Relative fashion new-comer Vetements became the most anticipated, buzzed about show of Paris Fashion Week A/W2016, attracting mob scenes of fans and fashion powerhouses from across the globe.
As the story goes: Frustrated and stifled in the fashion establishment’s straight-jacket, several long-time cohorts gather nights and weekends in Demna Gvasalia’s bedroom to unchain their creativity and design purely for love and fun. Add an enterprising brother and the mystique of anonymity, and upstart brand is set to shakeup BigFashion.
While the Vetements’ backstory has been well documented, the line’s creative evolution has not. How did the brand go from what Business of Fashion’s Siska Lyssens described as “deceptively simple,” “nondescript at first sight” and “sober” to being hailed a mere two years later by W Magazine’s Alexander Fury as the “most radical thing to come out of Paris in over a decade?”
Gvasalia’s oft-quoted commitment to “real” clothing is usually cited as the determining factor, telling BoF, “The most important ingredient for us is the reality, what our woman wears to feel good and comfortable,” and to W Magazine, “It’s very product-orientated. There are no illusions of, ‘Oh, we want to create a dream about fashion.’ We just want to create clothes that people want to have.”
True enough. But a closer look at Vetements reveals a success story far more interesting – one of friendship, creative collaboration, and the creation of a new underground scene alchemizing not only Paris fashion, but the city itself.
That part of the story begins in 2013, just as Gvasalia starts to prepare for the collective’s debut show. Two fortuitous introductions in Paris nightclubs would provide the fuel for what would become the Vetements creative explosion. The first, stylist Lotto Volkova. Russian-born and named after Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love,” Volkova would soon bring the hard-edge attitude of the 90s-era post-Soviet underground scene to Vetements’ somber silhouettes.
Her fearlessness forged in the USSR’s fall, it’s in the revolutionary time of Western media influx that Volkova’s future takes shape. “It was so inspiring for me. The first time I learned about fashion was through the series Eurotrash, that program with Jean Paul Gaultier and Antoine de Caunes,” says Volkova to Vogue’s Liana Satenstein. “I was watching Jean Paul Gaultier naked in a tree, interviewing someone else naked in another tree. It was so fucked up and so much fun.”
Leaving her hometown at 17 to study art at Central Saint Martins, Volkova quickly fell into the local club scene. “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 photo shoots, so styling really came about naturally.”
Eventually she relocated to Paris, meeting Demna Gvasalia a few years later while out clubbing. When the Soviet-occupied Croatia-born Gvasalia approached her to work on his collection, she knew, “Straightaway, we understood we have a lot in common.”
Making the party circuit with Volkova, Gvasalia next met 23-year-old Clara Deshayes, AKA “Clara 3000.” The young DJ frequently mixed her vinyl at Paris hotspots as well as the infamous Fashion Week party, Cicciolina Paris. “When Demna was preparing his first show, he thought about me and called me,” she recalls to Ssense. “I started making music for shows a little bit earlier, for Jacquemus. It was the same process: we are friends, it was his first show and he didn’t have any budget.” The collaboration worked. “It’s like an additional vision of the collection – trying to make the idea of it even more powerful thanks to the music.”
Deshayes had started writing for Trax magazine when she was just seventeen, but it was in
electronica music that she found her calling. “There was this big sound, something very different from what I knew, there was an energy and I fell in love with it,” she told I-D magazine. “I moved to Paris and did an internship for an electronic music magazine that allowed me to go out, listen to records during the day and watch DJs at night. I bought turntables, learned to mix in my room, one thing led to another and a few months later, I was working with Pedro Winter of Ed Banger. Shortly after he called me and said, ‘you’ll do the warm-up set for Justice.’ I was freaking out, my knees were trembling behind the decks. I’ve not stopped DJing since.”
