Some designers create work so timeless that it transcends history. Others have the skill to capture the spirit of a moment so precisely and instinctively that their power fades as the zeitgeist moves on, because it’s so tied up with that particular point in time. Then there are some who seem great at first, but, before long, start to look like last night’s drunken lay in the sober light of dawn. That’s when the embarrassment begins to set in along with thoughts of “oh, God; what was I thinking?”
It’s too soon to tell where history will place Demna Gvasalia. Maybe he’ll be remembered as one of the greats, but even if he doesn’t he can take comfort from the fact that nobody in fashion is in tune with the ethos of our era like he is.
A decade has passed since the proliferation of social media, the arrival of the iPhone and the rise of non-stop web connectivity redefined our lives and the world. Gvasalia is the first fashion designer that truly gets the Internet age.
Demna’s designs for both Balenciaga and Vetements have a wry, ironic tone and are littered with pop cultural references. This is a direct reflection of how we communicate online, and if you take a look at any social media ~influencer~ that’s famous purely for their contributions to Internet discourse, it’s always because they’ve mastered that cutting snark that works so well on the web. As a reference point, look at the Twitter account of Mangal 2, a brutally sarcastic Turkish restaurant based in east London, or @fuckjerry’s Instagram – owned by an ambiguous Internet user who has attracted 12.4m followers purely because of his ability to curate and caption memes.
Journalists, rappers, porn stars and every other human being that exists in the real world have a logical basis for their Internet following: their popularity on social media is a reflection of their work in reality. @fuckjerry and the countless other comparable examples that dominate the web don’t. Their prominence comes entirely from their mastery of how to communicate online. Pop cultural references are so pervasive on the Internet because it’s a medium that’s both global yet utterly impersonal. Flesh-and-blood human interaction allows us to develop in-jokes based on collective experience and individual personalities. That’s impossible to recreate in the alienating, anonymous void of the web, so we rely on widely-understood pop cultural signals as a common language.
All of these qualities can be seen in Gvasalia’s creations. Although they bear just about no resemblance to the sort of pop cultural hooks used on the Internet, the nods to DHL, IKEA, James Cameron’s Titanic and Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign have that instant recognizability that we’ve become so reliant upon in our online discourse. They have a collective meaning that doesn’t have to be established or explained. His work is always irreverent; it mocks the excess and the superficial triviality of the fashion world all while contributing to it.
Of course this is hardly novel: Jeremy Scott’s and Anya Hyndmarch’s designs are flooded with similar references, but their use of pop cultural symbols doesn’t serve the same purpose and their work doesn’t exhibit any other characteristics of web culture. Demna’s, on the other hand, do: there’s a meme element to his creations. Vetements' DHL tee and Balenciaga’s FRAKTA bag reimagine familiar objects in new forms that imbue them with new meanings in the same way that Internet users have turned Willy Wonka’s smug smile into an avatar for patronizing mockery.
There’s a meta self-awareness to Gvasalia’s designs. Their ironic purpose is very clear and it knowingly invites a response from the public – many of whom encounter his work exclusively via the Internet. Demna knows that you can buy an almost-identical tee directly from DHL for a tiny fraction of the price. In fact he wants you to buy one, snap a photo of it and tag him on Instagram. This turns his work into a meme that exists both on the web as well as the physical realm. The subtle addition of three red lines that wrap around the back of the Vetements’ version are used to highlight this loop of counter-subversion to those in the know.
The IKEA bag is the same: Gvasalia recreated the original design in a luxurious new form. Internet users responded by chopping up their own FRAKTAs and turning them into bucket hats, wallets, non-functioning gas masks and sexy underwear before sharing them online, naturally. The viral chain reaction reached as far as IKEA, who got in on the conversation with a FRAKTA ad, bringing the domino effect full circle.
Like Internet humor, every one of his collections is dripping with irony: DHL and IKEA were chosen as muses because they’re utilitarian brands powered by necessity rather than desirability. They’re not just unfashionable, they’re anti-fashionable. Demna openly admits “it’s ugly, that’s why we like it.” Where fashion once aspired to beauty and aesthetic refinement, he consciously and unapologetically rejects such aspirations, preferring to ironically embrace the ugly instead.
The irony in Gvasalia’s designs stems from a similar impulse as the pervasive irony of Internet culture, which, as this fantastic essay explains, originates from online bulletin board, 4chan. In it, the author writes:
“Like adolescent boys, 4chan users were deeply sensitive and guarded. They disguised their own sensitivity (namely, their fear that they would be, “forever alone”) by extreme insensitivity. The rules, like everything else, were always half in jest. Everything had to be a done with at least a twinkle of winking irony. This was an escape route, a way of never having to admit to your peers that you were in fact expressing something from your heart, in other words — that you were indeed vulnerable. No matter what a user did or said, he could always say it was “for the lulz”.
This ethos spread from 4chan and across the web, seeping into our lives via our computer screens. We’ve internalized it because it’s symptomatic of a wider anxiety in our collective culture, as this New York Times essay titled “How to Live Without Irony” observes:
“It stems in part from the belief that this generation has little to offer in terms of culture, that everything has already been done, or that serious commitment to any belief will eventually be subsumed by an opposing belief, rendering the first laughable at best and contemptible at worst. This kind of defensive living works as a preemptive surrender and takes the form of reaction rather than action … No attack can be set against it, as it has already conquered itself. The ironic frame functions as a shield against criticism. The same goes for ironic living. Irony is the most self-defensive mode, as it allows a person to dodge responsibility for his or her choices, aesthetic and otherwise.”
Gvasalian irony serves the same ends: it artificially imbues his products with a seemingly effortless cool that’s so desirable in fashion. Of course this is just an illusion because, as we can see, every aspect of it is thoroughly thought out. It allows him to mock the superficial, arbitrary faddishness that the fashion industry depends upon by caricaturing it, rather than presenting an alternative, because doing so would leave him vulnerable to critique or criticism. It relieves him of the pressure to create something truly new or great because, just like 4chan users, he can hide behind “the lulz."
Now check out all those weird poses in this Vetements lookbook.