At Balenciaga, Demna Gvasalia Rethinks the Traditions of Couture – W Magazine
“In my vision, there is not necessarily a gender, or this notion of exclusivity.”
“The most personal piece to me was the one in which I did not design anything,” says Demna Gvasalia, speaking from his home in Zurich a little over two months after his debut couture show for Balenciaga, in July, the house’s first in more than 50 years. Like most things with the Georgian-born designer, who has been pushing the boundaries and the buttons of the fashion world for nearly a decade, the statement was a fascinating riddle, both straightforward and enigmatic.
In this case, Gvasalia was referring to look No. 63, a wedding dress with a long, circular train and an evenly balanced veil that was an homage to one created by Cristóbal Balenciaga shortly before his retirement, in 1968. It should be noted from the start that Gvasalia’s couture revival was a triumph in its entirety, described in reviews as a uniquely successful union of visions between that of the label’s founder and that of its inheritor. But this dress proved to be a revelation for Gvasalia himself, when, after four months of attempting to improve upon its pattern with fewer seams and more bias, he realized he could do no better than Balenciaga had done. In Gvasalia’s version, the only difference is that the fabrication is more like soft fleece than the icy gazar of the original.
“That was as close as you get to perfection, in terms of cut,” Gvasalia says. “I cannot do it on that level. It’s not my dress, even though I changed the fabric, and I made it in a sweatshirt quality. But the actual volume, the shape, and the pattern are identical to what Balenciaga did in 1968. Accepting that it’s better than what I can do was probably the strongest moment for me.”
Like many designers, Gvasalia is loath to look to the past, or even to discuss it, but this was one moment when he needed to. Much of his work for Balenciaga, for which he became artistic director in 2015, has been defined by his pushing fashion forward: the dystopian sets of his shows, the molded shapes and outsize proportions of his tailoring, the futuristic materials, and this fall’s editorially ubiquitous metallic medieval boots, which were introduced via a video game called Afterworld: The Age of Tomorrow. “I’ve heard there are some customers who thought that Balenciaga started in 2015, with the sneaker,” he says. “There was no knowledge, necessarily, of the amazing heritage.”
Unlike most designers, Gvasalia became a commercial powerhouse by taking a decidedly anti-fashion approach to fashion, first at Vetements, the label he founded in 2014 that elevated blasé streetwear staples into ironic, millennial-friendly status symbols (the name simply means “clothes” in French), and then at the holy altar of Balenciaga, where his work has incorporated icons of mainstream banality like Ikea shopping bags and Crocs. Neon pink Balenciaga logo socks and black baseball caps with the name embroidered on the bill can now be found in every corner of the world, worn equally by skaters and bankers.
Gvasalia has thrived by turning the tables on the establishment, so his desire to grasp the ultimate brass ring of fashion, becoming a couturier at the age of 40, may seem out of character—or maybe not. It’s sometimes hard to tell whether Gvasalia is being earnest or ornery. This April, Balenciaga and Gucci collaborated on a design mash-up. And in October, Gvasalia presented his spring 2022 ready-to-wear collection in the format of a 10-minute episode of The Simpsons, shown in a Paris cinema: On-screen, Bart, Lisa, Marge, Homer, and Principal Skinner’s mother walked the runway; outside, Naomi Campbell, Elliot Page, Cardi B, Isabelle Huppert, and several members of Gvasalia’s atelier posed in his new designs on the red carpet. It’s biting commentary that’s gentle enough not to leave any marks.
From left: Mar, Jibriil Ollow.
Two years ago, when Gvasalia proposed the idea of a couture collection to Balenciaga’s owners, at Kering, even he was surprised by their enthusiastic support for what would undoubtedly become a significant investment. It probably helped that, since Gvasalia’s arrival, Balenciaga’s sales reportedly reached $1 billion for the first time, in 2019. And to many, the move made perfect sense. “I want to say that couture is anti-fashion,” says the curator and fashion historian Pamela Golbin, “because it really establishes itself through a very long-term focus. It’s about incredible clothes that are made to measure to the client, not the concept of changing trends.”
