Back in 2016, Vetements took over the fashion world with darkness, dirt and discontent. What Demna Gvasalia’s team offered was not pretty — but the slouchy silhouettes, fetish gear and underdog energy presented in the dingy basement of a Parisian gay club were oh, so sexy. For SS19, Vetements’ designs seemingly followed the same trajectory — but somehow, this time, it felt like the fashion crowd was not ready for it. Gvasalia is a well-known master of hype, but for SS19 he went in deeper than the story of Parisian decadence — he mined the darkness from his own childhood trauma of war and displacement.
This season’s show took place during Haute Couture week, in a motorway underpass on the outskirts of Paris. While most of the couture shows were overwhelmingly beautiful yet escapist and elitist affairs (the usual story for couture), the Vetements catwalk stood out as sharply as the enormous spikes that adorned the collection’s footwear: a reminder of the brutality of the world. The models walked on a long, white-cloth-clad table, most of them hardly dressed for a celebration. Voluminous hoodies with curvy Georgian writing, a lot of camo, hard denim and leather, chains and black balaclavas — outsider energy was paired with wearable symbols of suppression and domination.
“It was like dressing a documentary of my life,” Gvasalia told Vogue US. “I dedicated this collection to Georgia, the Georgia where my brother Guram and I grew up together in the ’90s, and the war that happened where we lived.” The Gvasalia brothers hail from the city of Sukhumi on the Black Sea coast. Between 1992 and 1993, the city was a battlefield in the war between Georgian government forces and Abkhaz separatists, Russian armed forces and North Caucasian militants. The war was one of the most underreported humanitarian catastrophes in recent history: Sukhumi suffered numerous air strikes with heavy civilian casualties and ethnic cleansing against its majority Georgian population. As a result, the whole region of Abkhazia broke away from Georgia and remains an unrecognised republic to this day.
Part of a massive refugee exodus, Demna and Guram fled the war-torn area with their family and ended up in Ukraine, Russia, and eventually Germany. They’re not the only refugees from Sukhumi who have achieved success in the contemporary cultural scene. Georgian artist Andro Wekua escaped from the same city and has since tried to recreate it from his hazy childhood memories and dreams, as well as photographs and digital maps, in works like Pink Wave Hunter (2011) and Never Sleep with a Strawberry in Your Mouth (2010). The enduring ambiguous character and tragedy of his work is the fact that Sukhumi is a place he can never return to because it no longer exists, having been erased by brutal history.
Following the Vetements show, numerous fashion critics were quick to call out Gvasalia for copying, particularly when it came to a nude tattoo shirt (Martin Margiela and Jean Paul Gaultier) and catwalk-table (Dries Van Noten). It has to be said, it probably doesn’t make much sense to impose the concepts of authorship and uniqueness on a designer who built his empire on irony and appropriation. Moreover, as I looked through the collection, I couldn’t help thinking of references which were much broader than the fashion world — and for me, much closer to home. As someone who lived in Russia till the age of 20 and who has travelled a lot to Ukraine and Georgia in recent years, all I could see were the fragments of familiar realness.
Vetements’ SS19 collection echoes the outfits of Ukrainian and Georgian hip youth, often compiled from gems found at dirt cheap vintage markets: camo and colourful sportswear, vintage jeans and schoolgirl’s skirts, combined with comically oversized tailoring and leathers. Add sports sunglasses, and you’ve got the typical outfit of a young raver in Kyiv. The slogan “We Dance Together, We Fight Together” printed on the sleeve of a bomber jacket refers directly to the recent rave protests which took place in Tbilisi in May.
The realness also comes through in the smallest details: the prison tattoo motif with an onion-domed church, for instance — now a part of global pop culture thanks to David Cronenberg’s 2007 gangster film Eastern Promises and the Russian Criminal Tattoo book series published by Fuel); hoodies bearing Viktor Tsoi, cult Soviet rock star and counter-culture hero; the combination of track pants with dressy, square-toed shoes — a look still sported by taxi drivers in Eastern Europe. Then there was the inclusion of floral Russian scarf fabric in various looks, and, of course, the “Fuck You” hoodie, written in Russian.
The mishmash reminded me of my childhood in the Russian ‘90s, but of something more recent as well. In 2017, I spent some time in Athens writing stories about local refugee charities, and refugee kids from Syria and Afghanistan were dressed in a similar way: hoodies too big for them, fake sportswear, a plethora of random donated garments. The fact that Gvasalia staged his show under a bridge where displaced refugees live in encampments just along the road, seemed even more poignant — particularly coming from a former refugee.
These days, the fashion industry is keen to be political. Emerging designers do not shy away from politically charged topics: Samuel Ross of A-Cold-Wall* talks about the sociological legacy of brutalism and his black working-class experience; Grace Wales Bonner reinvents black masculinity; Charles Jeffrey is making cultural space for the LGBTQI+ community. The difficulty, of course, is that a political message has to be delivered in a form of a desirable product. In this sense, did Vetements latest collection work? With all the darkness underneath, is it still desirable?
In the past couple of years, the so-called “post-Soviet aesthetic” has been a bit of a buzzword in fashion. ’90s-inspired sportswear, hard leathers, styling which is rough around the edges, an abundance of Russian references — as someone who has written numerous essays unpacking the trend, I was surprised to see Vetements sticking to the same visual language. Gvasalia has always been in the vanguard, disrupting the way we perceive contemporary fashion. This time he might have looked too far back to be concerned with being ahead of the game. Vetements has always had the vibe of a cynical outsider. Does Gvasalia’s extreme sincerity work with this image? Regardless of the answer, the story was definitely worth telling.