Demna Gvasalia and I meet in the metaverse, in a glazed conference room in an unnamed city. Although the buildings point to Singapore via the Jetsons.
“This is kind of trippy,” said the avatar, otherwise known as the creative director of Balenciaga, after materializing in the room. “What am I wearing?” What jacket? I bet it’s not too big. “
He wore a black warm-up jacket and a black T-shirt, with a silver chain around his neck, gold hoops on both ears, a black baseball cap and a five-hour shadow. In other words, he looked like a real-life designer, who usually wears all black, a baseball cap and hoops – although the hood may not have been as bulky as he would have liked, and his skin had the eternal perfection of a cartoon, even though he is 40 years old.
My outfit, on the other hand, obviously left something to be desired.
“Did you choose your avatar?” – Demna asked (as he is now officially known; no last name). I allowed myself to have it, but there were limited clothing options, most of which seemed straight from Talbots or Topshop. “Wear a blue polo with three buttons,” Demna said. And she giggled. Then he waved his hands in front of his face a few times as if he couldn’t quite believe they were there. “I have to get used to this,” he said.
In reality, Demna was in Paris, in the offices of Balenciaga where he spends a week a month. (The rest of the time is at home outside Zurich, with her husband, Loïck Gomez, their two chihuahuas, their Cookie and Chiquita, and his Princess Diana porcelain collection.) I was in Brooklyn.
And the avatar interviewed me face to face in cyberspace, just hours after Balenciaga’s Fall 2022 show was revealed on the brand’s website as a wormhole traveling through time to an imaginary Balenciaga show from the 1990s, recorded on VHS tape , as an artifact from an alternative past.
During the pandemic, fashion talked a lot about disorders and changes in the system and a new beginning. But few designers have actually accepted the opportunity for creative destruction and reinvention like Demna.
Last year, just after creating the VR show experience as well as the game, “Afterworld: The Age of Tomorrow,” Demna made the Balenciaga collection for Fortnite, an epic video game; dedicated the catwalk show to the notion of clones in which one model wore each outfit, some of which “hacked” into Gucci’s sister brand (after Gucci “hacked” Balenciaga) “stole” (though with permission) his most recognizable designs and their reinterpretation; drew a rush on the guests turning a fake red carpet into a fashion show; and presented the Simpsons x Balenciaga cartoon about the transformative power of fashion as shown by its effects on people in Springfield, who generally did not care about the French fashion house.
On the subject: He also reintroduced fashion in Balenciaga after a 50-year absence, although he made it for both men and women, pouring elegance on the building blocks of basic wardrobe – T-shirts, jeans, bathrobes – and turning them into Clothing for making entrances. ; went to the Met Gala for the first time, with Kim Kardashian; extended the Balenciaga family to Justin Bieber, Elliot and Isabelle Huppert; and (at a time of downtime) was the creative director of Kanye West’s listener experiences the size of Donda Stadium in Atlanta and Chicago.
He thus established Balenciaga as the brand that most effectively channeled the complicated tension between technology and nostalgia, elitism and affordability that defined 2021. It is now the third largest brand in the Kering luxury group’s portfolio, after Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent, according to François-Henri Pinault. to President and CEO Kering.
An underground step out of Georgia in the former Soviet Union, which gained its name in the Vetements, aggressively pushing its nose towards the establishment and all its pretensions, suddenly became its prophet. There is a reason why, when Facebook rebranded, the brand he tweeted for fashion tips on what to wear in the metaverse was Balenciaga.
Behind the mask
Even Demna, who says he is his own worst judge – “that’s what my therapist thinks” – admitted that this year was a turning point. “A new era,” he said. Mr. Pinault called it his “second chapter.”
The first chapter covered five years after he took over Balenciaga, although the introduction included an escape to Dusseldorf from Georgia with his family during the country’s civil war; Master’s degree from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp; works in the design teams of Maison Martin Margiela (his biggest influence) and Louis Vuitton; and in 2014 he founded Vetements with his brother Guram as a “design team”.
In just one year, Vetements has attracted enough attention from the fashion industry for Demna to win one of its most coveted awards, the Balenciaga design bridle, an appointment that has caused cries of shock! horror! among critics who dismissed him as a streetwear designer who somehow sneaked into Cristóbal’s temple.
He arrived in 2015, after a brief tenure by Alexander Wang, who took over the leadership of the house after Nicolas Ghesquière, whose 15-year rule brought Balenciaga back on the fashion map, and has been constantly reworking it ever since. (He left Vetements in 2019 to focus entirely on Balenciaga.) He established a basic vocabulary of shapes, such as a batter’s shoulder and an incised waist, inflatables ripped from the shoulder to create a semi-sloping silhouette and draped stocking-cum jersey body. -evening dresses.
He took objects from everyday life – motorbikes, Crocs, Ikea bags – and treated them as fetish objects. He made sneakers as important as a handbag. He accepted all ages and genders, angular and unusual. And he flirted with shows as impressive, sometimes apocalyptic experiences. But the transformation progressed rapidly during the pandemic.