As he began scouring the archives, Gvasalia uncovered films of couture presentations from the 1960s. They not only gave him insight into the environments of the shows—days-long affairs in which international buyers came to secure the rights to copy designs for their clientele—but also helped him find his purpose. In hiring new staff and building a new atelier, and taking the time to develop each look over the course of 10 fittings, rather than the four he normally does for ready-to-wear, Gvasalia discovered that couture offered him freedom from the systematic rules of fashion that he had been railing against for years. As a sign of his independence, he decided to show only one couture collection per year, rather than the customary two.
“I think the reason couture is so appealing to designers today is that you can do anything, and that’s what we all want,” Gvasalia says. “It’s like slowing down. The pace of couture brought me back to the essence of why I do this job—because I really love doing it.”
From left: Mohamadou Diakhité, Awak, Dennis, Bedzo.
At first, some of his prototypes were massacred with pins and cuts, a process that was “like doing plastic surgery,” he says. But over time—the first collection was delayed by a year due to the pandemic, giving him leeway to perfect his craft—they evolved into sophisticated designs that fused Balenciaga’s heritage with Gvasalia’s interest in fabric development and contemporary style. Standouts include couture versions of a hoodie and five-pocket jeans, in washed Japanese selvage denim with silver-plated buttons, as well as dramatic opera coats and refined tuxedo jackets. Gvasalia also made the decision to restore Balenciaga’s historic 10 Avenue George V salons, which had been used for storage for many years, and replicated the colors and curtain designs of the original space for his show. It was as if guests were entering a time capsule that had been sealed for decades, complete with dust on the curtains and traces of leaks on the ceiling. “That not only gave a depth to the moment, but also said, ‘I feel comfortable expressing myself with the past next to me,’ ” Golbin says. “It wasn’t about erasing the past; it was about bringing it forward.”
This was an apt metaphor for what Gvasalia has done for the shrinking, increasingly archaic business of couture, where only a few privileged customers could access its exquisite handmade designs. Of the major houses that remain, Valentino, helmed by Pierpaolo Piccioli, brings the essence of soul, and Chanel, headed by Virginie Viard, conjures the spirit of legacy, but Gvasalia has that all-critical sense of buzz: that which creates desire. Most of the customers who have followed him are buying couture for the first time, he says. Many of them are under the age of 35, and some are men, even though ready-to-wear prices are already stratospheric (on the Balenciaga episode of The Simpsons, the price tag shown on a dress worn by Marge was 19,000 euros), and couture generally stretches well into six figures.
“In the 1950s, some people could not even get into the Balenciaga salon,” Gvasalia says. “Those in charge were notorious for not letting people in because they just didn’t like them, how they looked, or what they represented. In my vision, there is not necessarily a gender in what we do, or this notion of exclusivity. The reason why I want to do couture in 2021 is not to please those customers whom you can count on two hands. It’s really creating this new conversation with a new audience, first and foremost, that I’m interested in.”
The show itself lasted slightly more than 13 minutes, during which the only sound was the rustle of gowns as the models walked by. Gvasalia told reporters backstage that the hushed atmosphere was a tribute to the heritage of Balenciaga, but was also “a moment of silence to just shut up for a minute” and take a reprieve from all of the noise of the fashion industry—the sneaker drops, the collaborations, the glamorous circus that Gvasalia disrupts but also conducts. “I’m also very critical about what I do,” he says. “During the process of making couture, I realized all the things I didn’t like doing in ready-to-wear. The most important thing is the essence of dressmaking in itself, but I might lose interest if I just keep on doing it in my comfort zone, just filling out collection plans in order to meet deadlines and get to financial targets. That’s not what I’m here for, and I don’t think this industry can evolve or even survive if it were only based on that. So the moment of silence was about that.”
