Balenciaga’s Demna Gvasalia Is Changing What We Consider Fashion

By transforming mundane objects into luxury goods, he’s reinventing a venerated fashion house — and how we dress
(Zé Otavio for The Washington Post)
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On a Sunday morning during Fashion Week, in the northern Paris suburb of Saint-Denis, glamour was pushed aside. Inside a black box of a production studio, where fashion’s elite had come in search of a revelation, the air smelled of asphalt and diesel exhaust. Black plastic chairs lined the perimeter of the darkened room in which the only sound was hushed conversation.

When the show began, lights flashed on only intermittently, making it impossible to get a clear and sustained look at the clothes on the Balenciaga runway. But then long, lingering looks at other people’s clothes are not how things work in real life, and the designer of these garments, Demna Gvasalia (DEM-nah vas-AH-liyah), is very much focused on reality.

(Zé Otavio for The Washington Post)

The mood in the audience was a mixture of optimism and trepidation. If history was a guide, Gvasalia would surely transport his guests to someplace new. But as much as fashion craves fresh ideas and unfamiliar experiences, the unknown always comes freighted with a bit of fear.

Gvasalia sent 100 ensembles for men and women whizzing around his giant black square. Bright white strobe lights, red lights, disorienting lights bounced off the room’s low ceiling, and the models passed in and out of the darkness like commuters weaving through a chaotic city. “It wasn’t about seeing every detail,” Gvasalia said later. “It was about creating this energy.”

The models swept close enough to the audience that the encounter felt vibrant and human, but their pace remained brisk and their demeanor distant. The models — some with glowing red contact lenses and wearing coats with dramatically hunched backs, blazers with inflated shoulders, and dresses and shirts suspended from some interior hoop — looked as though they had come from sometime in the future. Not some inconceivable, far-off century, but from a decade hence. Gvasalia isn’t a dreamer imagining a world of flying cars and teleportation. He’s a realist just trying to see around corners.

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Gvasalia grew up in Georgia in the former Soviet Union during a time of war and became artistic director of Balenciaga in 2015 — the brand’s third creative lead since its resurrection in 1997. He has a bass-heavy, gravely voice but speaks with the sharp, quick cadence of a snare drum. His accent is pronounced but vague — Eastern European with a dash of British and a good helping of nonspecific globalism.

He has dark, hypnotic eyes, a neatly trimmed beard and a buzz cut. He is handsome but tends to pose for photographs like he’s submitting to a mug shot. He wears loosefitting clothes, mostly in shades of black, faded gray and washed denim. He likes hoodies and baseball caps and seems personally committed to clothing as camouflage.

At 38, he’s technically trained; he duly apprenticed. But he’s that rare designer who’s uninterested in reinventing fashion history. He isn’t going to give you prairie dresses or horsy culottes. He has ignored the rage for sparkly minidresses inspired by trust fund kids who wear their privilege like a burden. And he is certainly not going to weave a fanciful tale about some exiled Russian princess who fled to New York with nothing but a sack of jewels.

His stories are about life in the darker corners of Paris — the shadowy otherworld where hope and desperation converge. His work can be existentially pessimistic and fatalistic, but also deeply appreciative of acquisitive consumer pleasures. He tells an immigrant’s tale full of insecurities, delight in the mundane and a can-do, make-it-work chutzpah.

Balenciaga’s fashion show in Paris in September. (Jonas Gustavsson/MCV)

“I loved clothes since I was very, very small. My mother didn’t have fashion; like she didn’t have a wardrobe or something, so I used found objects as my way of playing fashion when I was a kid,” he says. “I think that kind of evolved, basically, since then. It became part of my creative approach, really, and that’s why for me it was never possible … to look like everybody else, to work with themes or [make] an Alice in Wonderland collection.”

“I was doing things out of curtains. I was improvising,” he explains. “I could take an armchair and turn it into a parka. That was my way.”

Almost every aspect of Gvasalia’s work is jarring to the eye. All of it is precisely considered and often a reflection of something quite personal. It’s not meant to be provocative, he says; but it is meant to disrupt. It’s meant to change everything, and it very well may. His work has already influenced the way people dress. Now it’s altering the way we think about fashion as a whole.

