What Fashion's Most Controversial Designer Has To Say About The Sweatshirt Trend

Photographed by Pierre-Ange Carlotti.
While the fashion world has been preoccupied for the past few years with numerous stalls and shifts pertaining to designer leadership (Let’s skip listing them all, shall we?), the rest of the world and, yeah, the fashion industry, too, have been taken by one designer and brand in particular: Demna Gvasalia of Vetements. Never heard of Vetements? That’s okay. A few years ago, neither had we. That’s because it didn’t exist. But if you thought Kanye’s takeover of Madison Square Garden was enough to turn this fairly placid industry on its head, that’s nothing compared to the waves Gvasalia and his largely anonymous design collective have been making in recent seasons. The designer and brand are polarizing, and many critics within the industry harbor opposing opinions of the Vetements vision or its viability as a brand. One critical camp believes that a hoodie — the Vetements signature — is just a hoodie, and that charging $1,000 or more for it is an atrocity. The other camp begs to differ; they see that hoodie, as well as Gvasalia himself, as nothing short of visionary.

John Galliano and Alexander McQueen appeared during a time when the fashion industry was snoozing amid widespread, seismic changes to youth culture (with the anti-establishment, overmedicated, and underwhelmed generation of grunge Gen-Xers). For similar reasons, Gvasalia is important today because what he has to say about who we are as people is different from other designers. Those who buy Vetements are the gender-fluid urban youth who don’t differentiate between “men’s” fashion and “women’s” fashion, much less highbrow and lowbrow. It’s a movement that assumes that the established rules are for the past generations, and Gvasalia has made it clear that he doesn’t intend to follow them.

But Gvasalia is as important for what his intentions aren’t as much as for what they are. Amid the praise for his first three collections, there were many people (including us) who criticized his all-white runway casting, pointing to the hypocrisy that the collection was inspired by the poor, urban youth of color he saw frequenting a thrift chain in Paris. His last collection was presented during a winter stained with race-related violence and religion-affiliated acts of terror around the world, and police shootings that highlighted the structural and unconscious racism in America. It had become clearer than ever that “colorblindness” was a false bandage to pretend generations of racial inequality didn’t have lasting impact, and that politics, commerce, and art — when they are good — are one and the same. And it seems that after the think pieces and hot takes, Gvasalia has himself adapted; he retooled his casting strategy during his spring ‘17 collection in July and featured a much more diverse lineup. As a contrast, it’s hard to imagine a member of the old guard, like Rei Kawakubo or Anne Demeulemeester, who’s been similarly criticized about white-washing respond in the same way, and that’s evidence that Gvasalia is something we haven’t seen before.

But no matter what you think, Vetements is the most talked-about brand among a fanbase consisting of communities as diverse as Snapchat-wielding Generation Z teens, nostalgia-obsessed millennials, and cash-rich blue bloods around the world. It’s a brand worn by celebrities as diverse as Kanye West and Celine Dion. It’s hard to put a finger on the reason for its mass appeal, especially considering that the hallmarks of the brand so far — the DHL logo, a Titanic hoodie, deconstructed jeans — seem as high-fashion as a strip mall. But as Gvasalia told us, it might have something to do with the market gap the brand has filled.

I met up with the Georgian-born designer to discuss his new industry-breaking collection, what tickles his creatives senses on a daily basis, what exactly he’s selling, and perhaps most importantly, why people are so hungry to buy it.
Photographed by Pierre-Ange Carlotti.
Why do you feel that Vetements has become so popular so quickly?
"Well, first of all, the internet, because everything is so fast in our digital age. I am always on my iPhone just browsing, or being on Instagram, or Facebook — or on the internet in general. It’s a huge source of information, and I absorb that, and then it's transmitted into the product — whether we want it or not, it is there. If I keep walking the streets in Paris for three days, I would not get as much information as I can get online.

