“Rule-breaking” is a phrase thrown around in fashion a lot. But who makes these rules? And aren’t rules what fashion is based on?
After all, fashion isn’t just the clothes on your back. -It’s the form of those clothes at a given moment, adhering to certain codes that define them as forward-thinking, as now, as à la mode. Which often, as on a menu, translates simplistically to a lump of something fancy plopped on top of an existing offering, as opposed to tinkering about with the guts or really changing anything. Rules in fashion are made by the industry: the editors, the designers, the corporations who fund the whole thing. And so, genuine rule-breakers don’t come along that often. Fashion enjoys the status quo. It sells clothes, it makes money.
But what if the rules are broken? People have stopped buying clothes with quite the alacrity they used to, and large conglomerates have begun to see their profits slip southward. Designers are fleeing houses after a few short seasons. Plenty of brands, rattled by the instability of luxury markets, are now trying to close the gap between runway and retail, offering goods ever faster to consumers, hoping to whip them into a frenzy of acquisition. There’s a general unease in fashion, to say the least.
And the clothes themselves? They wind up bit players in the Sturm und Drang of it all, overshadowed by financial finagling and designer wrangling, when they should be the focus of the conversation. There is a glut of clothing at every price point, especially in high fashion, where labels proliferate and multiple seasons (spring, prefall, winter, resort, capsules galore) concurrently jostle to justify a seemingly endless influx of clothing.
But how much of that actually connects with what people really want to wear today? How they want to look, maybe even feel? The soft sell, rather than the hard?
It matters, at least, to two. One is the designer Alessandro Michele, who after anonymously toiling away at Gucci for 12 years, was appointed creative director of the 95-year-old Florentine brand in January 2015. In three seasons, the 43-year-old Italian has managed to entirely remake the brand, pulling back from its sexy image to explore a more romantic side.
The other is Demna Gvasalia, a 35-year-old Georgian from the former Soviet Union, who started his Paris fashion collective Vetements in 2014 after working at Maison Margiela and Louis Vuitton, where he became frustrated with the increasing demands of the fashion industry. Six months ago, based on the sheer strength of his fledgling streetwear-based label, he was named the artistic director of Balenciaga, the century-old French house, in a twist that shocked the industry given Gvasalia’s distinct lack of star power — similar to Michele’s out-of-the-backroom appointment. He debuted his first collection for Balenciaga last month to ecstatic reviews.
Relative anonymity is the immediate connection between Gvasalia and Michele, but there’s something deeper at play than the fact that, until 15 months ago, you’d probably never heard of either. Gvasalia’s frustration is quietly mirrored by Michele, who has said that he’d planned to leave Gucci before being surprised with the creative director offer. More than that, there’s a synergy between their approaches to gender lines — ignoring them — and to the runway, which they use to actually show clothes, not just to stage a spectacle.
They both talk frequently, incessantly, about clothes, rather than fashion; about reality, about appealing to, and ultimately dressing, the girl (or guy) on the street.
But their streets are worlds apart. Gvasalia and Michele’s aesthetics are diametrically opposed. Gucci’s embroidered and preciously embellished clothes look like family heirlooms; Vetements’ seem fresh from the trash bag, jumbled and crumpled and intentionally misshapen. Gvasalia’s Balenciaga adds a third element to the mix, focusing on a “couture attitude,” on the way garments are worn and their relationship with the body. These included embroidered evening dresses and strict tweed suits with exaggerated basques, as well as curving parkas and Perfecto-style jackets based on grand opera coats. The architecture of the garments at Balenciaga and Vetements is exciting, innovative.
Incidentally, these “looks,” which have dominated the past decade or so of fashion, are also often strictly proscribed to be photographed for magazines as such, ensuring a singular retail and marketing vision. Both Gvasalia and Michele conceive their garments as individual entities: a great jacket, a great skirt, a good dress, nice shoes. They mix it all together on the runway, but the notion is to pull it apart into individual pieces. Gvasalia even named his label Vetements -because, “it’s really just about that … just clothes,” he once told me.
Together, what they are proposing ideologically is affecting the way other designers think, how they design and subsequently how we all dress. We brought Michele and Gvasalia together three hours after Gvasalia’s Balenciaga debut, and two hours before Michele returned to Rome to begin designing Gucci’s spring 2017 collection. The two had never met before.
It’s interesting getting you to talk together for the first time because what you do is, on the surface, so immediately, incredibly different. Your aesthetics are opposed, and yet there are so many underlying similarities. Alessandro, you’ve spoken to me about strange ideas of beauty; and Demna, you’ve said of Vetements: “It’s ugly, that’s why we like it.”
Alessandro Michele: But ugly is beauty. No?
Demna Gvasalia: I think that beauty is in everything, if you look for it. I mean it’s too easy to say something is classically beautiful. It’s clear for everyone. You don’t need to think.
Michele: A hidden beauty. I was talking with Miuccia [Prada] in Milan, and she told me something really funny, but it was true. She told me: “When I started in fashion, everything was about super-beautiful, aggressive, polished beauty. And I arrived, with these kind of ugly girls. They really criticized me a lot, for years and years.”
