“RULE-BREAKING” IS A PHRASE thrown around in fashion a lot. But who makes these rules? And aren’t rules what fashion is based on? After all, fashion isn’t just the clothes on your back. It’s the form of those clothes at a given moment, adhering to certain codes that define them as forward-thinking, as now, as à la mode. Which often, as on a menu, translates simplistically to a lump of something fancy plopped on top of an existing offering, as opposed to tinkering about with the guts or really changing anything. Rules in fashion are made by the industry: the editors, the designers, the corporations who fund the whole thing. And so, genuine rule-breakers don’t come along that often. Fashion enjoys the status quo. It sells clothes, it makes money.
But what if the rules are broken? People have stopped buying clothes with quite the alacrity they used to, and large conglomerates have begun to see their profits slip southward. Designers are fleeing houses after a few short seasons. Plenty of brands, rattled by the instability of luxury markets, are now trying to close the gap between runway and retail, offering goods ever faster to consumers, hoping to whip them into a frenzy of acquisition. There’s a general unease in fashion, to say the least.
And the clothes themselves? They wind up bit players in the Sturm und Drang of it all, overshadowed by financial finagling and designer wrangling, when they should be the focus of the conversation. There is a glut of clothing at every price point, especially in high fashion, where labels proliferate and multiple seasons (spring, prefall, winter, resort, capsules galore) concurrently jostle to justify a seemingly endless influx of clothing. But how much of that actually connects with what people really want to wear today? How they want to look, maybe even feel? The soft sell, rather than the hard?
It matters, at least, to two. One is the designer Alessandro Michele, who after anonymously toiling away at Gucci for 12 years, was appointed creative director of the 95-year-old Florentine brand in January 2015. In three seasons, the 43-year-old Italian has managed to entirely remake the brand, pulling back from its sexy image to explore a more romantic side. The other is Demna Gvasalia, a 35-year-old Georgian from the former Soviet Union, who started his Paris fashion collective Vetements in 2014 after working at Maison Margiela and Louis Vuitton, where he became frustrated with the increasing demands of the fashion industry. Six months ago, based on the sheer strength of his fledgling streetwear-based label, he was named the artistic director of Balenciaga, the century-old French house, in a twist that shocked the industry given Gvasalia’s distinct lack of star power — similar to Michele’s out-of-the-backroom appointment. He debuted his first collection for Balenciaga last month to ecstatic reviews.
Relative anonymity is the immediate connection between Gvasalia and Michele, but there’s something deeper at play than the fact that, until 15 months ago, you’d probably never heard of either. Gvasalia’s frustration is quietly mirrored by Michele, who has said that he’d planned to leave Gucci before being surprised with the creative director offer. More than that, there’s a synergy between their approaches to gender lines — ignoring them — and to the runway, which they use to actually show clothes, not just to stage a spectacle. They both talk frequently, incessantly, about clothes, rather than fashion; about reality, about appealing to, and ultimately dressing, the girl (or guy) on the street.
But their streets are worlds apart. Gvasalia and Michele’s aesthetics are diametrically opposed. Gucci’s embroidered and preciously embellished clothes look like family heirlooms; Vetements’ seem fresh from the trash bag, jumbled and crumpled and intentionally misshapen. Gvasalia’s Balenciaga adds a third element to the mix, focusing on a “couture attitude,” on the way garments are worn and their relationship with the body. These included embroidered evening dresses and strict tweed suits with exaggerated basques, as well as curving parkas and Perfecto-style jackets based on grand opera coats. The architecture of the garments at Balenciaga and Vetements is exciting, innovative.
That even includes the standard T-shirt, cut long in the body at Vetements with stiffened sleeves or a high-rise neckline, as if being worn back to front. Other garments are cut too small or too large, and sit unusually on the body. They’re often made of synthetic fabrics like velour and nylon. By contrast, Gucci’s clothes are generally simplistic in shape (track tops, single-breasted blazers, bowed blouses, a predilection for a 1970s flare) with a focus on shimmering surfaces and overloaded detailing: sequins, custom-woven jacquards, buttons in the form of jeweled lion’s heads or gumdrop pearls, sleeves dipped in mink.
