For the past several seasons, one name that has continually been at the forefront of the fashion landscape is Demna Gvasalia. Gvasalia, born and raised in Soviet controlled Georgia, experienced extremely limited cultural exposure in his youth. It was not until the fall of the Soviet Union that Georgia was able to open itself to what had become cultural institutions in the Western world. This fostered an obsession with access to information. Gvasalia felt he had to catch up to his peers who had had access to the same resources from a young age. After studying economics in Germany at the behest of his parents, he chose to study fashion at the famed Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, Belgium. Following his graduation, Gvasalia worked as a designer at Maison Margiela where he honed his craft before moving to Louis Vuitton where he would stay until 2014. In 2014 the designer left all else behind to focus on his own blossoming brand: Vetements.
Born from Gvasalia’s own qualms with the fashion industry, Vetements is a collective of designers whose main focus is producing product that “people can relate to”. At a time when the children of the 90’s and early 2000’s are beginning to grow up or reach adolescence, the relation is often blatant. Take the cartoon t-shirts from the Vetements’ S/S19 season for example. The premise of the graphic is simply a collection of clearly unlicensed cartoon characters some of which bear striking resemblances to “Looney Tunes” characters. The reference is obvious especially given the target background though the Vetements target is more ballistic. For this reason, the characters seem quite panicked, perhaps due to their imminent death by projectile. This juxtaposition of juvenile imagery with morbid subject matter of this kind is a thread that runs throughout the Vetements brand.
Gvasalia’s approach to design is somewhat governed by his independance and thus the necessity that he sells his collections. In an interview Gvasalia states that “First and foremost, Vetements is a business.” This is intriguing because he is not shying away from the truth that money is now the driving force on a global scale. Commerciality is a core component of the success of Vetements and without this awareness of it, the brand would fail. Recently, Virgil Abloh proposed in a lecture before the Harvard Graduate School of Design that streetwear has morphed into an art movement. A cross examination of this proposal, the Vetements brand, and art history will undoubtedly lead to comparison with previous figures in art.
Until the 20th century, many of the world’s greatest artists received little recognition until after their death, especially in situations where an artist challenged the preexisting norm. However, with the introduction of cubism by Picasso and the subsequent proliferation of abstraction by the likes of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, art became an open frontier where anything was possible. By the 50’s abstract expressionism, with all its ethereal inquisitiveness and lack of structure, had become the standard within the art world. Andy Warhol, stood diametrically opposed to this ideology and sought to do something else. Warhol, who trained as a commercial artist and rendered illustrations for several print advertisements in his early career, began exploring the idea of bringing commerciality into the art world. Through both two and three dimensional recreations of familiar household items like a can of Campbell’s tomato soup, Warhol created art that was easily approachable by anyone because regardless of their origin or personal history, they knew what they were looking at. Warhol was obsessed with the now and so is Demna Gvasalia.
This comparison should initially be very intuitive given the fact that each figure’s goal was to strip away the glamour from their respective mediums. Warhol loved the art world and was obsessed with it though he did not crave glamour rather craved to observe it. Similarly, Gvasalia does not identify with the opulence of luxury fashion nor does he consider his brand to be luxury (despite the price point). He denounces sophistication and elegance as goals and as previously mentioned, cares more about the relatability of his work. The simplicity of Warhol’s subjects presents a very similar motivation. They each serve to remove the gates at the doors to their worlds.
The mid 20th century was a tumultuous time and as is today. In the 60’s it was the civil rights movement and Vietnam; now it is staunch nationalism and the Middle East. As an artist, one has the duty to document the world around them in a way that is understandable. Warhol broached subjects like global conflict with his Chairman Mao screen print in garish uncomplimentary colours - none of which were China’s national colour of red. The aforementioned cartoon shirt from the Vetements S/S19 collection is one of many pieces through which Gvasalia reflects on his childhood in a war-torn Georgia. The S/S 19 collection is dedicated to Georgians and the hardships they experienced such as ethnic cleansing during the 1990’s. By showing children’s characters in mortal danger, Gvasalia highlights the macabre that was his environment while remaining playful as Warhol did with Mao. This commonality is one that shows how their worldviews align.
Another shared trait is the incorporation of everyday imagery into so-called “high culture”. For Warhol it was through his use of household items and Gvasalia contemporary iconography. The only reason people considered for a moment that the Campbell’s soup can was art was because Warhol said so. It wasn’t necessarily about the image of the can itself but rather calling attention to it and stating we should look closer at the things we see everyday. The Chinese Zodiac line of t-shirts from the S/S19 Vetements collection is similar in that zodiac graphic tees are not a new idea. There have been offerings from lower price point brands containing the astrological personal identifier for a significant time but like Warhol, Gvasalia urges his audience to reframe the object. He wishes to bestow a suitable offering to his clientele so that they may, if they choose, adopt the marker while supporting a brand with which they identify.
The true specialty of these two cultural titans is communication. They proliferate their messages in a way that makes people want to engage rather than observe. Each new collection Vetements turns its lens to a new subject and forces something previously unconsidered into the limelight. Warhol did the same. Obsession and observation are key elements to both of their work that instill both with a sense of authenticity. The purpose of what both figures have done is meant to cause celebration and broaden the horizons of the public. Since self-expression is an integral part of the human experience it is important that people not be afraid to engage in it. Whether it be through the observation of art or the consumption of street fashion, it matters. Gvasalia and Warhol: each one a student of popular culture and each one an equalizer.