Gvasalia: Until they understood.
Michele: Yes, until they understood. “It’s easier for you,” she told me. Because now it’s a bit different. But I think it’s always hard, because when you change the language, they need time…
Gvasalia: To digest it.
Which I suppose is now the same with you coming to Balenciaga. The work of both of you, at Balenciaga and Gucci, is about unexpected sides of those labels. They’ve always been there, but they weren’t as publicized.
Gvasalia: Because it’s a new story, I think. That’s also what makes it exciting. You have a base, this amazing platform, but then you make something new, that works with what was there before.
Michele: I think also that every single designer sees something different in the same brand. I think that creative work is what you see through your eyes. It’s like … when I think about Gucci, I was trying to find the most crazy piece of the company. Because after a lot of years, Gucci for me was, in a way, flat. Without soul. But in the archive you can find a lot of quirky soul. They created a lot of strange kinds of objects. I think that my job could be easy, because we don’t have a ready-to-wear story, so you can invent what you want. It’s just about travel, suitcases, leather goods. But I was obsessed with this idea of the jet set that, honestly, I don’t think exists anymore. I don’t want to talk with something that is completely dead. But now, the street — I’m obsessed, like you, with the street.
Gvasalia: Because it’s also something you see.
And you see it through your filter. I think the normality, in a way, has so many ways of being inspiring. And you can do so much with it actually. With what you see.
It’s challenging, too. How can you make normality interesting?
Gvasalia: And then also clothes that are wearable that people desire. That they say, “I need to have that thing.” I think that’s also something that, somehow … you do a show and then in the store, half of those pieces wouldn’t be there. Which doesn’t make any sense. To really have this kind of honesty.
Traditionally, very little of what designers create for the shows actually winds up in stores for sale. It just exists to be photographed. Is it a vital part of your creative process that the pieces in the runway show will be the bulk of what’s produced to sell?
Michele: Yes. Reality is a huge piece of our work. I think that fashion, for a long time, has been in a prison. Without freedom. I think that without freedom, with rules, it’s impossible to create a new story. I mean, I’ve worked in fashion for a long time — but I understand that after years and years of product, product, product. It’s something that kills everything. Also the market. A product without an idea, a soul, an attitude. If you don’t give people the idea that they belong to a tribe.
Gvasalia: And that’s very much what’s happening now, I think. It’s very much what’s happening with what you do. And in such a short period of time, also. This is quite amazing — it’s -actually a virtue of our time, on one hand, because everything is so fast. People need to belong.
Identifying them, as, well, “We’re part of that.” For me I have this very much at Vetements right now, but at Balenciaga the challenge is to create that. It’s a following in a way.
Michele: You don’t just work with the length of the skirt. Who cares? Now, I think nobody cares. We’ve seen every length of skirt … I think that you have to give something different. And the most important thing now is also to give a real attitude to fashion. Because people want you to suggest the idea that you can really put together and create a personal point of view. You have to belong to a brand that has a story, because obviously a brand needs an aesthetic. But you need also to suggest the idea of freedom. Because when you go in the street, people are free to do what they want. There are no rules.
I think it’s interesting that you both talk about attitude.
Gvasalia: That is such a key element I think. You know, when you see someone wearing Gucci — you know that she’s a Gucci woman. It’s so visual.
There’s also that idea that sometimes someone wears it who maybe … doesn’t have the right attitude.
Gvasalia: But it makes her have it. And I think that’s why they want it also, because they want that attitude. That look. That maybe they don’t have.
Demna, do you find it difficult to think in doublespeak, to have an attitude for Vetements and an attitude for Balenciaga?
Gvasalia: It helps me. At the beginning it was like, okay, it’s going to be like Jeykll and Hyde and I’ll go crazy. But I must tell you, having those in-between moments — it’s like cold and hot showers. I go back and I forget about that day I spent at Balenciaga. It freshens me. For me, it really helps, creatively.
It’s interesting that in your work you’ve both collapsed the idea of trends. Does that whole idea of seasonality matter?
Gvasalia: In terms of temperature? [Laughs] That’s a bit confused! We deliver puffer jackets in June — and I really don’t know people who buy puffer jackets in June, unless they’re a fashion victim. I think that doesn’t work. But seasons — the continuation, the consistency — is important. Especially when you’re re-establishing or redefining the identity of a brand. I think there you really need to kind of hammer that. In -slightly different ways, fresher, etc. But I think it’s necessary to have that. So it doesn’t look like a design exercise, every six months. I think in the ’90s there were a lot of brands who did that. I know Margiela did it. Every six months, it had to be a new concept. Otherwise it’s not strong enough. And the concept had to be so strong. It’s not relevant anymore.
Gvasalia: Because people look for a kind of individuality. They don’t want to look like a campaign picture. They choose. At the end, maybe they end up [like that] but it’s their decision, of how they want to stand out. Because we’re so globalized and everything is so out there right away. I think there is this desire and need for being a bit different. That’s why the individuality matters much more.
Alexander Fury is a features writer for the New York Times.