Demna Gvasalia Reveals Vetements' Plan to Disrupt the Fashion System
In an exclusive interview, Demna Gvasalia, head of the Vetements collective and newly appointed artistic director of Balenciaga, talks to Imran Amed about a new operating model designed to fix the ‘broken’ fashion system.
PARIS, France— Up until now, much of the attention on Vetements, the design collective led byDemna Gvasalia, has focused on the creative earthquake the brand orchestrated in Paris over the past few seasons, with a product-focused approach rooted in digital culture and a raw, unpolished aesthetic, and buzzy fashion shows held at Le Depot, a famous sex club, and Le Président, an off-piste Chinese restaurant.
But Gvasalia, together with his brother Guram who acts as chief executive, is not stopping at creative provocation alone. Starting this year, they plan to roll out a completely different operating model designed to streamline the production cycle, take advantage of pre-collection timing and elevate the creative output of their fledgling label. Here, we learn how and why they think it is going to work.
Imran Amed: How did you first get interested in fashion?
Demna Gvasalia: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.
IA: But it sounds like you were interested in fashion from the beginning.
DG: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.
IA: How did your training at the Academy shape you as a designer?
DG: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.
IA: What did you work on with Walter?
DG: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.
IA: What was it like to work in that mythical place?
DG: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.
IA: Why is that important to you?
DG: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.
IA: After three and half years at Margiela, you decided to leave. Why?
DG: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 withMarc Jacobs, from the moment I arrived, and then I did two collections withNicolas Ghesquière. 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.
What is not working is the fact that there is no relationship between the creative vision and the commercial vision.
IA: How would you compare their ways of working and what did you learn from those designers?
DG: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.
IA: That’s a pretty fortunate set of circumstances there, working with those designers, in those houses.
DG: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.
IA: Let’s talk about that moment, when Vetements was first seeded.
DG: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.
IA: I have rarely seen a brand gather as much momentum in such a short time. Why do you think that happened?
DG: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.
IA: You expressed a shared sense of frustration with the industry among the wider Vetements team. What types of things were you talking about?
DG: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.
Vetements Autumn/Winter 2015 | Photo: Harley Weir (Courtesy of Vetements)
IA: What do you mean?
DG: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.
IA: How much of that, do you think, came from needing to say something of your own?
DG: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.
IA: Yes, at the end of the day, fashion is a business and you have to create things people can integrate into their lives.
DG:That’s the goal. I mean as a fashion designer, in my opinion, that’s all you want to do. Not to create a fairytale — that’s not reality — but to make that hoodie they want to wear or that dress they need to have. It’s like product design. For me, it’s nothing to do with the conceptual. I mean, fashion used to be like that. It was very conceptual; it was a statement, especially in the ‘90s, which is great and shaped fashion for what it is now. But actually today, the reality is that there is so much stuff available from which you have to choose, that the biggest challenge is to make something that people choose.
IA: In the sea of stuff out there, how do you think people pick what they want?
DG:You can make an amazing dress andembroiderywith high-tech materials and it’s “wow,” it’s really “wow.” Sometimes I see things and I’m like, “Wow, how did they do this?” But then again, is this really important enough? Because, I mean beyond the effect, the actual practicality [matters too]. Being ‘down-to-earth’ with clothing is something I really missed as well. At Margiela, it’s always supposed to be conceptual because that’s the DNA of the brand. AtLouis Vuitton, it was very different. It was a luxurious product and had to be beautifulfabricand the cost — a t-shirt for 1,000 euros — I thought that was crazy.
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.
IA: What do you think of the fashion system today?
DG: What is not working is the fact that there is no relationship between the creative vision and the commercial vision. I think they are very separated, yet they are very dependent on each other, because the commercial vision needs to pay for the creative vision’s existence, in a way.
This dependency creates an unbalanced relationship because the market dictates what creativity needs to do, in order to sell. It tells you we need so and so, five trousers, and 10 dresses — we need this and that. All of this information comes from commercial teams and merchandising. It’s like you have a blank sheet or a collection plan you have to fill out every six months that was given to you by some commercial person, who based their research on previous seasons or on competitor brands that have nothing to do with you.
You have no choice — whether you are the creative director or a designer on the team. You also don’t have time to really analyse and think about what you’re doing. You have to be a machine of ideas that produces new things every three months. The whole industry runs so fast because we need to deliver something new to the store every two weeks so the client isn’t bored. They don’t want to wait for six months, so we have the pre-collection, the pre-pre-collection, and the main collection, which nobody is buying, so it all just ends up on a sales rack.
The creative part needs to be much more in advance of the market, and to offer something that is not out there, to challenge it and to make the market want it.
The whole system just doesn’t work anymore. This whole vicious circle turns and turns at a very fast speed and kills both the creativity and the business. Most of them survive on making bags and perfume at the end of the day. Ready-to-wear, which is the platform and the base of fashion, is really in the shadow today, with a few exceptions.
IA: How does digital play a role in some of these problems?
DG:Digital speeds everything up because the information is available so fast. We can shop online and we see things online and want to have them as soon as possible. You know, there are pre-orders online and people buy things that have never been produced. We didn’t even buy fabrics yet for some of the pieces at Vetements that have already sold out on the online stores, which is quite crazy.
