I remember doing some, so called, modelling in Warsaw in 2013 and ending up in Vitkac one gloomy afternoon. It’s Poland’s first real department store selling high end brands exclusively, opened for these few thousand polish citizens who can afford brands commonly worn in western countries. We didn’t want them(these businessmen, TV personalities and WAGs) to throw money away on flights to London, so we transformed one of depressing, marble buildings in central Warsaw into that, many would say, haunted house, where sad sale advisors on minimum wage hide behind poorly merchandised rails to yawn and check the time.
So I walked in there with someone, I don’t remember the name, but probably one of my seventy four ex-husbands. After walking past Saint Laurent Paris, back then still known and displayed as Yves Saint Laurent, we took a luxurious escalator upstairs where I saw these unique blue trainers. Displayed in the centre of fucking everything, on some silky, shitty tissues… I moved my hand towards the shoe and felt the earth below my feet shaking, temperature going up, all eyes of sales advisors on me: “don’t touch the holy grail, you poor fuck”. But I did it. Whilst holding it in my hand I started studying it like Prince studied the Bible. Then I noticed the logo printed on the inside. BALENCIAGA. Back then I thought: that’s the real luxury.
A few years later I found myself in the middle of the London mess. Together with my friends fashionistas, we consumed Frappuccinos on hungover and spoke about this new guy who started changing the game. Demna Gvasalia, designer from Georgia, who worked at Maison Martin Margiela before, created extremely popular and expensive brand Vetements (read: vet-mo). Just like Amy Winehouse into the music mainstream, he brought nonchalant I-don’t-give-a-fuck attitude and image into the pompous world of white shirts and colorful dresses. Gvasalia transformed things unfashionable and common into a luxury business.
It all started with Vetements. The success of the brand he started, transformed him into the fashion power he is today. His brand became popular thanks to oversized jackets and death metal sweatshirts that were originally meant to imitate clothing worn by people who, well, don’t give a damn about fashion and changing trends. Oh no, pardon me, I think the ironic DHL t-shirts were first, and the irony is the most important word here, apparently.
“Irony is both about making you smile or laugh, but it can also be quite painful because it asks questions. With irony, you can ask questions that are delicate, but there’s a thin line between irony and sarcasm so I have to be careful not to overstep it. I made a bag for my first men’s show at Balenciaga, which was based on the classic Ikea bag. It was ironic but also authentic. I used the blue Ikea bag during my four years as a student in Antwerp, due to its size and its price. Fifty percent of all students had the same bag for the same reasons, When I did it at Balenciaga I recycled leather that the company had on stock from previous collections, and I finished it as a luxury product. I meant it as an ironic gesture in part, taking something really cheap and moving it into the luxury realm. But it’s authentic too, and that’s why it’s been all over the internet by now. People can relate.”
Demna Gvasalia in an interview with Business of Fashion.
Demna’s idea to appropriate clothing used in the late eighties and nineties by working classes of Europe isn’t anything particularly shocking. Designers tend to go through different moments in time, political environments or historic events whilst looking for inspiration. In the case of Balenciaga’s reinvention, the most surprising thing is Gvasalia’s consistency. It’s not like after one season of selling tired, high waisted jeans, he took an inspiration from the Olympics and sent models down the runway in swimming trunks. He fucking didn’t.
Post-soviet aesthetic became permanent for Balenciaga and remained a strong inspiration for Vetements. Designer himself is unlikely to name this inspiration in his interviews, or maybe I just wasn’t looking properly enough. But polish fashion journalist Michal Zaczynski in an article written for a London-based magazine said:
I dislike Vetements and Gosha Rubchinskiy. Same with that new Balenciaga under the direction of Demna Gvasalia. They remind me of everything that was the worst in the 90’s, and they’re unlikely to raise any nostalgic feelings in me.*
I guess you have to be from Eastern Europe to understand the “worst of the 90’s” part. Chunky trainers with ridiculously shaped soles made of many pieces of leather sewn together? Big ugly trainers like that? My teacher in primary school had a pair, worn with an almost square-shaped blue shirt, which looked like someone was making a computer game character that lacked most polygons. Men wearing casual blazers that were way too big? That was all they could get from second hand stores. You couldn’t just order your size online and wait for a DHL courier to deliver your parcel after 10 hours, like Amazon Prime.
I remember the popular Vetements sweatshirt my friend owned in 2016. Long, red with a slogan: May the Bridges I burn light the way. Everyone was obsessed with it. Dark, gothic, Tumblr-alternative vibe Demna Gvasalia created for Vetements is something I’d like to remember. Balenciaga reminds me of old furniture, drinking black coffee from transparent thin glasses, playing Pink Panther point and click adventure game on Windows 98 and wearing ugly grey sport sweaters because there was nothing else. And I’m not even from the eighties.
(*translated roughly from polish. The original English text not available at the time of writing this post, as the magazine’s website crashed)