François-Henri Pinault, the French billionaire who owns Balenciaga, approvingly sums up Gvasalia’s fashion conceit as “taking the banal and elevating it.” Unlike past designers who have been inspired by mundane objects, Gvasalia quite literally remakes them — using luxury materials. He assigns heightened value to, for example, the nylon totes of the displaced and in doing so directs our gaze — if only momentarily — to people who are substantively ignored. His models are not classically beautiful; they often look preternaturally encumbered and just plain exhausted. And his clothes — at their best — celebrate 21st-century technology rather than 19th-century craft. His work can seem ugly at first glance, but ugly is always more interesting than pretty.

The designer is not just refreshing what historians once considered the greatest haute couture house of them all. He’s redefining luxury and recalibrating status. And in the process, he’s kicking up a storm of controversy and admiration.

“It’s fashion you want to see — fashion that makes you think differently and that challenges you. To have someone come along who does that, it takes a while to get used to it. It took me a while to understand,” says Andrew Bolton, the Wendy Yu curator in charge at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute. “There are certain designers that change the course of fashion, and I’ve felt like he’s done that in the last few years. He changed fashion.”

A piece from Balenciaga's spring/summer 2019 ready-to-wear collection. (Jonas Gustavsson/MCV)
Pieces from Balenciaga's spring/summer 2019 ready-to-wear collection. (Jonas Gustavsson/MCV)
Pieces from Balenciaga's spring/summer 2019 ready-to-wear collection. (Photos by Jonas Gustavsson/MCV)

From the beginning, Gvasalia was thinking about upheaval. “Fashion cannot look back. It only has to look forward,” he says. “Once it starts to look back, it’s a kind of suicide.”

The first ensemble Gvasalia ever sent down the runway for Balenciaga in March 2016 was worn by the model Eliza Douglas. At about 6 feet tall with ivory skin and long brown hair parted down the middle, she was not quite homely, but not glamorous either. In a singular statement of realism, she wore her own silver-rimmed, slightly nerdy glasses — not fashion glasses, functional ones.

He wanted the model to be a thunderclap to the senses: “When I saw Eliza, I thought immediately that it was her, not only because of how tall she is and how she looks really impressive and she’s very beautiful. But it’s maybe because of the way she talks, the way she walks and moves her body. It’s her attitude that for me was, okay, this is the woman that I want to represent my vision. And she wears glasses.”

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“I remember,” he says, “we’re sitting and having this conversation, and I said, ‘She has to keep the glasses because that’s how she feels comfortable. She has to be the most confident.’ And she feels the most confident with her glasses.” Douglas also wore a salt-and-pepper skirt with a side slit, along with a matching jacket that was molded around her body like a houndstooth shell.

Bolton acquired the suit for the museum’s permanent collection. “There’s something so assertive about it. It has a really, really powerful and effecting presence,” he says. “There is no self-doubt. It’s persuasive. There’s a rhetorical element to his work that I find really, really beguiling.”

In his short time at Balenciaga, Gvasalia has designed a wardrobe’s worth of thought-provoking clothes. His hourglass-style coats and blazers derive their sculptural shape from 3-D body scans and printing. He also likes oversized silhouettes that, depending on the angle, can make the wearer look fierce and imposing or small and overwhelmed. Upon occasion, Gvasalia has weighed his models down with so many layers that they resemble the homeless enrobed in their life’s possessions. And one of his most memorable garments, a voluminous, bright red puffer coat that looked as though it was slipping off the shoulders, sparked a rash of look-alike jackets.

Gvasalia obsesses over the shoulder line of garments, dropping the shoulders of a shirt or a coat backward as if the wearer has been caught undressing. Or pushing it forward to create a silhouette that evokes hyper-alert ferocity.

Despite resolutely leaning forward, Gvasalia acknowledges that his emphasis on shoulders is one of two through lines to the house’s early days and its founder. The Spanish-born Cristóbal Balenciaga, who established his signature house on Avenue George V in 1937 and closed it in 1968, was a “master of illusion,” wrote the late fashion historian Richard Martin. He “projected ideal garments, but allowed for human imperfection.”

