Photographer Andrew Miksys and Lotta Volkova’s special print project filters the radical label through post-Soviet spaces – with Volkova and Demna Gvasalia in conversation
Taken from the spring 2016 issue of Dazed:
A sordid underground sex club. A kitschy restaurant in Chinatown, Paris. Call boys on show invites. A classical waltz mutating into Norwegian black metal. Enter the subversive world of Demna Gvasalia’s Vetements. To get there, you have to journey deep underground. “I’ve always been interested in subcultures and how they’re represented in eastern culture,” says long-term collaborator and show stylist Lotta Volkova. For this issue, she joined photographer Andrew Miksys in his exploration of Lithuania’s secret discotheques – broken reflections of a Soviet past housed in former detention centres, office blocks and weapon storage facilities. “I am fascinated with the way those spaces and the people in them looked like they had really been stopped in time,” says Volkova of the shoot, which doubles as a mirror held up to Vetements’ own archive. “To see that side of eastern culture – it’s a courageous thing that it even exists.”
Sous les pavés, la plage. The spirit of that revolutionary slogan reverberates with the most radical label to have come out of Paris in a decade. Over just four seasons, Vetements and the new community it represents has galvanised the staid fashion scene, bringing an anarchic energy to the city that disrupts the surface level. Just days after the label’s visceral SS16 outing came an unprecedented clarion call: following Alexander Wang’s departure from Balenciaga, Gvasalia would be taking over as creative director of the fashion house. It might seem something of an overnight success story for 34-year-old, Georgian-born Gvasalia, had he not been working quietly behind the scenes for more than half a decade. After stints at Maison Martin Margiela (as it was then known) and Louis Vuitton, Gvasalia and his brother Guram formed Vetements in 2014 in the spirit of a collective, banding together with others who had grown dissatisfied working at luxury brands. One mainstay collaborator has been Volkova, whose arresting, anarchic editorials frequently reference her youth growing up in Russia. Together, at Vetements and now Balenciaga, Gvasalia and Volkova represent the hardcore underground pushing fashion forward into an exciting new future.
Andrew Miksys: “During the last ten years, I spent many weekends photographing village discos in Lithuania. Most of these discos are located in Soviet-era culture houses. Sometimes I would rummage around the back rooms and find discarded Lenin paintings, old movie posters, gas masks and other remnants of the Soviet Union. I was quite fascinated by all this debris from a dead empire. It seemed like a perfect backdrop to make a series of photographs about young people in Lithuania, a crumbling past, and the uncertain future of a new generation together in one room...”
Can you recall your first exposure to western European culture?
Demna Gvasalia: I moved from Georgia to Germany when I was 20 years old. Living in Georgia, you couldn’t experience going out to gigs or meeting people in bars. So I felt a hunger in terms of getting information that I couldn’t get before and discovering things that were not available in the country where I used to live. I was in my early 20s when I discovered all these elements at once. But for Lotta it was earlier than that.
Lotta Volkova: Yes, but I really got a sense that where I came from was so far away (Lotta was raised in Vladivostok, on Russia’s Pacific coast). I grew up in the 90s and you did not really get fashion magazines until a bit later. I was interested in rock and metal and how it all connected: the art world, the music world, the fashion world. You had to literally search the whole town to find a bookshop that stocked these magazines! But I look at it in a positive way. You know, it wasn’t too available so it made you really want it.
Lotta, you then moved to London to study fashion at Central Saint Martins.
LV: Yes, but I was quite lucky because my parents worked for a company in Japan, so I travelled to London quite a lot. I was always really fascinated with it – the street cultures and subcultures.
It was powerful hearing (notorious Norwegian black metal band) Mayhem at your last show. What music did you both grow up listening to?
DG: Well, the idea was to have more of a contrast in the show – to start with something romantic, and then move into something more disturbing. When I moved to Germany, I discovered goth at the same time as hip hop, rave and other things that have nothing to do with each other. Nowadays, I listen to the same things as I did back then – it’s very eclectic. I listened to Schubert this morning!
LV: I was more post-punk. More new wave, coldwave, darkwave, punk, techno. I was a little bit into goth myself at one point.
Club culture and underground music scenes seem to be at the heart of Vetements’ core philosophy.
LV: I used to run a few club nights in London. I made and customised stuff for myself and my friends to wear. Then, somehow, that became a little business in itself. I started selling things and people would use them in photoshoots, so styling really came about naturally. We actually met at a party!
DG: Yeah, it was two or three years ago. There wasn’t much happening in Paris that we related to for a long time, so we all decided to do something about it – run club nights, DJ, make clothes, go out and listen to music. We’ve grown up together with people like DJ CLARA 3000 and photographer Pierre-Ange Carlotti, who takes the backstage photos at Vetements.
