The Vetements one-day flash sale in Hong Kong last weekend was a no-show show similar to the ones held earlier this year in Seoul and Beverly Hills, with exclusive items released only at those times and locations.
DHL was an official partner because of Demna Gvasalia’s love for the company’s anti-fashion ugliness. Souvenirs from Switzerland stamped with the Vetements logo were on sale to commemorate the move of Vetements HQ from Paris to Zurich. The staging of the pop-up from signage, to staff, to stacked boxes and clothing hung up at the back of trucks was meant to echo the feeling of the iconic Hong Kong shopping district Ladies’ Market. With some close inspection, those last two details feel a little off.
Designers often draw on their surroundings or observations as inspiration for their collections. However, things get messy when designers start pulling ideas from ethnic communities that they don’t belong to. The problem usually starts when designers think appropriation of a group of people is a tribute to a unique culture. Only a souvenir-selling Swiss or a Ladies’ Market stall owner has claim to their experiences, and the use of those experiences for commercial reasons isn’t right.
The driving mission behind Vetements as a brand is a thorough questioning of the system in place. No aspect of the fashion world is off-limits. Vetements has intentionally fought against the ideas of launching collections only at specific times, holding traditional runway shows and staying within a certain price point for a certain kind of item. Demna and Guram Gvasalia are not interested in meeting anyone’s expectations and much of their work feels like an inside joke.
Demna told Vogue this summer when he announced the removal of Vetements from the show system, “…the most important thing now is that we must enjoy what we do. Luckily, we’re independent. That’s the joy of Vetements.” Highsnobiety’s own Aleks Eror first likened Gvasalian humor to that of 4chan users. Demna and Guram are master trolls churning out designs with a perpetual wink like adolescents combining pop culture with real and fake news, heavily steeped in randomness, for maximum derision.
This February’s “Dry Cleaning” event in Beverly Hills commented on the amount of waste generated by the fashion industry. Guram Gvasalia even said to the LA Times about his hopes for the sales of this capsule: “the market is so saturated, there is so much product, nobody really needs more clothes. I hope people will think about whether these things are really something they want to have. If they decide they don’t, that’s OK, too.” Another Vetements event that commented on the state of things with wit and humor was October’s “Official Fake” South Korea collection created in response to the widespread issue of Vetements knockoffs being sold as the real thing. Compared to these two previous flash sales, the Hong Kong event seems toothless at best and inappropriate at worst.
The idea behind the Hong Kong pop-up seems to be a commentary on rabid consumerism. The fashion system currently rewards ownership of a thing for its brand alone. Vetements is at a point where the Gvasalias could pick any items of their liking, add the Vetements logo and resell it for far beyond its real worth as an item because shoppers will overlook the logic of it in order to own a piece of Vetements. Gvasalia knows that his target shoppers are like this.
The Hong Kong pop-up was ready for long queues, high quantity of sales and crowd control. Vetements was intentional in its choices when it came to hiring local staff, and having the shopping bags and the displays echo elements of local Hong Kong culture. The effect of these choices doesn’t feel like tribute, but it does look like borrowing the authenticity of what’s real on the streets of the city to create authenticity in a kind of theme park for extravagant spending. Vetements was fully confident in being able to sell a community’s culture right back to it at a markup.
The Gvasalias are not the first designers to declare themselves anti-fashion, but Vetements is the most recent brand to be seen as outlandishly defying the fashion system. Yohji Yamamoto, Alexander McQueen and Raf Simons have all called themselves or been called anti-fashion. Their work, while definitely created in retaliation to mainstream fashion, was still primarily concerned with the architecture of the human body. Gvasalia is playing increasingly with the structures surrounding apparel and is venturing into the territory of performance art.
There’s precedent in fashion history of designers creating garments that challenge the idea of where value comes from. In 1982, Rei Kawakubo sent wool sweaters down the runway intentionally knitted with gaping holes, created by tampering with the machinery used to make the garments. One of those sweaters is now part of the V&A permanent collection. Long before it became trendy, Kawakubo’s designs mimicked the look of poverty and she sold it as high fashion for high prices. Kawakubo was revolutionary because she was the first to suggest that luxury could look the same as looking poor.
Today, ripped jeans are a staple of fast fashion. In order for a fashion designer to be anti-fashion in 2017, they have to rebel against assumptions consumers and fashion houses might not even know they cling to. Kawakubo was a pioneer in declaring value comes from strong ideas, not from inherently expensive materials. Vetements is a continuation of this line of thinking by making mundane, utilitarian, or bootleg items precious.
However, there’s a difference between using corporate logos and visuals from pop culture in fashion. What Vetements has done in the past is take real elements from an ethnic community, modify it slightly and utilize that for commercial use.
The Hong Kong Vetements event seems to be trolling of a poorer quality that takes irony to a more aggressive, less productive level. It feels like shitposting. There is a kind of 4chan user who thinks any effects caused by their actions is meaningless, so it doesn’t matter if their shitposts are funny only at the expense of an unwitting target or harmful in a real way. The Gvasalias are bordering on becoming this kind of troll. An example from earlier this year that verges on tone-deaf is the Vetements SS18 lookbook, which featured Zurich locals striking high fashion poses. The inevitable unthinking mimicry of Vetements by copy-cat brands and bootleggers could take the cultural appropriation seen at the Hong Kong sale to levels that are more difficult to stomach.
It’s necessary to question the system and it’s fun to laugh at the expense of traditional structures. However, the experimentation of what’s acceptable to the fashion system can, when taken too far, be irresponsible. If Vetements is considered anti-fashion as the result of laughing at real communities of people, the joke has gone far enough.
Still, consumers are purchasing the logo-stamped kitsch and the $800 rain jackets, so if you judge by sales the joke is still working.
What worries me is this question: were those Zurich locals who were asked to make high-fashion poses in on the joke? Are the local Hong Kong DHL staff passing out red, white and blue packing bags as shopping bags in on the joke? It’s well and good for the fashion system to be laughed at; it’s ridiculous in ways that are ripe for trolling, but appropriating both Hong Kong and Swiss culture in this sale seems, somehow, like we’re laughing at the wrong people.
The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those solely of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Highsnobiety as a whole
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- Words: Charis Poon
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