At the beginning of the isolation, when the offices were closed and everyone was sent home, Demna went in her pajamas. “I was really wondering what the point was,” he said. Dressing pulled him out.
“I basically had a fashion week with me,” he said. “I have never worked so hard on my personal appearance. Several times I would make a look that I would never dare to wear normally: super metal or goth or something completely tight, although I never wear tight clothes in my life because I have problems with my body. ”
Doing all that, he said, “joy, playfulness of fashion, really made me understand how much I love fashion and how much I love my job. My mission is to give people the best ingredients they can to create your own character and have fun with it. That is what fashion is. I can’t do anything better than that. “
Keeping the space away from fashion also let him get rid of his own imagination; it freed him to move through the whole story of Balenciaga – its archive, its past, its future – to explore and experiment as he saw fit. Meditation also helped.
“Walking dogs in the woods gives us our craziest ideas,” said Mr. Gomez, who is named BFRND. “He has that feeling now you can go forward in any direction.”
And not only does he make clothes – the clothes don’t change much from season to season – but also social criticism. The “Clones” collection for spring 2022 is a commentary on the way influencers, fast fashion and sneakers have flattened self-expression everywhere. “Red Carpet” for the summer of 2022 commented on celebrities and social networks. The 90s collection for the fall of 2022 was a commentary on nostalgia for a time when connectivity was not of a technological nature. The point is to force people to reconsider their own choices.
This is also the point of his friendship with Mr. West. The two have known each other for six or seven years, but about two years ago they developed an intense connection with messaging and WhatsApp, which culminated in the “Donda” shows.
“I have something with Ye that I don’t really have with other people, where anything is possible,” Demna said. “For me, talking to him is like going back in time to an eight-year-old man who doesn’t have all these barriers and filters. We spent about two and a half hours talking about buttons. Such conversations help me evolve as a designer because I think, ‘Yeah, why do we do it like this? Why buttons? Why packaging? ‘ I’ve never thought about it before. “
He also spends a lot of time messaging with Alessandro Michele, Gucci’s creative director. They have known each other since they took over their brands. After the shows, they send each other notes and talk about it once a month. As for Mr. Michele, this is the year when Demna really “found his voice”. Mr. Gomez agrees. “He realized that he should not make any concessions,” he said.
As Demna puts it: “I stopped being afraid and listening to the voice in my head. I stepped out of my designer closet and finally accepted my identity. ”
It’s part of the one-name thing. “I’m Demna, that’s all,” he said. “I have never dared to do that before. Now I have the confidence to say, ‘Demna is enough.’ “
The Everything Platform
If last year’s confection shows were a conceptual step forward, fashion was an aesthetic milestone. Demna used the oldest, most elite form of fashion to convey unpretentious modernism, dismissing claims that products like haute Ikea bags and Crocs stilettos were an easy, if not cheap, trick. (They are a trick in a way, but a trick with a point that has to do with challenging notions of value and authenticity.) It turned out that he could make a pattern, but also observe it.
Couture also brought Demna to the Met Gala, a kind of celebrity event he had previously avoided. Ms. Kardashian was his companion, and they wore matching black from head to toe, so they both looked like shadows of themselves. While her comment was on her ubiquity as a symbol of the age of social media, a kind of cameo silhouette for the 21st century, his was a mask.
“I don’t believe fashion has to be different every time to be exciting,” Demna said. “I believe that if I work on an oversize jacket from season to season, it just evolves and gets better. But the moment I feel comfortable, I want to go somewhere else, and what pulls me out of my comfort zone is going to public events. That’s why I wore a mask. I felt so uncomfortable having my own pictures that I would not like and that I could never get rid of. ”
The experience directly inspired the show on the red carpet, in part because it forced him to rethink our assumptions about fame and who qualifies. He loved that later some of his models, who were otherwise unknown, were treated with the same frantic enthusiasm as ASAP Rocky.
And that turned Ms. Kardashian, who said she was nervous at first about covering her face (which had to do with her place in the world and, she said, couldn’t see the stairs well), into something of acolyte Balenciaga. “I started falling in love with everything,” she said, and has since worn Balenciaga for most of her big public appearances, including the host of “Saturday Night Live” and announcing that she had passed away California Baby Exam.
“I had the Balmain era, I had the Givenchy era, and this is my Balenciaga era,” she said. “When I wear clothes designed by Demna, I feel cool. I feel that whatever I wear, everything will be fine, because he designed it and he is the best. ”
Mr. Pinault believes Balenciaga is ready to be the next “megabrand”. It has already crossed the billion-euro revenue line, he said, and is moving very close to two billion. Cédric Charbit, CEO of Balenciaga, called it “a platform where anything is possible”.
Now the challenge, Demna said, is “to understand what we want to become?” How far do we want it to go? ”
How far do it do they want to pass? In the metaverse, the avatar Demna stared brightly through the false windows of the conference room. “Everywhere,” he said.