I mean, of course there are good parts. It’s easy to be exposed and you can promote your product and talk to the audience — a larger audience — and transmit your creative message or commercial message. But at the same time it’s very dangerous because it’s very fast and it’s uncontrollable and that’s where I think every brand needs to have some strategy to control that, or some tools to keep it under control, otherwise it’s too risky.
This whole vicious circle turns and turns at a very fast speed and kills both the creativity and the business. Most of them survive on making bags and perfume at the end of the day.
IA: How is Vetements responding to these various challenges?
DG:We are still trying to figure out our way of doing things. From the beginning we agreed that we would only produce two collections a year and we would not engage ourselves into making pre-collections.
At the same time we had to confront fabric deliveries and the whole production chain from having a thread, weaving it into a fabric, making a pattern, making a garment out of it, putting a label on it and selling it to someone. This whole thing is the biggest challenge to us as a young brand.
So going forward, at Vetements we are shifting the seasons and not showing during the main season, but only showing our main collection during the pre-collection timing in June and January, which for us would solve a lot of issues in terms of production cycle.
IA: How do you see this working?
DG:Well, it’s linked to the delivery and timing of the fabric. We now have to wait at least 10 weeks for the production of fabric, which means clothes are being made really late and delivered really late and then their life cycle in the store is so short that there is basically no time to sell them. By showing in March, and delivering the clothes in September, the clothes can only be in store for two or three months before they go on sale.
The idea is to show it in June, after men’s fashion week — between men’s and couture in Paris — and for the winter season at the end of January. This means the collection will be delivered, at the latest, in June, which makes the life cycle of the product in the store much longer. At the same time, it makes it easier for the factories that actually have to produce it.
Another very important factor is that for the stores, the biggest budget they have to spend on the collection is during the pre-collection period, not in the main collection period. About 80 percent of the budget for most of the stores is for the pre-collection timing in January and June.
Vetements Spring/Summer 2016 | Source: Indigital
IA: But this doesn’t address the need of getting the clothes to the customer as soon as possible.
DG:Well, that’s a big problem and pre-production [could be] the answer. But pre-production is also very risky. You need someone to be very good at fore- casting, because it’s not going to be the same clothes they bought last season. You need to predict that because it’s quite an important cash flow issue. You need to provide the fabric beforehand and to do this you need to invest a lot of money beforehand — to take a bet.
I think it’s much easier to do this for companies like Vetements because we’re small even though we have 135 stockists. It’s still a limited quantity that we produce and it’s much easier because it’s quite a direct relationship with the buyers and with the commercial team who can help. So it’s easier to do this when you’re small and you have these kinds of quantities, rather than when you have a big corporate structure where it’s much harder to move things around.
IA: Isn’t it actually easier for a company like Vuitton to do, because they are a vertically integrated retailer, with no wholesale?
DG:That’s true. Once you have your own retail it actually simplifies everything. But by the time you have your own retail, at that scale, it’s really a lot of risk to take. I mean, you really need to make sure it’s a product that works, because at the end of the day, what matters is who buys the clothes in the store.
You can influence your own retail but you can’t influence the people who come in and buy the clothes — so that’s the tricky part. We can take the risk to do partial pre-production, to order two kilometres of fabric that we will use in the season after as well. It’s okay to do that even though there’s some cash flow involved and we spend some extra money that in the normal model we don’t need to spend.
IA: If you decide to do your show between men’s and women’s couture, won’t you be the only one doing a show then? How will you get media attention?
DG:It’s risky. I’ve talked about this with people from the press and they’re worried there would not be enough exposure or enough journalists to come to the show. But at the end of the day, the reason is for people to be able to buy it and have it in their wardrobes, more than being exposed in terms of media. So that’s a priority for us and that’s why we thought we will do it anyway, even if it’s outside of the frame. It’s something that’s right for us.
IA: When will you start working this way?
DG:This season we are doing it as usual and we’re going to show in the beginning of March. We are introducing a men’s collection as well. Due to our aesthetic that has a very masculine origin, we have a lot of male customers that buy our clothes, which are not really made for male customers. We are fitting on girls, we’ve never fitted clothes on guys before. At the end of the day, we decided to do it at the same time as women. So we are going to have a show that is half/half women and menswear. But we are going to show it in March and then the next season will be a big challenge for us, which is a traditional season, and the challenge will be to make the collection in three months to meet our target to do a show in June.
IA: Balenciaga, on the other hand, is one of the most prestigious houses in the world, but it’s part of the old system that you seem to be rejecting. How are you splitting your time between the two?
DG: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.
At the end of the day I have never felt so creatively calm as I do since I started to do both jobs. It’s basically about structuring yourself and surrounding yourself with the right people that you can trust and delegate. That’s how it’s happening for now and I am quite happy with the way it goes. In March it’s going to be quite crazy because I have to do two shows within three days; we’re going to show Vetements on Thursday and Balenciaga on Saturday. So, I only have one day in between which I think is probably going to be one of the craziest times I’ve ever had in fashion. But I am up for it.