LV: Actually, the Paris club scene is the most exciting right now. There’s so much going on, DJs are coming from all over the world. It ’s kind of happening.
Why is Paris so important to Vetements?
LV: Paris has really influenced the way we work and shown us how the industry works, which we appreciate. I also feel like Paris is going through an exciting moment right now, there’s a new generation of kids that wants to do things and create. Paris has changed a lot in the last couple of years – it’s become about new, young energy, and that hasn’t been happening here for a long time. I find that really fun, inspiring and strong. There aren’t many places in the world where this is happening, but Paris is definitely one.
DG: It’s also a generation that isn’t really restrained by class, which is how Paris should be. This is a generation that tries to create its own rules to live by .
LV: Paris has been very bourgeois and conservative for a long time. Finally, there are all these people that want to do something about it, who want to do their own thing and stop caring. Paris is also quite confrontational, which is interesting. You can find this energy.
There’s definitely a sense of community about Vetements which feels different – after all, you had Gosha Rubchinskiy opening the last show.
DG: I found it very, very cool to have a guy open the show and for it to be Gosha!
LV: Yeah, I love the idea of community in a way – you all grow up together and combine that energy. We love what each of us does and we have this respect for each other.
And Lotta, you’ve also cast yourself in the last few runway shows!
LV: (laughs) Yeah, I did! The casting is basically a lot of different people who inspire us – people we like, people who are nice to us, friends or people we find through work and social media. It’s quite natural, to be honest. Most people we find are interesting-looking and super-inspiring.
“There wasn’t much happening in Paris that we related to for a long time, so we all decided to do something about it – run club nights, DJ, make clothes, go out and listen to music” – Demna Gvasalia
What’s your take on gender fluidity?
DG: We never really target gender through our clothes. A hoodie can be worn by guys and girls as well. The thing is, if we make a hoodie or a t-shirt, we fit it on a woman, never on a man. But, of course, a man can wear it. Now that we’re looking at a menswear collection (for AW16), we have to acknowledge the physiological differences between the bodies. It’s not just for skinny model guys, we want it to be for real guys as well. There will still be a lot of pieces that are unisex, though. But we don’t make dresses for guys!
LV: I have always been quite interested in uniforms. Growing up in Russia, we have people wearing uniform quite frequently. I was always fascinated by how fashionable it is and how functional it is and how it makes you look clean, proper and beautiful.
Like when Gosha opened the show in a DHL t -shirt...
DG: (laughs) DHL is something we deal with every day. We can’t live without those guys! So it felt like the right thing to do.
What intrigued you most about taking on your new role at Balenciaga?
DG: Well, it’s an amazing challenge. It’s a brand with such a rich history, so for me it was seeing how it’s possible to move on and evolve in 2016. And it’s one of the brands that can actually do that. It’s a big brand, but at the same time it’s small enough to do something interesting with the whole approach of Cristóbal – his way of thinking, how he would play with women’s bodies, the kind of clothes he made. Of course, it was a different time – the concept of beauty then was more ‘beautiful’ than it is today – but at the end of the day they were (all clothes) made organically for women to wear.
You previously said that the appeal of working for a brand like Balenciaga is to find new ways to analyse and question the fashion system. Is that ultimately what persuaded you to take the job?
DG: It’s not necessarily questioning the system so much as analysing what instruments are used today for brands to be successful, especially ready-to-wear. For me, ready-to-wear is the basis of the house. It’s the platform upon which it is built. It’s about trying to answer the question: what is ready-to-wear today?
“There’s a crazy rhythm... Fashion has to be more intelligent – I mean, how many people are buying clothes? These are questions that need to be answered soon” – Demna Gvasalia
Do you think the fashion industry simply demands too many clothes?
DG: That’s something we’re definitely working on now. We do think the fashion industry is oversupplied. There are too many clothes. It’s a lot of money. There’s a crazy rhythm. The reasons are complex – it’s not necessarily the market, brands are afraid of not having enough and so they supply as much as they can. I feel like there should really be a rethink. Fashion has to be more intelligent – I mean, how many people are buying clothes? These are questions that need to be answered soon.
LV: It’s exciting to work in a new context, to bring our world into that world and find the right balance between the two. That’s why we aren’t stressed – getting your brain to work in two different ways is quite refreshing.
DG: It’s a mental exercise. I think it helps that I have Lotta there with me as well. It’s two very different stories.
Models Dainė Rumbutytė, Andrius Jankauskas, Inga Barzdėnaitė, Milda Petevičienė, Karina Grigianeecaitė, Julija Balčiūnaitė, special thanks Denis Sorokin (Dj PuZzo), Stanislovas Rumbutis (Adutiškis Cultural Centre), Ona Raguckienė (Švenčionėliai Cultural Centre), Ernesta Miksė (Black Pagan Vintage)
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