How individual is individuality, when it comes to fashion? The definition of the latter requires popularity - fashion is mass. The individual is singular. And yet, when fashion cites an “individual” look, it is often with the aims of replication. The anti-fashion look of punk became, quickly, a fashion. A trend. It then became ubiquitous, a stereotype. Now it is a marketable commodity - the image of a punk graces postcards alongside images of the Royal Guards in their bearskins, or the queen in her crown. They’re all uniforms - regal, military, social. The only form of fashion that comes close to the true individual is haute couture, where garments are made-to-measure, by hand, for a ever-decreasing circle of moneyed clients of ever-advancing age. Individuality is part of the selling-point - it often costs upwards of six figures. The maximum production permitted of any style is six, but each one is subject to amendment by clients for their own requirements. A woman may prefer a red dress in blue, with a lower hemline. Redesigning the garment to suit their own figure and life is the privilege of the haute couture client. The January 2017 Vetements show was presented during Paris Haute Couture week - and those opposing views of individuality in fashion were the crux of its message. Demna Gvasalia studied sociology at college; he’s also studied haute couture, most compelling via his recent immersion in the work of Cristobal Balenciaga, a couturier so haute his contemporary Christian Dior dubbed him “the master own us all”.
The root of Balenciaga’s genius was in individuality - “I read this story about him draping fabric on a dummy of an old client,” recalls Gvasalia, with the ardent, shiny-eyed fandom of a true convert. “She had this posture” - he mimes a hunchback. “I remember Hubert de Givenchy saying he was there, and he saw it happen - this old woman suddenly became straight. He changed the posture and the attitude by this architecture of draping, how he worked the volumes. For me, that was really the most important part. The source of inspiration.” Balenciaga’s work, on his clients, was to adjust their attitudes: that’s something Gvasalia has applied to his ready-to-wear clothing for Balenciaga. His collections are marked by a similar use of fabric to carve shapes, to re-engineer the body - the individual - inside. The same is true of Vetements. Only, rather than adjusting the attitudes of the wearer, the fabric was used to adjust the attitudes of the observer - the way little can bar a uniform,. But where do we draw the lines with a uniform? Is it limited to profession, or can it represent your own sense of identity? The Vetements Autumn/Winter 2017 collection was titled “Archetypes,” and each look was dissected in detail in the show notes, in true haute couture fashion. Each was also titled - “Milanesa”; “Granny”; “Tourist”; “Broker”. And each guest was provided with an invite in the form of a fake ID, bearing their name but someone else’s images, age, location - identity.
The idea was archetypes, stereotypes, and dress codes, the notions of the individual functioning, actually, as part of a larger group - as exemplified by Exactitudes, an anthropological photo project started in 1994 by Dutch photographer Ari Versluis and profiler Ellie Uyttenbroek. That saved as a form of inspiration for Gvasalia and his team, whose collective approach is an odd reflection of that relationship between the notion of the individual - in this case, the Vetements label itself - and the many. In a sense, this Vetements collection was not a collection - it was about individual ideas, individual outfits. They were interconnected by their social interrelations - each look had its counterpart, sometime harmonious, sometimes an exact opposite: “La Parisienne” and the “Milanesa” could be friends; whereas the social relationship between the rebellious skater and punk and the authority figures of bouncer and policewoman, were more fraught. Gvasalia and his team created backstories for each of their archetypes, to influence the choice of their clothes. Many had names. The final look was a bride, which in the grand tradition of haute couture is the conventional show closer. But the rest was, intentionally, disjointed and out of sync. The dress of all these characters was, on paper, unremarkable. The MIlanesa, for instance, wore a knee-length mink coat over a cashmere polo neck and a tailored pencil skirt, with leather gloves and oversized sunglasses. Or so we were informed by that couture programme of looks, beforehand. The show notes, however, failed to mention that the mink coat was composed of two patched together, one looped over to expose the lining, or that the skirt was roughly stitched with tacking threads. It also didn’t point out that the “Broker’s” pinstripe suit had mutated, cross-breeding with his nylon motorcycle jacket; or that the white tulle skirt of the “Bride” was pulled over her head, to form a makeshift veil (her “Groom” was thirty looks behind; his cheap-looking suit had been scissored open, his pale pink silk tie trailing). Was this an odd argument for the triumph of individuality, even at the very apex of the age of mechanical reproduction? Perhaps allying with the importance of the individual to haute couture, these fashion archetypes, so mundane and regular on paper, were anything but in real life. In each, the stereotypical was subverted and twisted, altered, to create something new - something individual. It’s very much at the very heart of Vetements, a label whose name and ethos is rooted in the notion of simple, ordinary “clothing” - yet, all importantly, transformed. Transformed by an individual point of view. Taking individuality as its theme - with arguments both for and against - a focus was thrown onto the casting of the actual individuals to wear these clothes - the models. Or rather, the non-models. It’s a tried and tested formula for many labels - Vetements have used street-cast faces since their earliest show (initially, because the label could not afford to employ models; now because it underlines their point of view). Other have too, such as Comme des Garçons and Maison Martin Margiela. But Vetements use of these “models” was different: it underlined the disparity, the individuality, of each look.
Rather than dressing them in the collective vision of a fashion house, it felt as if the label bent itself to the “look’ of each of these archetypes. In reflection of this, the fitting process was laborious: entirely necessary, given that no two bodies were alike. All were certainly different to the standardised measurements of fashion models, in their varying heights and body types. In a sense, that underlines the overriding sense that this Vetements show made a socio-political point, intentional or subconscious. Those false identification cards reflect the ongoing battles over freedom of movement across the world - but there also echo the stereotyping, the archetyping, of individuals into neat pigeon-holes; some perceived as respectable, some not. The argument from Vetements is, of course, that everyone is an individual - their thirty-six stereotypical monikers were ironic, sarcastic. The clothes, in this case, don’t taketh the man, or the woman. You can’t judge a book by its cover. In that respect, this Vetements show was a riposte to the twin evils of our age - rapid prototyping, and racial profiling. Focus not on the archetype, but on the individual. To anyone not part of the fashion system, though, watching this strange assortment of characters from afar parading through the vast atrium of the Centre Pompidou, it would almost look like just about anyone, walking down the street. Which was, of course, the point.
Vetements / Demna Gvasalia
Vetements / Demna Gvasalia
Vetements / Demna Gvasalia