Demna Gvasalia brings a sense of humour to his AW17 collection
Airport terminals, bank lobbies, high street shops: they all feel unreal. They are the places Demna Gvasalia designs for at Vetements. His AW17 ‘Stereotype’ collection cast ‘real people’ in a run of suggestive characters. He has since moved the company from Paris to Zurich and eschewed the runway for the empty spaces of the SS18 collection, to evoke (if anything) the international movement of capital. Vetements is real, in its most sharply unreal expression. Though an unlikely reference point, we can approach Gvasalia’s knowing sociology by way of August Sander’s similar, now remote documentary portraits of Germany in the Twenties.
Sander identified his subjects by social class, yet time has given them a sense of humour Gavasalia would appreciate. ‘Police constable’ sports a shoulder-breadth moustache, ‘Communist leader’ styles himself like Lenin, ‘The architect, Prof. P’ dons a bowl cut. Details come to seem like wry gestures, here a button missing, there a creased shirt. ‘Unemployed’, with his large shaved head, lanky gait and loose clothes, could walk straight into a Vetements show. Suits of this period were cut thinner for the leisurely rich, so when working people wore cheap copies they look misshapen, grotesque. Yet now he shares the angelic repose of Vetements’ so-called ‘chavs’, who wear their tracksuits like robes. In becoming representative, these figures become unreal and more fashionable.
Gvasalia refines the process. His colour scheme replicates the smearing effect of sepia, not at all wistful but shockingly present. In the mutes that temper our apparel (ensembles of beige and fawn, stonewash jeans), or in the sudden alarm of a prison-orange hoodie or a motorway-blue puffer – this is the bulk-blurry signage of public life. His synthetic designs effect a distance from the wearer. A suit is a net of tubes to re-route the limbs; one fur coat, hemmed from two; the puffer jacket so heavily wrought Jeff Koons could have done it. These ‘Stereotypes’ swallow rather than express individuality; as Gvasalia says, ‘It’s less subculture and more about product design’. He also said that casting ‘real people’ meant more, not less couture to accommodate their body types.
Gvasalia’s designs present in the moment, what a century has brought to bear on Sander’s portraits: our individuality gets smeared across us, makes us unreal. By ‘really observing the way we dress’, he means to pin down the strange haze surrounding the emo, the office worker, the old man. If this is scary then Gvasalia knows it. His homeless man in an EU flag, his booted UN soldier intimate real horror. In the coming years, Sander would photograph SS Officers and Hitler Youth. These Vetements characters lead a precarious life, any moment they might pop – leave a heap of baggy clothes, a splatter on the check-in lounge.