However different their collections, though, Gvasalia and Michele’s ideas about fashion are interwoven. The connection is the moment, the collective nerve they seem to have touched in the cultural consciousness. People identify with the aesthetics these designers are proposing, with the “universe” their clothing represents, as badges of belonging. At Vetements’ fall show, high-school-age fashion fans thronged a church in the Eighth Arrondissement, dressed in Vetements and vintage mashed together, emulating the appearance of the similarly teenage street-cast models. It was difficult to see where the runway ended and reality began. In Milan, Gucci’s models were outnumbered by audience members wearing Michele’s fur-lined house slippers, chinoiserie jackets and foliage-festooned accessories. The newly revamped Gucci store on Via Montenapoleone was mobbed all week long, and not just by fashion types. Michele is pulling in consumers who previously felt put off by Gucci’s hedonistic repute, but who now feel drawn to its beautifully made jackets, dresses heavy with embroidery, handbags patterned with flowers or embroidered with bees. “Take it,” Michele told me backstage before his last Gucci men’s wear show, gesturing at the heaving rail of soon-to-be-shown Gucci wares. “Make it yours.”
THAT’S THE APPEAL of many of these clothes: Rather than a tub-thumping, dictated silhouette, both Gvasalia and Michele propose individual, individualistic items, designed to stand by themselves. They’re clothing people, not “fashioning” them. The collections themselves include countless styles, worn every which way. There’s no trend, no given shape, no definitive singular statement. Their work turns on its head the previously predominant idea of the “total look,” of a designer proposing an outfit to be sold head-to-toe. (Incidentally, these “looks,” which have dominated the past decade or so of fashion, are also often strictly proscribed to be photographed for magazines as such, ensuring a singular retail and marketing vision.) Both Gvasalia and Michele conceive their garments as individual entities: a great jacket, a great skirt, a good dress, nice shoes. They mix it all together on the runway, but the notion is to pull it apart into individual pieces. Gvasalia even named his label Vetements because, “it’s really just about that … just clothes,” he once told me.
Their clothes also don’t change much from season to season, which is breaking another rule: that of perpetual change, of fashion simulating newness purely by its contrast with that which came before. Gvasalia and Michele’s clothing may not be designed, specifically, for seasons to be jumbled together. But they can be. Their greatest provocation to the establishment has been to eschew the industry’s built-in obsolescence, to challenge the very fabric of time.
Together, what they are proposing ideologically is affecting the way other designers think, how they design and subsequently how we all dress. First and foremost, Gvasalia and Michele’s work feels exciting because it aims outside of fashion’s insular bubble. There’s a pragmatism behind the collections of both. They frequently talk about “wardrobes,” about “reality,” one that actually feels authentic rather than some fashion construct. At the fall shows, many designers seemed intent on reflecting the way real people dress, as opposed to cold and calculated “ensembles.” That’s the influence of Gvasalia and Michele.
It’s a magpie approach to dressing, trying to please all of the people all of the time. They’re about choice, about freedom — a word Michele uses often. In effect, they’ve surrendered the power designers previously held over customers, in which a designer’s specific eye and taste deemed what was an acceptable, even cool, way to dress. Gvasalia and Michele have collapsed the very perception of fashion as rule-maker.
We’ve reached the point in fashion where focusing on the garments, as opposed to the gumpf fluffed about them, constitutes rule-breaking. The individual — the individual customer, the individual garment, the individualist look rather than the one dictated by a fashion designer or a fashion magazine — is at the root of their success. It’s something that had been missing in fashion. Vetements is only in its fifth season, but Gvasalia has more than a hundred stockists worldwide, where his clothes consistently sell out. Gucci sales under Michele have exceeded analysts’ expectations, rising 13.4 percent in the final quarter of 2015, to $1.2 billion.
