At the helm of fashion house Balenciaga, this creative director from Georgia designs unwearable clothes that everyone wants to get their hands on. How on earth does he do it?
Words by Gino Delmas and Thibaud Barle.
Translation from French by Helene Tammik.
Article originally published in L'Etiquette issue 7.
Don't say Demna Gvasalia – just Demna, as though it were the most natural thing in the world. Say Demna as if you know him. And, of course, you must know him. The fashion world has been talking about him and him alone for months. At the beginning, his name caused a stir, then major waves, and now it’s surrounded by massive hype. In July, Demna delivered a grandiose haute couture show, Balenciaga's first since 1967, in Paris. In August, he staged Kanye West's epic launch show for his latest album, Donda, in Atlanta. In September, he hit the headlines for putting Kim Kardashian in an all-black spandex catsuit for the Met Gala in New York. In October, back in Paris, he unveiled his new collection in a one-off episode of The Simpsons dedicated to Balenciaga. What’s Demna got in store for us in November? December? We can only wait impatiently and speculate.
Who is this man? How does he work? What can we learn from his resounding critical, popular and economic success? Above all, what is it that makes him such a genius? Is it that he’s a marketing man who knows how to pull the right strings, or is he a visionary contemporary artist, totally in sync with an era that’s redefining taste? Is he on a mission, as a close friend says, to “democratize fashion,” even if he isn’t democratizing its prices? Or perhaps, as another friend claims, he actually aims to “reinvent our figures”? So many questions, but one thing’s for sure: whatever you may think of his clothes, Demna Gvasalia is fascinating. Sorry. Demna is fascinating.
From Antwerp to Paris
The story of his love affair with fashion began in Belgium in September 2003, when the young Georgian arrived at Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts, an institution renowned for having nurtured Dries Van Noten, Martin Margiela and Raf Simons, among others. At 21, he was the youngest of 46 students in the first year, but above all he was one of the most inexperienced. He’d never been involved in fashion or clothing before. His personal style didn’t amount to much. "I just remember him wearing a lot of black, baggy clothes, mostly secondhand," says Helena Lumelsky, one of his closest friends in those days. The curriculum at Antwerp is known for being brutally tough. Of the 40 or so students who enroll in the first year, only about 10 are still there to collect their diploma four years later. Nevertheless, a certain camaraderie quickly formed in Demna’s class. “We supported each other,” recalls Arienne Birchler, another of Demna's classmates. “We all had completely different backgrounds, and our personalities complemented each other; it made the group special.” They were a studious and diligent circle of friends. “We lived for our course, 24/7. In the evenings, we’d often sit down among the drawing boards and eat together. It's funny, I can still see Demna teaching us how to fold a khinkali dumpling and making lots of other Georgian recipes."
In the classroom, Demna's work was already different. While all the other students used machines, he enjoyed sewing by hand. His cutting, assembling and stitching were done by instinct. “As soon as he could, Demna skipped the mood boards and sketches stage,” says Lumelsky. “He would try things out directly with fabrics he’d collected. It would only be afterward that he’d come up with inspirations to justify what he’d done. The teachers just let him get on with it because the result was always good.” The Gvasalia touch, which would later sprinkle fairy dust at Virements and then Balenciaga, emerged slowly under the gaze of his friends and teachers. “His clothes had structure and interesting volumes,” says his fourth-year design tutor, the legendary Linda Loppa. “And you could already see that deconstruction and sort of fluidity that are so distinctive in his work.” Demna Gvasalia was ready to join a fashion house.
