Change: It’s what fashion’s about. There’s still room for surprise, though. What other way is there to describe the reaction to today’s news that Demna Gvasalia is leaving Vetements, the paradigm-breaking label he founded with his brother and company CEO Guram Gvasalia in 2013? “Vetements has always been a collective of creative minds,” said Guram in a statement to WWD. “We will continue to push the boundaries even further, respecting codes and the authentic values of the brand, and keep on supporting honest creativity and genuine talent.”
Demna, who remains the creative director of Balenciaga, did more than move product—which he did, and how! With Guram, he rewrote the David and Goliath story for a new age. As Guram noted: “Russian people say: Who doesn’t risk doesn’t drink champagne.”
Here, eight ways Demna Gvasalia disrupted fashion.
He returned the focus to clothes.
There will be dissertations written on Gvasalia, but the designer announced his intent in one word: Vetements. His focus was firmly on clothes, mainly streetwear, and many of his pieces, like the gothic logo hoodie, the draped floral dresses, and the have-to-have jeans achieved cult status. “Working at Margiela was almost like a continuation of my education,” Gvasalia told critic Sarah Mower at Vogue’s 2017 Forces of Fashion conference. “I tried to understand what the approach was, which was pretty much just about the clothes and working with the clothes to make new clothes. I realized that the inspiration came from this idea of cutting the clothes, twisting them, and changing them—through your own filter, you can make new clothes from things that already exist. That’s how I came to use this method of appropriation: using the things around us and turning them into a new product.”
Demna and Guram challenged the system.
The Gvasalias are no followers of fashion; when the fashion system stopped making sense to them, they changed it. In 2016, as Mower reported, they decided to combine their pre- and main collections as well as show men’s and women’s collections together. “Showing men’s and women’s at the same time connects us to real life,” Guram said. “Today, men wear womenswear and women dress in men’s clothes. Gender is not a given fact anymore; a person has the right to choose one.... Apart from the philosophical point of view, in fact, it saves money and time for everyone, starting with brands to buyers and press.” Not only were the brothers thinking outside of the system, but they came to live outside of it too, moving their operations from Paris to Zurich.
Demna introduced a new aesthetic to fashion.
Everyone wears clothes, but fashion remains Eurocentric and focused on the West. Having been born in Georgia and moving as a refugee to Germany to escape war, Demna introduced a post-Soviet aesthetic to fashion that was dark, sparse, and punk. His references (and nostalgia) were for things outside of the well-worn canon. He might be inspired by a laminated floral tablecloth, say. Not only were Gvasalia’s references new to much of his audience, but they were oftentimes strange and aggressive (who could forget the bold-shouldered, expletive-laden white sweatshirt of Spring 2016?). They verged on ugly. “I think it’s very interesting, the definition of ugly,” said Gvasalia at Forces of Fashion. “I think it’s also very interesting to find this line where ugly becomes beautiful or where beautiful becomes ugly. That’s a challenge I like. I think that’s a part of what fashion stands for, and I like that people think my clothes are ugly; I think it’s a compliment.”
He championed ethical fashion.
Decades after Miguel Adrover advocated for peace by sending a globe-shape dress with the UNICEF logo down the runway, Gvasalia took up the charitable flame at Balenciaga. The company made a sizable donation to the United Nations World Food Programme and produced and showed garments that would be sold to benefit the organization. Gvasalia showed similar activism when he staged a series of takeovers of store windows, which he filled with discarded clothing, inviting people to donate their own. “The main point is to speak to people about the problem of overconsumption and overproduction,” Guram told Mower. “In a world where fashion is so fast today, the windows are like a wake up: Hello, slow down, people—it’s too much!”
He changed the focus from the individual to the collective.
Gvasalia spent many years working at Maison Margiela, where the collective “We” trumped the egotistical “I.” It was an idea he carried over to Vetements, which was launched as an anonymous collective before Gvasalia revealed his involvement and leadership. This idea of interconnectivity is resonant in a digital world and was reinforced by runway cameos by members of the Vetements “family,” like stylist Lotta Volkova and designer Gosha Rubchinskiy.
He introduced hypebeasts to luxury and vice-versa.
Vetements is the OG luxury streetwear label. Peddling hoodies, tees, and sweatshirts, which with a lower price point might be called merch, it made hypebeasts out of luxury customers. To wear Vetements, as everyone from Kanye West to Céline Dion did, was to be with it but also in on the joke. Vetements regularly made potentially cringe-worthy pop-culture references to the likes of DHL, Justin Beiber, Titanic, and Juicy Couture look cool. The Spring 2017 collection exploded the idea of the collaboration as it was made entirely in conjunction with other brands, including Brioni, Schott, Levi’s, Comme des Garçons Shirt, Reebok, Canada Goose, Dr. Martens, Alpha Industries, Eastpak, Lucchese, and Manolo Blahnik, reported Mower.
He listened to criticism and grew.
When Vetements hit the scene, it seemed like Gvsalaia could do no wrong—with the exception of his casting. It took a few seasons, but eventually Gvasalia’s runways at Vetements and Balenciaga would go on to reflect a broader range of beauty.
He walked away.
Saying that he accomplished what he set out to do, Gvasalia is walking away from Vetements, which will continue without him. It’s a very Belgian move: Martin Margiela and Ann Demeulemeester are among the few designers who have left fashion on their own terms. Though the industry is about the new, it has a hard time letting go. (Hence the constant revival of heritage houses.) Moreover, the work-life balance in the industry is skewed heavily toward the former. Gvasalia’s not having it. “With Balenciaga, at the beginning I said, ‘I don’t work Saturdays or Sundays,’” the designer told Mower in a 2017 interview. “I thought maybe people would think I was lazy or a diva. But this is absolutely normal in the world. What really matters is keeping sane and happy. Fashion doesn’t need to turn you into this person who never sees friends.”
Originally Appeared on Vogue