In Deshayes’ tough yet vulnerable tomboy looks, tousled hair and big blue eyes, Gvasalia had found not only a musical collaborator, but a friend, model and muse as well. And it was through her that he found photographer Pierre-Ange Carlotti. Working as a casting assistant by day, by night Carlotti documents the outrageous life of Paris’ underground party scene. His point-and-shoot style conjures images of 1970s basement porn – raw, exposed, unvarnished truth.
Drawing much of his inspiration from the work of directors like Pier Paolo Pasolini and photographers like Helmut Newton, not surprisingly, he is also heavily influenced by music, telling Konbini’s Jordan Gold, “Musically I had the chance to live with [DJ Clara 3000] for 3 years, I learned so much from every style of music because she has a really eclectic taste and culture.”
“I’d love to consider myself some kind of reporter,” he confessed to I-D’s Daniel Oritz. “I am a true believer in the things that I like the most, which is documenting my life and that of those around me. I feel inspired by them. There is no real boundary between my life and my work, because what I do is take pictures of my own life. I worked for Jacquemus, but he appears in my portraits too. I take pictures of Clara Deshayes for fashion editorials, but we are also flat mates. In the beginning there was no job that some friend of mine wasn’t involved in, and they are now quite used to being in my pictures.”
As for fashion? “My favorite trends are from another time, from New York and the men that used to go cruising and go to the Mineshaft, for example. I’m all about the colour black, chains and leather. If I had to dress someone in Paris, it’d be with Vetements. I like people dressed as if they just left an after party. This is also how I usually dress.”
It’s clear Carlotti’s admiration for the fashion brand isn’t one-sided. As Vetements’ Gvasalia explains to Dazed Digital’s Kin Woo about the label’s core in club culture and underground music scenes, “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.”
It is within this context of mutual admiration that we begin to realize that Vetements is not merely a fashion collective, but an extended creative collective, ready to inspire and challenge each other in their respective crafts. It is this environment that empowered Vetements warp-speed creative evolution from “non-descript” to “radical.” As Carlotti told Ortiz, “Today’s fashion has this sexy feeling because it relies on music, photography, design, all these other creative disciplines. I think that what’s new about it is that in the current environment everybody is as interested in his or her own abilities as in what others are capable of.”
“I think we’re all trying to create things that are part of our time,” Deshayes told Karin Nelson at W Magazine. “It’s almost an urgency.” It’s a sentiment echoed by Gvasalia to NYT writer Ann Binlot, saying “It’s about now, it’s about our generation, and that’s what the big difference is for us.”
The parallels to New York’s Mudd Club circa 1981 are hard to miss. Regulars at the “no wave new wave” underground scene included up-and-comers from Debbie Harry to Betsey Johnson, Allen Ginsberg to Keith Haring, with David Bowie and Andy Warhol frequenting the place as well. Anna Sui and her friends were (as NYTs Magazine’s Tim Blanks puts it) “the tightknit group turning the toilets into a club within a club.” It was an environment of exchange; a merging of art, literature, music and film.
Mudd embodied a merging of fashion as well: thrift-shop chic met DIY as the not-yet fashion elite swapped clothes with friends of both sexes, took scissors and hammers to denim and leather, and pulled out safety pins, markers and craft scraps to create one of a kind, fashions on the fly.
It was scene steeped in music, fueled by creativity and empowered by the possibility that even if you weren’t an artist, musician or filmmaker, you could be. It was the kind of creative combustion engine fashion hasn’t since – at least not until now.
In Vetements 2016 collections, we find Mudd-esque influences underpinning every color, fabric, form and silhouette. We find them in rippling through Lotta Volkova’s so-bad-it’s-good styling, and echoing throughout Clara 3000’s set lists. Recalling Maripol’s Polaroids, we see them develop in Pierre-Ange Carlotti’s backstage photographs.
What might this collective tour de force have lined up next? As Deshayes said to I-D, “I really believe it’s better not to plan too much. Right now, we’re a bunch of young people all pointed in the same direction within our fields. We are in Paris, we have a common vision. We’re the same. Simply, we’re a group.”