In 2009, after he’d worked a few months under his former teacher Walter Van Beirendonck and presented a womenswear collection (which never went to market) at Tokyo Fashion Week, Gvasalia was hired by Martin Margiela. There he met professionals who became loyal followers, like makeup artist Inge Grognard, photographer Mark Borthwick and his assistant Martina Tiefenthaler, who is still with him today at Balenciaga. In 2012 there was another move, this time to Louis Vuitton, where he was put in charge of women’s ready-to-wear. "He wasn’t at all known at that time, but you could tell that he already had a healthy ego and strong opinions,” recalls a studio seamstress. The problem was that the brand's then-creative director, Marc Jacobs, who was about to leave Vuitton, was more interested in celebrating his future prospects than in self-reflection. Gvasalia's introverted nature and the coldness he sometimes shows toward colleagues, didn’t help. Jacobs’s right-hand woman at that time, Julie de Libran, politely sums up the situation: "Demna had a hard time finding his place in the studio." Nicolas Ghesquière’s arrival at Vuitton did nothing to improve the situation. Gvasalia would later admit outright: "We hated our jobs. We decided to set up something that would allow us to make collections we enjoyed."
From Paris to Zurich
The "we" refers to a small circle of designers, most of them uprooted and driven by the desire for a different kind of fashion. Alongside Demna Gvasalia and his brother, Guram, there were a half-dozen of them, mostly still under contract to fashion houses. They set up Virements on December 12, 2013. More than a brand, it was an anonymous, shifting, rough-and-ready collective. Under Gvasalia’s leadership, they’d find garments in thrift stores and army surplus outlets, reworking them to suit their own taste and dressing their friends in them. The Georgian designer's apartment, near Rue Poissonnière in central Paris, served as a studio. “They’d be working away in every corner of the apartment, with the looks hurriedly printed out and stuck to the walls with tape," recalls Zoé Michel, author of the first report on the brand for the Paris Première TV show La Mode La Mode La Mode, on the eve of the collective’s first runway show. “It was like a student collection, but with much more precision.” Photographer Pierre-Ange Carlotti, stylist Lotta Volkova and DJ Clara 3000 were there, always up for a good night out. The group of friends would be out in the local bars almost every night. “Clara always ended up finding some obscure place, often an African club in Château d'Eau, so we could carry on partying,” one of the gang’s night owls remembers. “We’d often end up at Demna's at the end of the night."
In March 2015, the collective's second show – at Dépôt, a famous gay club in Paris’s Marais – marked a turning point. With firemen’s and prison guards’ uniforms, generous volumes, exaggerated shoulders, a cast of unknowns, and the unusual location, Gvasalia made an indelible mark. Jared Leto, Kanye West and Anna Wintour were in the audience. "There was an insane energy; almost instantly they made everyone else look old hat," recalls journalist Loïc Prigent.
Suddenly, dramatically, success had struck. Gvasalia got sucked into the work, spending his days in the brand's new studio – a real one at last – on Rue de Maubeuge in Paris’s ninth arrondissement. "It was on a mezzanine floor with one room at the entrance and a second one in the basement," remembers Nicoleta Ilescu, who has been assisting the Gvasalia brothers since early 2015. “There was music playing all the time: rock, R'n'B, even Britney Spears." The atmosphere was informal but intense. Workdays often started at 9 AM and always ended at 3 o’clock in the morning,
Monday to Saturday. Demna was reverting to the tried and tested design methods of his Antwerp days. "It would often start with a joke: 'What if we tried this? That’d be crazy!’ Then someone would take the idea and run with it," says Ilescu. “It was all very spontaneous; there was lots of interaction, and nothing was done by e-mail. The notorious DHL T-shirts, the ankle boots with cigarette-lighter heels, the Western outfit with American footballer's shoulders were all products of these countless discussions.
Kanye West was fascinated by what he saw. In March 2015, he was invited to the Dior Fall/Winter ready-to-wear show and appeared on the cobblestones of the Louvre’s Cour Carrée in a black Vêtements hoodie. Later, during a press conference, West walked in and parked himself in a corner, snacking on chicken wings while the fashion editors raved about the collection. “I remember Demna telling us when his phone rang, 'Oh my God, it's Kanye!'" recalls a friend. “They’d talk a lot, for four hours a day sometimes, they clearly had a lot of time for each other.”