"But I also think it’s the product itself, because a lot of people can relate to it in their own way. The product is relatable, and is shot so much. Everything is so easily exposed today, so it just spreads all over. But I guess I don't really know the reason of this kind of recognition. We didn't count on it, but the fact that it’s happening is amazing for us."

Vetements is one of those brands that’s appealing for people both in the fashion industry and people outside of it. Why do you think that is?
"Sometimes it just seems like, 'Ooh, this is what young people wear!' You know, T-shirts, easy garments that teenagers wear... And once there is a logo or print or something recognizable, people want to have it because [it makes them] part of a group of people. It’s kind of a social message for them. It’s communication: You wear that, and it means you follow certain things, you understood certain things that others don’t. That’s how it works with younger generations."

Do you think it's a special group of people that buys your clothes?
"I feel like they’re all cool and very informed...especially the younger they are! I heard about this group of teenagers in Brooklyn that apparently know everything about Vetements. They know every product, they know which season it’s from, they save up money to buy it… But they do it with other brands, too. They know Helmut Lang, and a lot of things people today are not aware of anymore. I think that they are kind of the über-generation because of all the information that’s available to them.

"It is quite a challenge for them, too. I’ve heard about young guys and girls who really save up money to buy our stuff. They go and look for it on the internet to see if they can find it cheaper, or already worn... I [also] hunt old, vintage Gap on eBay sometimes. But all these ‘90s mainstream brands… Well, I have this big mess [of clothes], which is supposed to be an archive. I’m always buying all this stuff. One day it needs to be all together... It’s a lot of American brands from the ‘90s."
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I grew up in the '90s...the West was the United States.

American brands are a big thing for you?
"I mean, I grew up in the ‘90s. And especially for us Soviets, we were so deprived of information. The U.S. was so far away, and for me, the West was the United States. It was so unapproachable. And then once it opened up, and we could get some pieces of clothing, it was brands like Champion and Gap. These brands really influenced my way of seeing clothes, and, aesthetically it’s what I like.

"Until I moved to Europe, I was very limited in terms of what I knew about art, and culturally, about what was going on. When I was in Belgium at The Academy, I didn’t even know who Antwerp Six was."

One of the Six was your teacher.
"Walter [van Beirendonck] was my teacher and my first employer, actually. I worked with him right after I graduated."

You have a group of people around you who work with you at both Vetements and Balenciaga. Do those people share something in common with you that makes you attracted to them, or what is it?
"We understand each other easily. We talk about what’s good, what’s not good, what’s cool, what’s fresh... This group of people are friends, as well. We don't necessarily only work together. We party together, we go on vacation together, we do things together, and that’s why we have this common language. We understand each other telepathically almost. It’s not the criteria when I choose people for my team or who I work with. It just happens."
Photographed by Pierre-Ange Carlotti.
There’s no doubt Vetements is hyped right now. Are you sometimes nervous that that momentum is going to die out?
"We never looked for hype; hype came to us and hype is probably going to leave. It’s normal in fashion and everything in life. For me, what is important is that Vetements grows as a company and that it evolves. I think this season, for us, was really kind of the end of the first chapter and the beginning of a new one where we have some strategic plans on how to evolve the company. We’re going to start creating lines with different product categories and creating a separate line, which is going to be more radical: It's not going to be all about hoodies and flower dresses, but another level of what Vetements can be aesthetically. Doing this collaboration with all of the different brands, doing the couture calendar and not in the main season, switching the production cycle, and all that — this season gives us the tools we want to use in order to start the next chapter."

I hope it’s affecting [the industry] and not infecting it.

