At the time, it was difficult to know what to make of Vetements’ debut runway show in spring 2014.
At first glance, their work was good but nothing out of the ordinary. Featuring floor-length bodycon dresses, ruffled bolero cardigans, turtlenecks worn with washed-out jeans and wide wool coats; their range was diverse but manifestly preoccupied with the early Noughties obsession for wearability, and initially felt like a leftfield reiteration of staple runway looks.
Then there was the name, “Vetements”. The French word for “clothes”, it was reminiscent of the anonymously blank anti-branding style of the Belgian designer Martin Margiela, who pioneered this approach decades before – an interesting reference but hardly a groundbreaking stance. Given the location – the home of haute couture – such a low-key collection felt like a strange choice for their first catwalkshow. Why weren’t they making a bigger statement?
Perhaps they were. Scrape beneath the veneer of familiarity and there’s a sophistication about Vetements that thrives on subtlety rather than grandstanding. While they certainly weren’t trying to reinvent the wheel in Paris, their bizarre touches to standard designs – elongated sleeves here, warped hemlines there – were so unique yet understated that the effect was difficult to describe. Indeed, it was this eye for nuance that doubtlessly earned them a nomination for the LVMH Prize as well as the adulation of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West prior to their debut in the French capital. Nonetheless, for a label whose success seems so reliant on a sense of je ne sais quoi it begs the question: Just what is it that makes Vetements so special?
THE ONE VS THE MANY
The first answer lies in its attitude to creative direction. While their nondescript branding isn’t unique, it runs counter to the trend among leading fashion houses that, in recent years, have become more and more eager to make their identity as tangible as possible. One way in which labels have done this is by appointing big name designers as creative directors. Whether it’s Hedi Slimane at Saint Laurent, Nicolas Ghesquière at Louis Vuitton or Raf Simons at Dior, the idea is that these iconic fashion names will subsequently become synonymous with the brand and boost its sales figures.
However, Vetements do things a little differently. For starters they shy away from big name endorsements and play their cards close to their chest. Indeed, until summer 2014, no one knew who was behind this outfit. As it happened, it turned out to be founded by Demna Gvasalia, a graduate of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts who had previously worked for Louis Vuitton and Martin Margiela. The collective is also made up of eight other people: three designers Gvasalia met at Margiela’s studio, plus five colleagues who are mainly responsible for product development and sales and marketing. Gvasalia defines his role as the brand’s spokesman rather than its creative director. “When we started out we decided that one one of us would speak on behalf of the entire team,” he says. “Many of us are just not used to being in the public eye, it’s not everybody’s thing.”
So why the anonymity? “Vetements started as a weekend project,” he continues. “At the beginning we were all still employees at other companies, meaning that we weren’t allowed to publicise our names.” Elsewhere, Gvasalia also admits that while this anonymity initially played in their favour, it’s never been an intentional marketing strategy. If anything Vetements’s raison d’être is about turning the spotlight on the clothes rather than the people who make them. “And it’s not like we have to hide anymore either,” says Gvasalia.
Moreover, while the structure of Vetements’s organisation may be similar to that of the relationship between a creative designer and their label at a major fashion house, Gvasalia argues that this resemblance is only superficial, since decisions at Vetements are made in a democratic way rather than at the behest of a single individual. For example, the design process normally starts with long, roundtable talks, and everyone in the company – from the designers to the admin – are involved. “Sometimes we end up arguing,” he says. “But I think that’s important and healthy. We are very different from one another and all have different cultural backgrounds, so it’s only natural that we have different opinions, too. What’s important is that we share the same sense of aesthetics and the same goals. And unlike those big labels, we also have the luxury of inventing a new story for our house. It’s very liberating not to have to stick to old rules.”
Such horizontal leadership schemes testify to Vetements’s desire for genuine exchanges between creative professionals at a time when social media may appear to have levelled the playing field, but can sometimes merely disguise certain social, racial and gender inequalities and promote meaningless interaction (the ‘like’ economy). In a highly individualistic society, this non-hierarchical form of collaboration reflects the growing number of freelancers for who working in a team is as important as having one’s opinions heard. “The final product can only benefit from a prolonged process of discussion and debate,” says Gvasalia. “This way, much more attention is given to polishing individual details.”
THE PEOPLE’S WARDROBE
The fact that Vetements is entirely focused on its end product is evident from its name. However, the moniker also implies the divide between everyday clothing and fashion – a distinction that the label tries to challenge. As Gvasalia suggests, the starting point of its creative process begins with research trips to high street stores, discount chains, military surplus centres and charity shops – ordinary places that nonetheless determine the way we appear in day-to-day life. “We are in constant dialogue with the contemporary and we work with what we already know and love,” he says. “We try to reframe it and imbue it with a second life.”
Vetements thus creates a conceptual counterpoint to fashion’s eternally fleeting but constant promise of renewal through its simple and familiar collections. Indeed, by making no claim to absolute originality, Vetements seems to be holding a mirror to the face of fashion’s visual fatigue and market driven direction, while also declaring a return to essentials, like craft and ingenuity. “For me, fashion is a business that’s about making clothes that people can wear,” says Gvasalia.
Women who wear Vetements belong to a new generation that refuses to be forced into seasonal uniforms and think about fashion as a wearable expression or their lifestyle. “With our designs we want to give the wearer an attitude that matches our aesthetic,” he continues. “While coming up with designs, we tend to be inspired by women who have a strong sense of individuality and a real opinion about what they’re wearing. Vetements is not bound to any age, but to the autonomy of its wearer”.
Consequently, its creators also explicitly want people to wear their clothes with items from other labels. Unlike big fashion houses and their intricately constructed, ‘total’ looks, Vetements is about simplicity, the idea being that you could throw their clothes on while wearing a blindfold and still look good in them. “We want for people to wear our fashion the way they want,” says Gvasalia. “And mixing our stuff with things from other labels totally reflects our idea of a ‘democratised fashion’. Vetements is actually a wardrobe.”
The people that inspire Vetements’s collections are the ones that live in that ‘other’ Paris, far away from the luxury of Haussmann’s grand boulevards, and out into the banlieue beyond the ring road – a place where, as central Paris becomes more expensive, an increasing number of creative but poor Parisians are going to live and party; a place where they can meet like-minded people and create new networks.
“We live in the real Paris,” says Gvasalia. “Many people think the city is very elitist and conservative, and this is true in many ways. But our Paris is different. And right now there’s something special in the air, everybody can feel it. Maybe it’s a new subculture, who knows.” He may be right. Vetements’ clothes are not only created through collectivist efforts, but are being welcomed by a new type of consumer who is implied and has autonomy in that process, too. As such, a new community is emerging in fashion – one that challenges its drive for innovation and distances itself from empty spectacle and commerce. And this is exactly what makes Vetements so worthy of our attention.
Vetements is available at The Store in Soho House Berlin
Text by Celina Plag