known about his childhood and upbringing. But his clothing betrays and obsession with how people select and wear clothes, how they convert them, either through styling or by actually scissor and thread, to something that speaks to them.
Indeed, Gvasalia interrogates the very idea of "ready-to-wear," the accepted method by which an industrial product--you cannot convince me that fashion is anything but an industrial product--is offered up wholesale to customers. Purchasers of designed fashion goods almost always accept this offering in its entirety, with little to no customization. The value of a piece, especially a designer piece, is found in its completeness, its mysterious embodiment of the designer and the designer's vision. Therefore customers often seek to preserve the integrity of the piece, styling it in such a way that is adheres as closely as possible to the intended use, now seen on runways and in editorial spreads. This paradigm used to be even more entrenched. Fashion brands sold entire outfits to their customers, publicized in magazines, department stores and private showings. Designers like Christian Dior, Coco Chanel, and Cristobál Balenciaga created composite pieces that were intended to comprise indivisible looks. When you bought a Chanel suit, you had no choice but to wear it exactly as Coco intended.
Gradually, things changed. Either the result of a more diverse customer base or an attempt by the label brass to sell products at a variety of price points, nearly all companies now sell off their vision piecemeal. You can walk into a Prada store and come out with an outfit thousands of dollars deep, or, you can walk out with a key fob. These days, wearing entire outfits culled from a single runway look is even considered gauche. You just end up looking naive.
Even in this time of a nearly simultaneous worldwide broadcast of trends, cultural artifacts still take time to make it around the world. Some areas are either so poor, so remote, or both, that economic colonialism aside, they are unable to participate in the diffused cultural conversation. We can only assume that these areas draw from traditions and requirements that grow closer to the bone. Instead of looking to cultural centers for their content and their conventions, these people must naturally either look to their own history or what is right in front of them.
It is this spirit that infuses Gvasalia's work, a value system and point of view that either ignores or subverts the Parisian couture ideal. But his goal seems loftier than that of simply a provocateur. Fashion after all, is hardly short on those. Consciously or not, Gvasalia's clothes engage with deep questions of globalization. What happens when ideas (aesthetic or otherwise) are globalized? How do we preserve what has been handed down? What, indeed, is worth preserving? And how do we kindle that creative fierceness and vitality that Gvasalia sees pushed to the margins of our world?
In his book The Radicant Nicholas Bourriaud describes a person constantly in a state of both travel and putting down roots. He calls this person a radicant. Gvasalia's clothes are radicants, too. They absorb some cultural cues and ignore others. They are syncretic entities and yet utterly alien. Radicancy gives us a framework with which to view a life lived across cities and across borders. In the 21st century, we, too, are globalized. Just as the gestation of industrial products form complex and telling geometries, so do our contemporary lives. Gvasalia calls attention to this phenomenon with his collections for Balenciaga and Vetements, showing a person that is both fragmented and enriched by her displacement.
Gvasalia is fascinated by what happens when meaning breaks down. Jack White fans will remember how he toys with words and phrases until they mean something else or nothing at all. Often, these words come from the past. The time periods from which he borrows are beside the point. His creative life exists in a world of collisions, where temporal context is negotiable. Gvasalia manages a different kind of translation. He chooses clothes worn with great specificity. It could be an overtly frightening punk leather getup. Or it could be that particular kind of straight pants, boxy shirt combo worn by men on a construction site. By some method of his own, these clothes become something else on a runway. It's not the method of manufacture, or the price tag. Some way along the line Gvasalia and his team manage a kind of transmogrification. The supremely ordinary becomes abstracted and rarefied, although somehow without any traces of preciousness or elitism.