"I hope it’s affecting [the industry] and not infecting it. We wanted to do it for ourselves — there was no ambition of challenging the system or anything like that. For many brands, there’s a necessity of changing the production cycle, because things don't make sense anymore between the fabric delivery, and the fashion shows, and the sales campaigns... We buy summer collections in November and winter in July...that makes no sense to me, so that’s why we personally thought that we need to shift in order to grow properly. It also makes sense in terms of budgets. We are an independent brand. We don’t want to go into financial partnership, so for us, it’s essential to [collaborate]. I think it raises questions, but we are quite small and young, so we are more flexible, which is difficult for a big brand."
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Did you contact the 17 brands to collaborate, or was that something that just happened naturally?
"We were all in a hunt for getting the right email, the right person, everywhere...but I must say it was quite an easy process to getting those collaborations to happen, whatever brand it was.

"Well, a lot of brands do a lot of collaborations, but I think it’s the first time a whole collection is actually a collaboration with so many different brands at the same time. That’s what we tried to show: that collaborations could coexist while still keeping it a Vetements show. There is a certain coherence with the silhouettes, the creative messages...but every product was done by those different 17 brands.

"It was an interesting challenge for both parties. For us, it was really about working with the best manufacturers for specific types of products... If it’s a T-shirt, it's Hanes. If it’s denim, it’s Levi’s. If it's sexy, feminine shoes, it’s Manolo Blahnik. Brioni, it’s the tailoring... For us, it was this idea of using their know-how and their perfection of the products. Because they’ve worked on these products for years and years. We don’t have this know-how at all. For them, the interest was probably to do this kind of challenging project with a young label, so it’s inter-profitable.

"What most of them managed to do with our crazy ideas...sometimes I was like, 'Let’s try it,' and they managed, and that’s quite impressive to me. They’re used to working with a very technical and industrialized process, so you can imagine with Vetements..."

Did you have to send designers to help them?
"Yes. Sometimes we sent designers, or sometimes they came to us. There was a lot of exchange by email or video conferences. It was all the time."

For example, the Reebok track suit — how did you transform those?
"I personally went to see the archives and made the selection of pieces that were interesting for us to work on. But it also happened with every collaborator: We took their existing products, and once the deal was settled and we knew that we were going to do it together, we would start basically destroying things and making them look like Vetements. It was a lot of cutting up, altering, boiling, and burning..."

Do you sketch?
"No. The product comes from a three-dimensional kind of process."

What bores you about the fashion industry?
"All these 'anti-' kind of things, and the idea of 'challenging.' I don’t really care about challenging the industry. I just want to make something that people want to have. That’s all."

That was the concept from the beginning.
"Originally, the concept was not having a concept."

I just want to make something that people want to have. That’s all.

But you just wanted to make clothes that people wanted to wear.
"If people want to wear it, they buy it, which means if you have turnover, your business grows. For me, that’s what fashion should be about.

"I find it quite amusing that the fashion industry raises all these questions in their heads. I never actually thought about it, but I find it quite interesting and positive that a yellow T-shirt with a red print can raise so many questions. But I don't care about answering those questions. We just made a T-shirt for fun, and I think it’s cool. And now every time I see a DHL delivery truck, I think about Vetements, myself!"

What was your reaction to the casting controversy?
"Well…it happened. I understood what it was about. In my mind, I didn't cast by the color of anybody’s skin or origin. Where I come from, this has never really been an issue or a kind of question that you would ask yourself. Subconsciously, this thought [about diversity] was not present. For me, [the casting] was diverse in terms of characters of people and in terms of sexuality.

"But in a world where Donald Trump might be President of the United States, I realize that it’s important that I have this consideration in my mind. And it’s important for the culture I live in and where I work. So, that's why we did a different type of casting this time. And I’m happy about it. All those girls and guys were selected by their character and by their credibility. The way they talk, the way they move... It’s all these factors that are most important to me. I asked all of them, 'Do you like what you’re wearing? Do you feel like you want to wear this?' For me, that's the most important thing. There are no political statements or any kind of statements behind what we do."
September is typically a time when fashion publications definitively tell you what’s in, and what’s out. Fuck that. We’re dedicating the next couple of weeks to celebrate all the iconoclasts, independent thinkers, and individuals with unique personal styles who’d rather say Fuck The Fashion Rules than follow them.
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