The elusive creative director shares his thoughts on dressing Kanye and Kim, gendered clothing, and the controversy around his Crocs.
In 2021, Demna Gvasalia redefined the reach and possibility of fashion design. His Balenciaga has challenged our assumptions about celebrity, luxury, popular culture, and even reality itself. As designers struggled throughout the pandemic to adjust to virtual fashion shows, Balenciaga seized an opportunity to plunge into the metaverse, partnering with Epic Games, the developer behind Fortnite, to create a video game for fall 2021. A few months later, Balenciaga boot-pants and hourglass jackets showed up on Gucci’s runway, part of what both brands (which are owned by the conglomerate Kering) deemed the “hacker project.” Over the summer, Gvasalia directed two of Kanye West’s stadium-size Donda listening parties—and in the midst of all this, relaunched Balenciaga couture, recharting the industry’s direction, away from hype and toward handcraft. In September, Balenciaga ruled the Met gala red carpet, and cemented a partnership with Fortnite that allowed players to dress in its signature looks. At Paris Fashion Week in September, Balenciaga served up a rare moment of genuine surprise and delight, debuting a 10-minute-long Balenciaga-packed episode of The Simpsons.
Gvasalia is a populist interested in subverting fashion; what he has done with each of these projects is dismantle, brick by brick, the false boundary between vernacular and luxury. His platform-sole Crocs, satirical prom suits, and leather Ikea bags—all at luxurious price points—get a rise from the masses, and expose the clichés of fashion elitism. But with video games, cartoons, and mega-wattage celebrities, Gvasalia is finding unexpected ways to extend the reach of a luxury brand.
“I am not interested in anything average, including the average consumer,” Gvasalia wrote to me in an email this fall. “If someone is personally offended by Crocs, there might be a more serious problem within that person than the design of a shoe.” As for those who think they’re getting one over by pointing out the absurdity of Balenciaga’s multi-thousand-dollar versions of mass-produced lowbrow objects: “Everything I do has a reason for it,” he says. “The trashy prom suit or an ‘unreasonably expensive’ market bag did not just accidentally slip into my collection without me super consciously putting it there. Do I know that this may not be ‘understood’ by the average social media critique? Yes, I do. Do I care? I am pretty sure you know the answer. I just do fashion that I love and enjoy; it is really as simple as that.”
Gvasalia ascended through the fashion industry over the past six years as a provocateur, but he now sits atop it as a lover, as its most electric practitioner and biggest fan. The Georgian-born designer, who is 40, yanked streetwear and an ambivalent Eastern European menace into the luxury business, first as the de facto head of the collective Vetements, and then, starting in 2015, as the artistic director of Balenciaga. He has not changed the way the entire world dresses, but has done something more fascinating: He codified the way we were already dressing into a global style sensibility, transforming the quotidian into items worthy of worship. In the process, he positioned Balenciaga as an embodiment of a certain surliness toward big corporate fashion, and as the coolest brand on the planet.
Over the past two years, though, Gvasalia appears to have shed the angst of a designer proving himself and is now a clear-eyed believer in the power of fashion. “I am just a happier individual now than I used to be five or two years ago,” the designer says, reflecting on this change in attitude. (Incidentally, it was two years ago that Gvasalia left Vetements, in part to focus exclusively on Balenciaga.) “I am much more connected to myself, my creative vision, and my artistic mission, which is to bring things further in general. I am a happier person now, and I am in love.” He married the musician Loïk Gomez in 2017. “And this may be the reason my approach reflects it too,” he continues, “even though my relationship to fashion has never changed—I love[d] making clothes ever since I was eight years old. It’s my longest love affair so far, to which I am very loyal, despite the fact that I have been hurt by it many times.” Here, he added a winking emoticon.
This attitude has had joyous implications for the clothes. In launching couture, Gvasalia radically reimagined suiting as a symbol of masculinity’s complex state, rather than affirming it as a vestige of aspirational macho panache, in part because of his steadfast belief in genderfluid design. “I do not think of any gender when I make clothes,” he writes. “I just make them for anyone who loves and wants to wear them.” He put the male-identifying models in heels just over four inches: “When I tried wearing my mom’s heels as a little boy, I was strictly punished, because this was not acceptable for a boy in [the] culture and society in which I grew up. Putting men in high heels for couture was a symbolic act of liberation from those absurd boundaries for me.”
Simultaneously, Gvasalia has deepened his relationship to celebrity, turning one of the most transactional aspects of the fashion industry into pop performance art. Justin Bieber appeared in the brand’s fall campaign, then performed at the Met gala and Balenciaga’s after-party.
For that night’s red carpet, Gvasalia dressed, among others, Elliot Page in a couture suit, Isabelle Huppert in a red trumpet-shaped camp masterpiece, and Kim Kardashian in what Gvasalia called a T-shirt, but one that rendered the most overexposed person alive as a blank void. Gvasalia posed alongside her, similarly shrouded, leading many to wonder whether it was really them—and whether it even mattered at all.
“I did not start dressing celebrities in any strategic way,” Gvasalia writes. “I just started this new conversation with people I know and admire for various reasons, and [who I] want to see wear what I do.” Why now, when many fashion observers think the red carpet’s influence is dead? “Since Kim and I walked the Met ball, the online interest in Balenciaga seemingly grew 500%,” Gvasalia writes. “I think it just depends on what you show on that red carpet. Maybe people are just bored of embroidered, half-naked gowns that we’ve seen for over three decades by now.”
Gvasalia continued this theme with his October fashion show in Paris, staging the runway as a red carpet entrance to a theater. Once Huppert, Anna Wintour, Page, Offset, and Cardi B were inside and tucked into velvet seats around Gvasalia, the lights went down, and suddenly, we were in Springfield: Gvasalia had spent the past year secretly working with Simpsons creator Matt Groening’s team to create a 10-minute episode of the show. “One reason we did it,” says Al Jean, the longtime Simpsons producer and writer largely responsible for the Balenciaga partnership, “is [Gvasalia] was so clearly a fan and student of the show, so we knew that we could trust them there. They went all in—they put all our characters in, and the animation was fantastic and expensive.” The Simpsons team was less familiar with Balenciaga, but as James L. Brooks, another Simpsons writer, says of their approach: “Innocence and stupidity are such great advantages.” The appearance of Balenciaga’s designs—which Jean calls “brilliant” and says “worked fantastic on our characters”—in Springfield clarified Gvasalia’s philosophy: He views his outrageous fashion as a release for the eccentric normies of the world. As Jean puts it, “Everybody wants to be a cartoon character.”
The Simpsons project showed how Gvasalia’s Balenciaga is now represented as much by Berghain regulars as by global celebrities like Kardashian and Bieber and the people who follow their every move and fit. “My Balenciaga is for those who understand, value, and enjoy what I do,” Gvasalia writes. “It is for the people who are not afraid to be different, and yes, it is for Kanye, it is for Kim, and for thousands of other people who wear the clothes we make. It is for someone who truly loves fashion, not for people who have time to debate Met gala looks for hours. If one needs to debate it for hours, it means they do not understand what fashion really means, and their debate stays in that tiny box of their personal comfort zone.” In other words, if you open your mind, you might find love.