And Just Like That, Balenciaga Is Back

Three years ago, Demna Gvasalia realized he was starting to hate his job. He was a designer at Louis­ Vuitton, barely in his 30s, feeding the beast of perhaps the most profitable luxury brand in the world. Not that Gvasalia, who grew up along the Black Sea in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, didn’t count himself lucky. He got to work with Marc Jacobs and then his successor, Nicolas Ghesquière, both creative without bounds. And Gvasalia loved having access to amazingly skilled artisans. That’s why he got into fashion in the first place — he was fascinated by how clothes were constructed. But he found himself questioning the whole structure of the business: The big-concept shows intended to reap publicity and sell handbags. The clothes themselves he didn’t personally care for or think that women would like either.

“I started to ask myself, Why? And who is going to buy this?” Gvasalia, now 34, says. “I mean, the biggest ­compliment for a designer is to see someone wear your clothes. And that’s something I rarely saw.”

Several of his friends in the business shared his frustrations. “We were all so negative, and that’s when we said, ‘Why don’t we do something for ourselves, on the weekends, to be happy?’” he explains. The result was Vetements, a small Parisian label whose name means, simply, “clothing” in French.

The brand quickly attracted admirers for its sly take on everyday items like sweatshirts, jeans, bomber jackets, and blousy floral dresses that looked pinched from a small-town Salvation Army and reworked with just the right amount of design and humor.

A popular hooded sweatshirt from his spring collection that mimics the classic heather-gray Champion of the 1990s is equipped with pockets on both the front and the back. The neckline is engineered so that the hood flips to both sides, resulting in a sweatshirt that has no front or back. It’s a complicated approach to such a basic garment, and the $700 price tag reflects that. But it sums up his approach to design: Take something as common as a sweatshirt and turn it into something desirable without losing its integrity as a practical garment. In the year since Vetements’ first runway show, in a Paris club — observed by Kanye West, among others — the number of stores selling the label has jumped to 130 from 85.

Demna Gvasalia — pronounced DEEM-nah vas-AH-liyah — didn’t stay indie for long. After just three collections of Vetements, he was hired last fall as the artistic director of Balenciaga, one of the most celebrated names in fashion, synonymous with rigorous technique and architectural shapes. His appointment was something of a surprise to the industry, yet it made a lot of sense. After all, his path to Balenciaga began when he started asking the question Cristóbal Balenciaga ­had wrestled with his entire life: What do women want to wear?

Gvasalia’s was easily the most anticipated show of the Paris collections, in part because of the buzz around Vetements and in part because Balenciaga had set the bar for creative fashion for most of the 15 years that Ghesquière was its creative director (he left in 2012). Ironically, Ghesquière left Balenciaga for many of the same reasons Gvasalia started Vetements — including a feeling that the strongest work from the catwalk would never see the light of day in stores. Under his successor, Alexander Wang, the company — with estimated annual revenues of $390 million — continued to grow, according to president and CEO Isabelle Guichot, but it put less focus on ready-to-wear. Last fall, Wang rather quietly stepped down and returned to New York to focus on growing his own brand.

With this season's show, Gvasalia seems ready to return the house to its former position as a fashion front-runner while also getting his clothes off the catwalks and onto real humans — in this case a mix of models and civilians. Held in a large, white windowless television-recording studio, with music done by a French DJ named Clara Deshayes (who was also the model who closed the show), the whole event had an inviting, pulsating, wraparound feel. At times the collection slipped too far into Vetements territory, but Gvasalia managed to dial the luxury up at the end with leather and nutria trench coats. When I noticed that the model who closed the Vetements show last week, a New York artist named Eliza Douglas, also opened the Balenciaga show,  Gvasalia explained that he wanted "to transform the grungy, Jehovah's Witness–type characters at Vetements into the powerful women at Balenciaga." Douglas was that link.

As Guichot told me, “Balenciaga has always been a directional brand with ready-to-wear, and this is where we belong. It’s as simple as that … I think Demna really embraces that philosophy. That’s the way he thinks and creates.”

Guichot first met Gvasalia around the time that he and his friends were starting Vetements. It was a casual encounter, but it left a strong impression, she said. “It’s very rare that I have this kind of moment where I think, I hope I can work with this guy. He was so different in his approach.” Indeed, Guichot sees similarities between Gvasalia and Cristóbal Balenciaga — a comparison that might be regarded as delusional, given that Balenciaga’s approach was so inimitable, and his clothes were so irresistible to women, that Christian Dior called him “the master of us all.”

Guichot might have a point. Gvasalia is unusually committed to the notion of “wardrobe,” an unromantic list of categories — trench coat, peacoat, car coat, and so on. “It’s a very singular approach,” Gvasalia told me in New York. “A parka is a parka. What do we do with that parka for it to be Balenciaga in 2016?” To my surprise and delight, quite a lot. When I saw a finished parka up close in the Paris studio, I was struck by the vaguely tentlike shape, much like the kinds of jackets that Balenciaga did around 1950. Its chin-scraping collar was another Cristóbal touch — a flattering effect on most women. And the coat, in royal blue, could be worn half off the shoulders, mimicking a grand stole. If you zip it closed, the back stands away from the body. And because there’s nylon in the cotton fabric, you can crush and mold the parka as you like. The design is very clever, even elegant in its attitude. Across the back of the collar, in block letters, is stitched Balenciaga — like a skateboard brand.