Back in 1989, the late John Fairchild, legendary publisher of Women’s Wear Daily, hypothesized that fashion hangs from six designers by a golden thread. That they were referenced and ripped off by a legion of others. “All eyes are on these six,” stated Fairchild, in his book “Chic Savages.” “They show the rest of the industry where to go.” Now there are even fewer. We brought Michele and Gvasalia together three hours after Gvasalia’s Balenciaga debut, and two hours before Michele returned to Rome to begin designing Gucci’s spring 2017 collection. The two had never met before.
Alexander Fury: It’s interesting getting you to talk together for the first time because what you do is, on the surface, so immediately, incredibly different. Your aesthetics are opposed, and yet there are so many underlying similarities. Alessandro, you’ve spoken to me about strange ideas of beauty; and Demna, you’ve said of Vetements: “It’s ugly, that’s why we like it.”
Alessandro Michele: But ugly is beauty. No?
Demna Gvasalia: I think that beauty is in everything, if you look for it. I mean it’s too easy to say something is classically beautiful. It’s clear for everyone. You don’t need to think.
Michele: A hidden beauty. I was talking with Miuccia [Prada] in Milan, and she told me something really funny, but it was true. She told me: “When I started in fashion, everything was about super-beautiful, aggressive, polished beauty. And I arrived, with these kind of ugly girls. They really criticized me a lot, for years and years.”
Gvasalia: Until they understood.
Michele: Yes, until they understood. “It’s easier for you,” she told me. Because now it’s a bit different. But I think it’s always hard, because when you change the language, they need time …
Gvasalia: To digest it.
Fury: Which I suppose is now the same with you coming to Balenciaga. The work of both of you, at Balenciaga and Gucci, is about unexpected sides of those labels. They’ve always been there, but they weren’t as publicized.
Gvasalia: Because it’s a new story, I think. That’s also what makes it exciting. You have a base, this amazing platform, but then you make something new, that works with what was there before.
Michele: I think also that every single designer sees something different in the same brand. I think that creative work is what you see through your eyes. It’s like … when I think about Gucci, I was trying to find the most crazy piece of the company. Because after a lot of years, Gucci for me was, in a way, flat. Without soul. But in the archive you can find a lot of quirky soul. They created a lot of strange kinds of objects. I think that my job could be easy, because we don’t have a ready-to-wear story, so you can invent what you want. It’s just about travel, suitcases, leather goods. But I was obsessed with this idea of the jet set that, honestly, I don’t think exists anymore. I don’t want to talk with something that is completely dead. But now, the street — I’m obsessed, like you, with the street.
Gvasalia: Because it’s also something you see.
Gvasalia: And you see it through your filter. I think the normality, in a way, has so many ways of being inspiring. And you can do so much with it actually. With what you see.
Fury: It’s challenging, too. How can you make normality interesting?
Gvasalia: And then also clothes that are wearable that people desire. That they say, “I need to have that thing.” I think that’s also something that, somehow … you do a show and then in the store, half of those pieces wouldn’t be there. Which doesn’t make any sense. To really have this kind of honesty.
Fury: Traditionally, very little of what designers create for the shows actually winds up in stores for sale. It just exists to be photographed. Is it a vital part of your creative process that the pieces in the runway show will be the bulk of what’s produced to sell?
Michele: Yes. Reality is a huge piece of our work. I think that fashion, for a long time, has been in a prison. Without freedom. I think that without freedom, with rules, it’s impossible to create a new story. I mean, I’ve worked in fashion for a long time — but I understand that after years and years of product, product, product. It’s something that kills everything. Also the market. A product without an idea, a soul, an attitude. If you don’t give people the idea that they belong to a tribe …
Gvasalia: They need that.
Michele: They need that.