From Vêtements to Balenciaga
In 2015, after only three collections for Vêtements, Gvasalia was ready for the big leap and took over as Balenciaga’s creative director. The stakes were high on both sides. He had to prove that he could scale up his vision to the level of a major fashion house, while Balenciaga, which had been losing momentum since Nicolas Ghesquière’s 2012 departure, was once again placing its fate in the hands of an up-and-coming designer. Despite the pressure, Gvasalia appeared as relaxed as ever. One staffer recalls: "He immediately asked me to call him by his first name."
Gvasalia could count on support from his growing band of allies. Volkova, the long-standing Vêtements stylist, was there, as was Maud Escudie, his favorite fitting model, a rock-climbing enthusiast and true muse. His first menswear collection focused on tailoring and vintage-inspired pieces with reworked proportions. Hovering over the show was the stereotype of the gopnik, a Russian version of a hooligan, in his three-quarter-length leather coat, polyester tracksuit and formal leather shoes. “During rehearsals, with Russian music playing in the background, Lotta and Demna were very concentrated, but also very relaxed,” says one of the models. “You could see they were trying things out and having fun mixing Balenciaga's codes with Demna's universe."
It was a carefree, light-hearted time. The designer, who had fled the civil war and massacres that shook his native Georgia in the early 1990s, when he was barely 10, had now become part of the system, but he was still resisting it. "His background, and the sense of being a bit of an outsider, meant that for a long time Demna was able to keep things in perspective," says a member of his close entourage. On a night out in London, when Gvasalia was in a club with some friends, a young guy in a Balenciaga sweatshirt came up to him: "I love what you're doing but can't you give a discount? Because almost €1,000 for a sweatshirt is kinda hard." Without missing a beat, the designer replied: "€1,000? That's no good, the one that I'm wearing cost €20!” On another occasion, when a British newspaper asked if he’d buy his own clothes at full price, he said he’d “rather go on holiday” with the money. And why not?
His rise to the top of Balenciaga soon spelled the end of a carefree life for the man from Sukhumi, Georgia, on the shores of the Black Sea. At the after party for his first Balenciaga show, he was besieged with requests for selfies, claps on the shoulder, kisses and exclamations of “Amazing!” In short, the usual circus. Dazed by the flashlights, like a rabbit caught in headlights, he was hustled out by the events team in rock-star style. "What's going on?" he asked in shock. "You've become famous," came the reply.
It scared him. Along with his soon-to-be husband, artist Loïk Gomez, he distanced himself from partying and nightlife. He gave up alcohol and cigarettes and went vegetarian. "He was fed up with the goldfish bowl of fashion and wanted to get back to nature," says a friend. Soon, at the same time as he broke away from Virements, Demna left Paris with his husband and their two Chihuahuas. They headed for Zurich, Switzerland, with its quiet evenings and welcoming tax regime. The couple settled down in a house on the wooded slopes above the city. Demna no longer has to travel to Paris for work and once described the French capital to a German newspaper as "the city that kills creativity with all its bling, that’s so destructive and artificial."
Now people come to him. Once a week, his Balenciaga team boards an express train at the Gare de Lyon at dawn. Their destination is the studio that’s been set up in a soulless office building amid the banks and consultancy firms of downtown Zurich. Each time, it’s the same upheaval. Tables and racks have to be set up, and bags and suitcases full of concepts, fabrics and sketches have to be unpacked. Then, after it's all over, everything is packed up again, and the place is cleared out as if nothing had happened. Until the following week, and their next visit. It's a grueling modus operandi that leaves many of the designers exhausted. But nobody complains. Because it's Demna, “the best,” as they all say.
From Balenciaga to Demna
But why "the best"? Why him? Is it because his designs are more recognizable than those of others? Or is it because his concepts and images appear right across the planet every week? Put simply, is Demna Gvasalia the best because he has succeeded in imposing his fashion everywhere, well beyond the circles it is usually confined to, and multiplied Balenciaga's annual turnover fivefold, to nearly €2 billion? “What’s really impressive is that Demna always has ideas," is the straightforward answer offered by a former studio employee. “He supplies his designers with a constant stream of them. One day he might turn up with a picture of Arnold Schwarzenegger in a tight T-shirt and ask them to do some 3D research, just like that, directly. He’s not interested in sketches; what matters to him are objects, models, organic tests. He’ll take a pair of scissors, ask for someone to bring him some spandex, and explore with his hands. Then the samples are taken to the studio.”