“My intention is not to make clothes that are completely new, or to be in a museum — as long as something is practical and somebody needs it in her wardrobe, then it makes sense to me,” Gvasalia said. Cristóbal would have hardly disagreed. But in 2016, that notion seems so basic as to be radical. Gvasalia is giving a solution to an industry racked by doubts that it’s “broken” — spewing out products designed to look great on Instagram but that feel like old news by the time they hit the stores six months later.

Gvasalia is serious but not grave, and he speaks rather hurriedly (in five languages), his words broken by a dry laugh. He’s tall, pale, and gangly, with a scruff of beard. The elder son of a Georgian father and a Russian mother, he and his family spent five or six years on the move during his country’s civil war. His family hid in cellars from bombs and rockets. Gvasalia says that, in a perverse way, those moments were fun because the family was all together, talking and playing games. As a teenager in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, Gvasalia remembers, he spent a lot of time in the streets, trying to avoid getting beaten up by various gangs while absorbing a sudden influx of the subcultural influences that made it to Georgia, like goth and raves.

By 15, he knew he wanted to be in fashion, though not because he viewed it as an artistic outlet. He had little access in Georgia to fashion magazines or books. He just liked how regular clothes were cut and sewn. Tellingly, the first designer he discovered on his own was Helmut Lang, who favored classic tailoring with an idiosyncratic fit. (He was also one of the first designers to put nonprofessional models in his shows, which Gvasalia does as well.)

When he was 20, he joined his parents in Düsseldorf, where his father worked importing mineral water and caviar. Gvasalia enrolled in the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, the school that produced the first wave of Belgian designers in the ’80s. He had little understanding of high fashion, but he went to work for the Belgian conceptual brand Maison Margiela, where he spent three and a half years before joining Vuitton. Indeed, ­Gvasalia acknowledges that the Margiela influence — the wit and surprise of ­conventional shapes blown up huge or re-created in a novel way — is stamped on Vetements. 

Today, Gvasalia lives in Paris’s Ninth Arrondissement, on the Right Bank, a popular, diverse neighborhood filled with barbershops, cafés, and cheap clothing stores, like the thrift chain ­Guerrisol, where most items sell for €2. He likes to go there. “For me, observing people in the street is very important,” he says. “In Paris, you have a lot of characters. And those people who might inspire me, I don’t see many of them on the Left Bank,” where Balenciaga’s offices are located. It seems obvious, but, as Gvasalia notes, fashion people are not the best sources of inspiration, because they’re already dressed in fashion. Media exposure tends to rob even the most interesting runway garments of their singularity. So Gvasalia likes to see people who are inventive out of necessity and, more crucially, lack fashion self-consciousness.

He often goes to the Guerrisol near the Barbès Métro stop: “I see the people trying things. They make looks. I find this really fascinating.” After seven years in Paris, and nearly 15 in Western Europe, he is hardly an outsider, but that thinking nonetheless subtly informs his approach to fashion.

At the Balenciaga studio in Paris, Gvasalia says he would use the same design method here as he does at Vetements, “because I’m the same person,” but the products would be completely different. “Vetements has no historical frame. But at Balenciaga, I need to consider the past, take out certain elements, and then apply my methods to it.”

About 60 percent of his collection is outerwear. Gvasalia likes urban-friendly styles (Vetements is loaded with them) and he noted the number of tailored garments in the Balenciaga archive. Perhaps the signature piece in the collection is a brown leather trench coat with a built-in slouch — the shape was inspired by photos of children aping couture poses — that embodies Gvasalia’s quirky way of mashing up high and low. You could see how the shoulder, in profile, was nudged slightly forward and the sleeve was cut on a bit of a curve. When a model put on the trench, the shape didn’t impel her into a slouch, although if she naturally stood that way, it became more extreme.

A man who loved perfection, Cristóbal Balenciaga surely would not have understood the point of giving women bad posture. But then, probably, the whole notion of postmodernism, with its mix of past and present, high and low, ugly and pretty, probably would have escaped him. Gvasalia had the model put on a black wool coat based on a 1952 design, with two pouches of fabric raised near the hips. “It’s very Balenciaga,” he says of the shape, although “the idea was to find a ­modern-day version, so that it does not look like it’s from the archive but speaks to a woman in 2016.”

Gvasalia is using Balenciaga’s tailoring, architectural shapes, and ideas about volume and gravity, but his designers are more accessible to a wider range of body types and ages than Ghesquière’s were. That is certainly a reflection of more democratic times, but it’s more of a reflection of his commitment to seeing his clothes worn. Most women are not a size 0, and they like to move freely.

Before I left his studio, Gvasalia showed me one or two more things. But my mind still lingers on that cropped royal-blue parka, with its ability to strike both a street attitude and a refined pose. It seems a shame, I told him, not to make that parka every season, make it a classic, permanently available in the stores.

Later, backstage at his show and amidst the excited crush, a throng of editors and buyers surrounded Gvasalia as he patiently explained the collection. I said to him, "So, how does it feel now, with all these people here?" He's a star now.

He looked startled, then smiled and said, "But it feels good. I had in my head what I wanted, but yesterday evening when [we worked] on the lineup, I thought, This is exactly it." 

*A version of this article appears in the March 7, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.