Gvasalia: And that’s very much what’s happening now, I think. It’s very much what’s happening with what you do. And in such a short period of time, also. This is quite amazing — it’s actually a virtue of our time, on one hand, because everything is so fast. People need to belong. Identifying them, as, well, “We’re part of that.” For me I have this very much at Vetements right now, but at Balenciaga the challenge is to create that. It’s a following in a way.
Michele: You don’t just work with the length of the skirt. Who cares? Now, I think nobody cares. We’ve seen every length of skirt … I think that you have to give something different. And the most important thing now is also to give a real attitude to fashion. Because people want you to suggest the idea that you can really put together and create a personal point of view. You have to belong to a brand that has a story, because obviously a brand needs an aesthetic. But you need also to suggest the idea of freedom. Because when you go in the street, people are free to do what they want. There are no rules.
Gvasalia: And they choose what they buy.
Fury: I think it’s interesting that you both talk about attitude.
Gvasalia: That is such a key element I think. You know, when you see someone wearing Gucci — you know that she’s a Gucci woman. It’s so visual.
Fury: There’s also that idea that sometimes someone wears it who maybe … doesn’t have the right attitude.
Gvasalia: But it makes her have it. It makes her. And I think that’s why they want it also, because they want that attitude. That look. That maybe they don’t even have.
Fury: Demna, do you find it difficult to think in doublespeak, to have an attitude for Vetements and an attitude for Balenciaga?
Gvasalia: It helps me. At the beginning it was like, okay, it’s going to be like Jeykll and Hyde and I’ll go crazy. But I must tell you, having those in-between moments — it’s like cold and hot showers. I go back and I forget about that day I spent at Balenciaga. It freshens me. For me, it really helps, creatively.
Fury: It’s interesting that in your work you’ve both collapsed the idea of trends. That’s been dying for a long time, but fashion has been clinging onto it, as a way of categorizing all these different collections. Does that whole idea of seasonality matter?
Gvasalia: In terms of temperature? [Laughs] That’s a bit confused! We deliver puffer jackets in June — and I really don’t know people who buy puffer jackets in June, unless they’re a fashion victim. I think that doesn’t work. But seasons — the continuation, the consistency — is important. Especially when you’re re-establishing or redefining the identity of a brand. I think there you really need to kind of hammer that. In slightly different ways, fresher, etc. But I think it’s necessary to have that. So it doesn’t look like a design exercise, every six months. I think in the ’90s there were a lot of brands who did that. I know Margiela did it. Every six months, it had to be a new concept. Otherwise it’s not strong enough. And the concept had to be so strong. It’s not relevant anymore.
Michele: It’s another world. It was another era. Now the world is completely different. The customers are different. You can’t repeat for a long time the same rule. Because at the end the market will stop. Now, I think that customers are ready to decide by themselves what they want to mix and match. It’s not the idea of total look. It’s not fresh anymore, I don’t think.
Gvasalia: Because people look for that kind of individuality. They don’t want to look like a campaign picture. They choose. At the end, maybe they end up [like that] but it’s their decision, of how they want to stand out. Because we’re so globalized and everything is so out there right away. I think there is this desire and need for being a bit different. That’s why the individuality matters much more.
Fury: I think also with the way that both of you work, there’s a lot of focus on individual items, as opposed to that total look. It’s very much about making one thing precious.
Michele: For me, nothing is old. I don’t know why. If a dress is beautiful, and it’s very personal, I think it can live forever. I think that we still have the idea that if you have something beautiful, next season you have to put it in the bin.
Gvasalia: It’s terrible.
Michele: This is horrible.
Gvasalia: It’s also bull.
Michele: I don’t care about which season it is. Sometimes I prefer it after seasons and seasons.
Gvasalia: Often when you have the continuity between seasons, you don’t have this problem. It’s still relevant, in the context. It’s like, “Oh, it’s Prada last summer.” If you love it, you love it. You don’t care which season it is. I write the seasons on the labels of all the clothes at Vetements, for example, and the sales people at the beginning said: “Oh you can’t do this, people won’t want to wear it the year after.” No, they will. And actually I think it’s even an added value. It’s something that continues, and still works.