The master was known for his chemise — a dress that hung straight from the shoulders with very little waist delineation — the tunic, and a suit featuring a narrow skirt and a boxy jacket. “He focused on shoulders a lot, as it is the only place where you can actually hold a Balenciaga on,” Gvasalia says. “Back then, the clothes were not so body-conscious. They weren’t fit on the body; they would need to hang on something.”

“We always start with the shoulder line when we do tailoring or coats,” he notes. “It’s like: Okay, what do we want to do this time? Is it the round shoulder? Is it the raglan? There’s always this list of shoulder-line options, and then how can we do a new one?”

“It creates such an important line in the human silhouette,” Gvasalia explains. “It can give confidence in visual terms; it can give us almost a kind of scary or tense or menacing silhouette; or it can be soft and, you know, round and feminine.” The shoulders he created for fall are round and high — little centimeter-tall hills that gracefully frame the neck.

The second point of connection between Gvasalia and Cristóbal Balenciaga is their mutual fealty to the quotidian. The couturier admired the utilitarian clothes worn by the fishermen in his small Basque hometown and reinvented those garments in the atelier. One of the most memorable examples was his embrace of the vareuse, a short, simply constructed shirt. “It’s taking something that doesn’t really have a value — because it’s kind of a cheap garment; it’s a uniform of fishermen and their crew — and making a couture piece,” Gvasalia says.

The Ikea-inspired bag was introduced in the men’s spring/summer 2017 collection. (Courtesy of Balenciaga)
The Triple S sneaker, from Balenciaga's men’s fall/winter 2017 collection. (Courtesy of Balenciaga)
Left: The Ikea-inspired bag was introduced in the men’s spring/summer 2017 collection. Right: The Triple S sneaker, from Balenciaga's men’s fall/winter 2017 collection. (Photos courtesy of Balenciaga)

In today’s world, turning an admiring eye to the mundane and repackaging it is considered nothing short of societal heresy. Consumers who could barely pronounce Gvasalia’s name and who had no intention of ever buying anything beyond the realm of Walmart were agitated by the $2,000 blue leather shopping tote he created that was modeled after a $1.49 Ikea plastic one.

The carryall was lampooned online and reported on by gobsmacked journalists from CNN to the Dayton Daily News — writers who typically gave the fashion industry as a whole little more than a glance but felt compelled to document the bag’s mere existence. It was as though some social order had been upended. Was this — this gussied-up version of a utilitarian bag — what we are supposed to aspire to? Was Gvasalia mocking the poor or baiting gullible consumers? Was he cheapening luxury or redefining it? Every critic had a different answer.

“It actually comes from my personal story. I used, a lot, the actual [Ikea] bag in my student time,” Gvasalia says. “I always thought how great would it be to have the same thing, but in a beautiful, luxurious bag.”

“If I had ever known that the effect of this bag would be the way it was, I would maybe have the double thoughts about doing it,” he says. “I never really intended to provoke some kind of reaction or question what is it, a luxury product.” For him, it was just a great bag — with a cheeky provenance.

He further riled consumers with his Triple S sneakers, which achieved, in some quarters, the cult status and elusiveness of an Hermès Birkin. The shoes were a visual assault — a layer cake with an enormous footprint and a disconcerting lack of aerodynamics.

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Gvasalia made sneakers because every luxury brand has sneakers. They are the 21st-century equivalent of the “it” handbag, which once served as an aspirational entry point — one that didn’t discriminate based on hip circumference or midsection spread — to the majesty of a designer lifestyle.

“I thought if there is one element [a] Balenciaga [sneaker] needs to have is a [strong] silhouette. That’s what Balenciaga stands for me,” Gvasalia says. “Triple S is because we cut up three different, old sneakers in pieces and piled them up together.”