Most people, though, will only ever encounter couture through a screen, by watching livestreams of shows or seeing images of red carpet dresses at, say, the Met Gala. Gvasalia himself attended the bash for the first time this September, having dressed Rihanna in a custom black satin faille opera coat reminiscent of Cristóbal Balenciaga’s impeccable work. But when Kim Kardashian West also asked to wear Balenciaga, Gvasalia sought to make a conceptual statement, shrouding her not only in a long, formfitting T-shirt dress with twin trains, but also in a black fabric mask that covered everything but her hair. It was similar to the face coverings she and Kanye West had worn over the summer to the listening parties, for which Gvasalia had designed sets, previewing the release of West’s album Donda. “You couldn’t see her face, but you knew instantly who she was, because this is how celebrity works today,” Gvasalia says of Kardashian West’s star turn at the Met. “Your body is your brand, and you don’t need to have any decoration. It would have been boring for me to put some kind of chandelier on her head.”
Gvasalia also came to the ball completely covered, wearing a similar mask on the red carpet, but for the opposite reason: He did not want to be seen. “I went as the shadow of myself,” he says. Gvasalia started Vetements with friends he met early on while working for Maison Margiela and Louis Vuitton, and although he did not overlap with Martin Margiela himself, Gvasalia followed the famously elusive designer’s example of revealing very little. His anti-fashion stance further burnished his status, or pose, as an outsider, but Gvasalia is, in fact, warm, charming, and accessible. He commutes to Paris from Switzerland, where he lives a quiet life with his husband, the composer Loïk Gomez, and their two Chihuahuas, Chiquita and Cookie.
From left: Ollow, Emmanuel Adjaye.
“It’s very cliché,” he says. “I can travel with them, and they’re so bossy. I admit it’s kind of like the most authoritarian relationship I’ve ever had, with them, my dogs. They literally boss me around every day.”
For the past five years, Gvasalia has also been working to build his confidence, and, lately, to realize the power of gratitude: “I’m paving my spiritual path at the moment, and working a lot on myself, and meditating and doing all these things that basically make you feel good, and feeling the impact of gratitude, saying thank you not only to people, but even sometimes to yourself.” This is also what made Gvasalia give up his summer holidays when West called to ask him to design the sets for his listening parties.
“In general, there are two things that I’ve always loved doing,” Gvasalia says. “Number one is making clothes, since I was 4 years old, and the other is set design. I would create sets at home and have my parents walk through an imaginary world. So when Kanye called, I could not resist that temptation. It’s the kind of friendship, on a creative level, that made me very excited to be able to do something for him from an aesthetic point of view.”
From left: Dennis, Bedzo, Ollow, Awak, Diakhité, Mar.
The thing about masks, though, as Gvasalia learned, is that you can’t see out of them, either. On the steps of the Met, he could make out only silhouettes, and he didn’t know who anyone was most of the time. This is not what he wants anymore. After the couture show, Gvasalia received notes of congratulation from designers like Marc Jacobs and Raf Simons, and even from some who had previously dismissed him—something he thought didn’t matter to him, until it did.
“Having others appreciate my work and my vision, it made me realize how much I needed that,” he says. “I felt like I was coming out of my fashion closet finally, after all these years, and it really felt good. I felt like that shadow until I made couture.”
Hair by Gabrielle Sadé; makeup by Hannah Murray at Art + Commerce. Models: Seth Bedzo at 16 Paris; Elhadji Mar at M Management; Sunmoon at Tigers by Matt; Jibriil Ollow at IMG Paris; Mohamadou Diakhité at Success Models; Mamuor Awak, Quaye Dennis, and Emmanuel Adjaye at Elite Paris. Casting by Madeleine Østlie at AAMØ Casting at CLM. Set design by Anna Sbiera-Paléologue at Swan Management.
Produced by Simon Malivindi and Ugo Dumont at 138 Productions; production manager: Olya Siniakov; lighting director: Paul Burns; photo assistants: Tony Ivanov, Antonio Perricone; Spark: Pierre Corvaisier; gaffer: Quentin Améziane; retouching: Touch Digital; fashion assistants: Marie Poulmarch, Emilie Carlach; production assistants: Dejan Trajkov, Anaelle De Oliviera, Leonardo Specchia, Valentin Ptaux; hair assistant: Sacha Mass; makeup assistants: Jill Joujon, Silène Tonello; casting assistants: Emma Matell, Timoer Nulens; set assistants: Thomas Jardin, Melodie Balan, Mehdi Largo.