Fury: That’s an idea everyone seems to be connecting with — the way they’re connecting with the way your clothes look, too. Do you realize that other people are feeding off the ideas that you are putting out? Can you see that fashion has shifted?
Michele: I mean, when you work, you don’t think about that kind of thing. But it’s clear that something is happening. I don’t know what.
Gvasalia: I think we’re just happening at the right time. Also, that fashion realizes that things need to be rethought. That’s why it has an impact, probably. I don’t know. Actually questioning those things: I think, asking those questions makes the whole industry evolve. I think that’s the impact, actually. The question of seasons, continuity, etc. I think that’s what makes an impact.
Fury: That your work is challenging these ideas that people have begun to question in themselves already.
Gvasalia: Me, I never think of that working on the collection.
Michele: No, no.
Gvasalia: Because it’s more natural. It’s what I think is right. It’s exactly not following rules, that’s what makes it happen. Because for me, these rules don’t matter. And I try to invent these other rules that work for us. And maybe other people want to appropriate those. But it doesn’t always work, either. You can’t always use the same model.
Michele: I think it’s the best thing you can do: if you try to feel that something is happening. I’m only talking about me, because I’m new in this business. I’m having fun — I don’t think about it. But probably if I’d been on the scene for a long time, I think I would see that something changing is a good reason to express your point of view. Not to copy. I saw, for example, last season everywhere that kind of strange decoration. But fashion is not about decoration [he strokes a hand across the metallic embroidery on his own Gucci jacket], fashion is not about the wrong size [gesturing to Gvasalia’s oversized coat, as Gvasalia laughs]. You have to find your language. If you try to repeat something that is not you, your language, it doesn’t work.
Gvasalia: It’s true. They see how it works at Gucci, so we should also do that.
Michele: Full of birds everywhere! Flowers! I didn’t plan to put birds or that kind of nature; it’s just me. It’s my culture. I think that it’s more that something had to come.
Gvasalia: And the awareness of it. I think that everyone has been aware of it, for quite a while. Especially in the press. But somehow, suddenly, something is happening. And that makes people speak. So it explodes even more.
Fury: Both of you have talked about working with physical garments as a starting point. Which feels like something very different from perceptions of designers’ working, sketching.
Gvasalia: I don’t remember when I sketched last time.
Michele: Me either.
Gvasalia: I write in my iPhone ideas now. Because I don’t have a sketchbook with me. I just do notes, reminders. For Monday, when I’m at Balenciaga. A collar like this.
Michele: It’s true.
Gvasalia: I think with clothing, it’s so three-dimensional, it’s impossible to draw it. For me, I’m always talking about sculpture all the time — but it is like sculpting. You need to see it in movement also, I hate working on a stock man. I prefer to have a real person, so she moves. Can she actually move in it? Can she drive? This practicality as well. But how it behaves when it’s on, the motion, etc. I always start with a garment, and then I cut. I destroy so many clothes. To make more clothes.
Fury: I guess why you don’t work with a stylist is an interesting question, as it’s another thing that makes you stand out compared to other designers. Alessandro, you never have?
Michele: I don’t know. It’s like asking, “Why you don’t drink?” Because I don’t need it. It’s because it’s a process. I don’t have a person that is so close to me to share so much. It’s not because I don’t want it or I’m against the idea of a stylist. It’s just my story. I didn’t use [a stylist] because I love to do the styling of the show. The styling, for me, is the show. It’s the collection. It’s the idea — what I want to show you about my idea. So it’s impossible to translate to another person. If I need a color, if I need to put something on you, in a different way. I have it in my mind. It’s a vision. Who can have the same vision as me? I’d love to find someone that can share with me. Because sharing is something beautiful. I love to share. But I think that I’m quite obsessed with the styling. I start from both — the dress and the styling. I don’t have before the dress, and after I style. I think of both together.