“And then Triple S became that commercial success that we didn’t expect,” he notes. “We were not really very ready to supply the demand that we were actually getting. … Everybody asks us, even the driver, like the Uber driver, asks me, ‘So when is there a new sneaker coming out?’ ”

The Triple S, the quintessential dad sneaker, has been held up as one of the key instigators of the ugly-fashion movement. It has been discussed and dissected in publications from the Paris Review to Vogue. The Triple S even elicited an outraged Instagram post from the normally civil designer Ralph Rucci, who lamented what Balenciaga had become: “I cannot tolerate this any longer. … they have taken his name and have conveniently used [it] as a springboard for such mediocrity, such tastelessness, such ugly ideas. Without balance, respect for proportion, without quality, without integrity— just the whorish greed to sell a gym shoe, a t-shirt, a back pack. Enough.” Rucci later deleted his remarks, but only after they had rippled through popular culture, garnering more than 1,000 likes.

Gvasalia is content to let the Triple S burn itself out. But he is also the consummate merchant. (He studied economics before becoming a designer.) So there will be another sneaker. Perhaps not a big, marshmallow style. The next one may be an expression of compressed volume — a sneaker with all of the air sucked out. But it will not be an intentionally ugly sneaker, because Gvasalia does not aim for ugly. Ever.

“I cannot feel the ownership or responsibility, for example, for ugly sneakers or whatever they call it. I cannot feel that responsibility because I truly do not consider Triple S as an ugly sneaker,” he says. “I don’t like ugly things. Like, I don’t know who came up with that. I actually love beautiful things; but I maybe try to see beauty in other things that are not conventionally considered as beautiful today.”

Demna Gvasalia, pictured here in a self-portrait, was named Balenciaga's creative director in 2015. The storied label is based in Paris, but Gvasalia prefers to live in Zurich, where he can escape the fashion vacuum and breathe. (Demna Gvasalia for The Washington Post)

Gvasalia has not been influenced by other creative souls as much as he has found validation in them. He describes himself as a guy who was flexing his imagination in the wilderness until he found kindred spirits who made him feel that his work was legitimate and thus worth pursuing.

Some observers trace his interest in big, bold shapes to his time working at Maison Margiela, where he was immersed in the brand’s philosophy of fashion as conceptual art: The idea takes precedence over the beauty, comfort or even function of the finished product. Oversized silhouettes were part of founder Martin Margiela’s core vocabulary.

But for Gvasalia, bigness was part of his childhood. “I wore leftovers of my rich, grown-up cousins and my brother. Everything was oversized. Even if my parents would buy me clothes, they would buy it for three years in advance so I could wear the same thing while growing,” he says. “I always wore clothes like that and also because I had kind of issues with confidence in my body and physique when I was a teenager. So I tried to hide myself.”

“Then,” he says, “I discovered, in post-Soviet Georgia, hip-hop culture, with my friends. I was like, yeah, yeah. It was beginning of the ’90s; half of my friends were listening to Tupac. We were trying to imitate that style.”

Gvasalia is defensive on this subject because the fashion industry loves to debate who invented this, who popularized that and who owns an idea. And in the age of social media, there is a lively game of gotcha, in which online detectives, led by the Instagram account Diet Prada, are on watch for anything that resembles something else. Gvasalia has been accused of, if not outright theft, then liberal borrowing and cultural appropriation.

I don’t like ugly things. ... I maybe try to see beauty in other things that are not conventionally considered as beautiful today.
Demna Gvasalia

“Before Margiela ever was in my life, there was the oversized part of my wardrobe. It just enhanced it obviously by being there. I said, ‘Well, look, actually it’s okay to wear a huge jacket. Somebody made fashion out of it,’ ” Gvasalia says. “And then I come to Balenciaga and I see the archive here and I think: Well, maybe Margiela was not the first with oversized because maybe Cristóbal Balenciaga was the first.”

Indeed, Gvasalia questions whether anything is actually original. Or if every idea flows from another one, feeds on it and, ideally, blossoms into something new. Copying is verboten, Gvasalia says. But “you can see somebody else’s work and use it, transform it with your work. That’s what designers have been doing since fashion design exists as a concept.”

