In fashion terms, it is shocking news that shocks: two-year-old Vetements, a fledgling brand focusing on “just clothes” is staging a show alongside rarefied and exclusive haute couture in Paris this July. The announcement was made this week: the Gvasalia brothers Demna, 34, and Guram, 30, originally from Georgia in the former Soviet Union, have been accepted by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, French fashion’s ruling body, to present their Spring/Summer 2017 collection on July 3 as an official kick-off to the couture season. This ready-to-wear show will incorporate some looks constructed with “interpretations of haute couture”.
“We are guest members of the Couture, but there wasn’t a lot of negotiation because we are changing the whole season’s structure,” explained Guram, who plays business ying to Demna’s creative yang. “I needed to tell people out of respect,” Guram continued, as he laid bare the new strategy.
“The collections will be very special but some of the pieces will be available quite soon and before Christmas for sure,” he said. “Christmas is a good time you know – everyone gets money from their grandparents and it’s a time when people want to surprise each other and give presents.” As if Vetements needed Father Christmas to hawk their wares!
The apparently basic, over-sized, sporty clothes, the floral dresses and the famous “hoodie”, so beloved of Kanye West that it has become a universal object of desire, fly out of stores and off on-line platforms. Guram tells me that upscale website Net-a-Porter has achieved an 83 per cent sell-through of the current range.
Then there are the cult yellow and red “DHL” T-shirts. “With DHL we have the licensing,” Guram explains, “and the CEO of DHL is wearing the T-shirt! He takes selfies with it! It’s actually a special fabric, and a limited production of 250 pieces. People complain about the price (some $330) but the point is if you do 250 pieces and not one million T-shirts this is what the price is.”
And now that Demna has taken over the design direction of Balenciaga, there is a second stream of clothes with a cult following. “The idea is to reach your equilibrium,” says young chief executive Guram. “If at the end of the season there is merchandise on sale, for me it means that it was over-produced. If you sell one piece less than the market desires, then it is sold out. If you sell one piece extra, then it goes on sale and damages your perception of the brand. It’s not just about when supply meets demand, but also about the delivery spectrum. We deliver on time, there is no re-stock and no reproduction.
“We had this hoody with a metallic print that everyone wore,” he continued. “All the celebrities wore it and it went to this ridiculous stage when I have five, six, seven thousand emails requesting the hoody. It’s now on eBay for 3,500 euros! We don’t reproduce it — although if we did we could do a million a day with this one design. But we don’t, out of respect to the people who bought it. Now people are afraid that they won’t be able to get the pieces. So when the new collection hits the market the longing is a psychological thing.”
“It’s like Apple and the way they market their products; they make the inside of their stores look like a church and for a new store they have music and thousands of people gathering,” he explains. It does not escape my notice that the last Vetements collection was held inside a church. And, curiouser and curiouser, Demna and Guram discovered after the event from Pamela Golbin, Chief Curator of Fashion and Textiles at the Musée des Arts Decoratifs in Paris, that Cristóbal Balenciaga’s home backed on to the very same church their fashion was held in, and that he would go there every day to pray.
As I sit, mesmerised, with the slight, bearded Guram Gvasalia at Sotheby’s café in London, I remember a similar meeting with him at a restaurant in Paris’ Left Bank two weeks ago, and a separate meeting in Paris with Demna. What is the real story of these two brothers who came from nowhere to up-end previous conceptions about designing and marketing fashion?
They come from Georgia, or more precisely Abkhazia, which was overwhelmed by civil war following the break-up of the Soviet Union, so when Demna was 12 the family fled their home, taking only their photo albums. The family spent two years in Ukraine and the brothers spent the rest of their teens in various locations in the former USSR. In 1993, Demna saw his first ever Vogue magazine, which drew him towards fashion and inspired him to study in Antwerp, where he was taught by Linda Loppa, then head of Fashion at the Royal Academy Antwerp, who mentored the Antwerp Six. Meanwhile the long-haired Guram went to business school in Germany, “wearing Ralph Lauren and being happy with my life”. He garnered four degrees: “one in law, two in business and a Masters at the London College of Fashion".
Both brothers speak six languages: Russian, Georgian, English, French, Italian and German, plus Demna’s “little bit of Flemish” from his Antwerp years and “very good German” courtesy of Guram’s partner, “who is not just Russian, he is an amazing writer - it took him years to correct me but now he says he is proud of me when I speak it.”
Like many Jewish people, buffeted by wars, both brothers told me that they do not really “belong anywhere”, and Guram speaks every day to his French Jewish grandmother who follows his endless worldwide travels.
As the younger brother, Guram seems deliberately to have followed a different path, or, as he puts it: “With me and Demna, we are brothers and grew up together, but we’re both on very different roads in life.”
Guram is a business fiend, a strategic wizard filling my head fit to burst with his analysis of fashion in the era of on-line, the celebrity circus, and managing expectations just so. Four years ago he wrote a book called “Size Zero”, “a guide on spiritual management and how you find yourself”.
“For me, I like the idea of playing with the supply and demand curve,” he says, insisting on taking complete control of global distribution to 200 stores in which to develop the Vetements brand. His August will be spent on a month-long tour of North America, “going to every major city where we have partners just to see the stores and understand if it is the right place for us to be”.
At the same time, he is surveying a successful conquest of South Korea, where K-Pop stars like G-Dragon have put Vetements on the hip Asian fashion map. I think of Martin Margiela, where the Gvasalia brothers both worked, but not when Martin himself was a lone voice lowering the raucous tone of fashion in the opulent 1980s. I also wonder why Cristóbal Balenciaga, recognised by his peers as “the master of us all”, would not have been Demna’s choice for an haute couture show.
What will Vetements’ show with couture look like as it kicks off the new Paris season? Guram arrives at Sotheby’s in a slim, almost classic, black tailored coat. But I have just heard from him the complete history of Vetements’ re-cycled jeans, and why they are well worth their more-than-1,000 euro price for the complex treatment of denim, de-bacterialised and reconstructed from a patchwork of cast-away trousers to make the old new again. Handwork required on each piece: six hours.
Haute jeans by Vetements. It has a certain ring to it.
Suzy will be talking to Guram Gvasalia, CEO of Vetements, at the Vogue Festival in London on Saturday 21st May. “Vetements: A Brave New World”, will be at the Vogue World section on the East Albert Lawn of Kensington Palace Gardens. The talk will focus on why the French design collective believes that the fashion world’s operating model is defunct – and how they intend to reboot it. The talk is sold out, but you can follow this link for other events for which tickets are still available here.