Gvasalia: I think styling — the stylist coming in, saying, “OK, this girl” — it’s not for now, anymore.
Michele: Also it’s your job! In a way! It’s completely my vision.
Gvasalia: When I work with Lotta [Volkova, the stylist of Vetements and Balenciaga] — she knows what I know, what I want. It’s that kind of exchange again. We’re very close, we really know each other, we’re friends. It’s not like I hired her.
Michele: It’s not a stylist — she’s a friend of yours.
Gvasalia: And I like how she wears some stuff. I kind of project, because I would love to wear boots to here!
Michele: This is completely different. It’s your life. This is not a stylist. This is what I was saying before, the idea of sharing something that belongs to us. If I’m inspired by a friend of mine — could be, yes. This is different. It’s not styling, it’s creating something new, with an energy.
Gvasalia: For me, it’s more sharing of this — I actually get inspired by seeing. It’s not just Lotta, there are also other women around me that I … not get inspired by, but I love the way they pull their skirt up. These elements that I’m not doing myself, because I’m a guy, but that gives me an idea.
Fury: You touched on it then — that idea of gender blurring, which is so relevant to both your work.
Gvasalia: “Gender fluidity.”
Fury: I hate that term!
Gvasalia: It’s the worst thing ever. It sounds vulgar.
Michele: But it’s something that is — I always say that I didn’t invent anything. It’s something that exists, it’s our life. What can I say? It’s the world. It’s something that exists, I can’t ignore. I understand that for a long time fashion wanted to stay inside fashion. Something like another world. Fashion is, I don’t know where — in the front of the window in Rue Faubourg? I don’t know. Where is “fashion”? Fashion is the way you dress, the way you are. Again, your attitude. So this word, gender fluidity, is kind of an invention. Because it’s our life. We, all of us, are this way. Fashion is — if we want to talk about the way you look — you have, inside, all these different meanings.
Gvasalia: But it’s so there, it’s so normal. On Thursday the [Vetements] show finished with two identical looks: One was on a guy and one was on a girl. We didn’t really think — oh let’s show that both of them can wear it. We just tried them and both worked and were incredible.
Michele: It’s not a trick.
Gvasalia: No, not at all. And the guy, he loved it. And she did. I mean, it’s going to be harder for today’s [Balenciaga] show! It’s something that is just … normal now. Ten, 15 years ago, it wasn’t something that was really happening. It would be a statement, like a conscious statement, to put a dress on a guy. Now it’s just society. You want to wear a dress?
Michele: We are really in a playground — it’s nothing predictable. It’s really alive. You think about people. You think again to what is happening outside. I mean, I didn’t create a pair of shoes because I wanted some editorials. Never. I think of a guy in the club, outside in the street, or a friend of mine. It’s a very pragmatic way to see fashion. “Fashion.” The word “fashion,” it’s very …
Gvasalia: It’s tricky. It needs to change!
Michele: Because fashion is clothes. Sometimes when people talk about me in fashion, I feel — I don’t want to say uncomfortable, but I still don’t believe that I’m in “fashion.”
Gvasalia: And some people who are not in the fashion industry, when I say I work in fashion, I feel … [He shrugs, visibly uncomfortable with the word, and frowns.] Do I really have to say it?
Fury: It’s such a loaded thing. It’s loaded with perceptions, from the outside world. That kind of elitism.
Gvasalia: Which is not necessarily true.
Fury: But it’s like you said, Alessandro — fashion being something in a window. You don’t wear fashion, you wear clothes.
Michele: I’m seducing me also. I’m seducing myself. Because I was bored, in a way.
Fury: With fashion?
Michele: I can say I was a fashion person, completely bored. And I wanted to seduce myself. Because I know very well that I need to be seduced. I am doing a lot of things because I feel like a customer. I’m not feeling like a special person; I’m wearing what I’m doing. And I do things that I love. It’s about us. It’s not about me.