“Of course there are inventions here and there, but everything defines everything else. I mean Napoleon’s military uniforms still define collections. That there is no referencing in fashion is an illusion, I think,” he says. “I’m just the one who talks about it and who does it openly, and is not really ashamed of talking about appropriation being the source of inspiration.”

That willingness was emboldened by conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp, who died in 1968, is best known for putting common objects into the context of art. In 1917, he famously submitted an upside-down urinal, labeled “Fountain,” to an art show in New York. Duchamp is having a fashion moment. Virgil Abloh, the designer of Louis Vuitton menswear and of his own label, Off-White, recently told the New Yorker: “Streetwear in my mind is linked to Duchamp.” He added, “It’s this idea of the readymade” — a term the artist used to describe ordinary, manufactured goods that he signed, titled and then declared art.

Gvasalia references Duchamp in explaining his penchant for fetishizing throwaway items like car air fresheners, fanny packs and shopping bags. It’s how Gvasalia further explains his Ikea bag to critics and how he has come to make sense of his own aesthetic obsessions: “It actually kind of justified me to myself — understanding Duchamp.”

Designers have long been inspired by artists and have even directly collaborated with them. Marc Jacobs worked with Richard Prince and Takashi Murakami. Raf Simons partnered with Sterling Ruby and the Andy Warhol estate. But the Duchamp relationship seems different. It’s a philosophical connection rather than a material one. The artist offers Gvasalia a timely, new way to connect to consumers just as the culture is upending presumptive hierarchies, rethinking who holds the reins of power and questioning hidebound definitions of beauty and gender. This is an era of “why,” instead of “how.”

“People love to be in a space which they know and are comfortable with. The models have to look like that; the luxury bag has to be like that,” Gvasalia says. “I thought, ‘Why does it have to be like that?’ I think that it can be different. And I think with time we can question those things.”

Gvasalia’s tenure at Balenciaga has been impressive but also rocky, from indictments over his creative process to the brand’s treatment and choice of models. The company was cited by activists for its poor working conditions during model casting calls, a charge that led to greater oversight by parent company Kering. And he was personally berated on social media for the lack of diversity on the runway at his debut, a lapse that was particularly jarring given his use of gritty realism as his calling card. As a proponent of nontraditional casting — friends, acquaintances, eccentric-looking strangers — he aims to mimic the untouristed streets of Paris. Yet there were no models of color in his fall 2016 show.

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“This is an issue that I never thought about,” Gvasalia says. “I’m ashamed to say that. But on the other hand, I cannot be ashamed today of that because of things that I learned. Because I just didn’t know. That’s what I can say. And maybe for a lot of people in the West, it sounds a little bit like, well, ‘How come you didn’t?’ I pretty much realized that my not thinking about casting diversity in that situation was linked to the fact that I just didn’t have that in my upbringing. And this is something that made me learn.”

“It was really probably something that needed to happen, for me to learn,” he explains. “Since then, you know, it has been a very important part of my casting.”

And of course, not everyone has loved the clothes that those models have been wearing. But they can’t be ignored. “You may not like it. You may not agree with it. But it works. I’ve come to appreciate it,” says Daniella Vitale, president and chief executive of Barneys New York. “In today’s world, I have to speak to customers who move faster than I do, who move faster than the core Barneys customer.”

Part of Balenciaga’s fall/winter 2019 collection. Gvasalia obsesses over the shoulder line of garments. The shoulders of this coat create a silhouette that evokes fierceness. (Jonas Gustavsson/MCV)
Balenciaga’s fall/winter 2019 collection has a futuristic look. (Jonas Gustavsson/MCV)
Left: Part of Balenciaga’s fall/winter 2019 collection. Gvasalia obsesses over the shoulder line of garments. The shoulders of this coat create a silhouette that evokes fierceness. Right: Balenciaga’s fall/winter 2019 collection has a futuristic look. (Photos by Jonas Gustavsson/MCV)

Gvasalia was born in Sukhumi on the Black Sea. As a child, he and his family fled violence there and moved to the Georgian capital of Tbilisi and then Düsseldorf. Gvasalia went on to study fashion at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, Belgium, and when he came to Paris, he worked at Margiela and then Louis Vuitton.