Balenciaga's studios in Paris, on Rue de Sèvres, are always spilling over with bits of secondhand garments and rolls of fabric. As they experiment, the designers or even the creative director himself will come and unstitch a sleeve or a collar so they can graft it onto a piece they’re constructing. This cheerful chaos results in pieces that no one, rightly or wrongly, had ever thought of making, let alone wearing. Legend has it that this is how the Triple S, the famous sneaker made with three different soles, was born. Gvasalia is said to have created it by gluing together pieces from different shoes that had been cut up. The Italian-made design was unveiled in January 2017 and sold for nearly €700. The following year, production of the Triple S was relocated to China, officially so it could be made lighter, but the sale price remained the same. Why bother to lower it? The premium-priced Triple S was to become a bonanza for Balenciaga, much to the delight of its designer, a shrewd businessman. "He doesn’t remotely resemble the all-powerful designer who’s disconnected from economic realities and simply tells people to 'make it happen’,” says a colleague. “It’s a discussion, with coherent and realistic financial imperatives, which he’ll explain if necessary.”
As an economics graduate from the University of Tbilisi, Gvasalia had once considered a career in finance or banking before he enrolled at the Royal Academy in Antwerp. Twenty years later, he’s the most influential designer of the moment, heading a hugely powerful company that’s happy to fulfil all his fantasies and finance all his schemes. Last July, it was haute couture, which Balenciaga had abstained from for 53 years, until then. In quasi-religious silence, 63 figures catwalked through the brand's historic salons at 10, avenue George V in Paris, magnificently refurbished for the occasion. There were lighthearted nods to Cristóbal Balenciaga, whose spirit could be felt. The models included a few men dressed in outrageous, distorted black suits. During the design phase, Gvasalia and his team had traveled to London to visit the finest tailors on Savile Row. They’d brought along a photo of Marc Jacobs taken in 2019, during the MTV VMA Awards. It showed the designer wearing a spectacular green suit with swooping pagoda shoulders. This was the reference Gvasalia wanted to base his designs on. After several refusals, it was Huntsman, the tailors that made Jacobs' original suit, who finally agreed to work on about a dozen designs, some requiring up to eight layers of interfacing. Nothing was left to chance for that show, not even the tiniest detail. Gvasalia even called on Gammarelli, the traditional company that has supplied the Vatican with socks for many decades. “We did a lot of prototyping,” says Jacques Tiberghien, co-founder of Mes Chaussettes Rouges, the Italian brand's Parisian partner. “In the end, Demna opted for a very simple pair, very close to the iconic design, even down to the style of the traditional stamp with the two brands."
What will he do now? And how? Those who know him often predict that he won’t stay in fashion forever, that he’ll eventually tire of the world of luxury that’s so far removed from his roots and his personal aspirations. Others wonder if striving for personal glory and media exposure will eventually catch up with him after so many years of resisting it. Nothing is certain. In September, Balenciaga booked a half-a-million-dollar table for the glitzy Met Gala in New York. At colossal expense, Demna and his team flew in, braving the U.S.’s Covid-19 travel ban to attend the ceremony. That evening, the Georgian designer put Kim Kardashian in an all-over spandex bodysuit that was broadcast worldwide. But just a few hours before the show, several members of his delegation were to be found in a nondescript Manhattan laundromat, washing and rewashing a plain pair of black trousers and a shapeless black hoodie for hours and hours. Later that evening, a shadow appeared at Kim Kardashian's side, completely concealed under clothes turned gray by successive washes, his face hidden by the fabric; iconic but elusive, there without being there... Demna Gvasalia? Yes, but just say Demna