In 2014, he and his younger, business-minded brother, Guram, founded Vetements, which they continue to run. It is one of the most influential independent labels in the industry. Vetements is highly personal and almost abrasively subversive. An early Vetements collection famously included a DHL T-shirt that sold for about $300. Jeans constructed from recycled denim cost more than $1,000 and regularly sell out.

The audacity of Vetements made the fashion industry hyperventilate in admiration, and it turned Demna into a star. “Did I understand Vetements when it first launched? No. But I could see how influential it was to a certain consumer base,” says Vitale, who traipsed to a seedy sex club in Paris to see the collection. “He tapped into that [energy] very, very quickly. We need that today.”

In addition to a sex club, Gvasalia has shown Vetements in a dingy Chinese restaurant and a church. In July 2018, the collection was unveiled along the outskirts of Paris in an area populated by migrants. It told an impressionistic story of Gvasalia’s early years as a child of war with references to camouflage, bullets, cultural aggression and grueling survival.

Similar philosophical threads run through Vetements and Balenciaga, but the former is raw and emotional. Balenciaga is more refined and rich.

Gvasalia’s Balenciaga office, in Kering headquarters in an elegant converted 17th-century hospital, feels as long and wide as a football field. Its few flourishes include sculptures by the American artist Mark Jenkins, whose hypebeasts sit cross-legged in hoodies and sneakers. When they appeared in a London pop-up shop promoting the brand, passersby mistook them as references to the homeless. A company apology followed the inevitable social media outrage. Rag chairs by Dutch designer Tejo Remy constructed from recycled Balenciaga frocks sit atop a bright blue Balenciaga embossed rug.

Although Gvasalia works in Paris, he now lives in Zurich, where Vetements is also based. Zurich allows Gvasalia to escape the fashion vacuum and breathe. “In a way it’s professional meditation, because being in fashion and living in fashion at the same time, all the time, it becomes too much,” he says. “It becomes like an overload, and you don’t see things objectively anymore.”

The day after his presentation, with retailers finally getting a close-up look at the collection in the showroom and making their decisions about what might appeal to their customers, Gvasalia is headed to Zurich. The collection is out of his hands now. And after the concentrated effort preparing for the show, he’s sick of clothes. “It was even hard for me to choose what I would wear today for myself,” he says. “I need a little break now; I need a little break from clothes in general. That’s why I’m so happy to go to Zurich this evening and tomorrow to go to my village supermarket where people just wear practical parkas. And then I forget about fashion for five days. And then I start again with so much pleasure.”

That’s what counts as a break in this industry’s constant churn, as it devours existing ideas and spews out new ones. Gvasalia has few romantic notions about fashion. It’s a business. And if he can get you to marvel at the massive size of a pair of sneakers or tweet in outrage over a blue leather tote bag, it means that he has captured your attention, which is the first step in getting you to make a purchase. That purchase could be $1,100 trousers or a $900 hoodie.

“What makes brands important today is not the same thing that made them important 20 years ago,” says Barneys’ Vitale. “The controversy is good. It keeps people talking about our industry and what we do.”

Balenciaga has doubled in sales volume since Gvasalia’s arrival, in large part thanks to millennials. With Gvasalia at the helm, Balenciaga is closing in on 1 billion euros in annual revenue. “Our Balenciaga business has never been better,” says Vitale about a brand the store has carried for more than a decade. “He’s created something that speaks to a much broader audience and a younger customer, which we all need [in order] to grow. … We’re also selling real apparel, not just T-shirts and sweatshirts.”

But even if you never buy anything from Balenciaga, Gvasalia is worming his way into a conversation that goes well beyond fashion. In that regard, the designer is a romantic and even an idealist. “My dream is really that fashion can become something more than just wearing trendy clothes,” Gvasalia says. It’s “that you can really change something.”

Robin Givhan is The Washington Post’s fashion critic.

Credits: Story by Robin Givhan. Designed by Christian Font. Photo Editing by Dudley M. Brooks.