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Balenciaga Names Demna Gvasalia, Vetements Designer, as Artistic Director
Balenciaga has a gritty new look.
On Wednesday, the French luxury group Kering shook up the final day of Paris Fashion Week by announcing a new artistic director for its Balenciaga label: Demna Gvasalia, head designer of the underground cult collective Vetements.
Mr. Gvasalia, a 34-year-old Georgian, becomes the third artistic director of Balenciaga in four years. His appointment comes at a crucial time for the brand. Balenciaga is part of Kering’s smaller luxury brands group, along with Stella McCartney and Alexander McQueen, among others, but it has an outsize fashion presence thanks to its name and history.
Though Mr. Gvasalia’s appointment was widely rumored during fashion week, many had dismissed the gossip as unbelievable. The extreme, almost antifashion streetwear aesthetic of Vetements might seem the opposite of the historically elitist Balenciaga.
“I am delighted to welcome Demna Gvasalia, a powerful emerging force in today’s creative world,” François-Henri Pinault, Kering’s chief executive and chairman, said in a statement. “Demna Gvasalia embodies a unique approach to the profession, marked by a sociological observation of the wardrobe’s essentials and the way he remains humble and rigorous in his creative work.”
Balenciaga is a small financial contributor to Kering. The parent company does not break out figures, but analysts estimate Balenciaga’s annual revenue at about 350 million euros, or about $390 million, compared with Kering’s overall revenue in the first half of the year of more than €5.5 billion.
And though Kering is profitable, with net income of €423 million in the first half, the slack global economy and diminished appetite for luxury goods in China means the company, like other purveyors of high-end goods, can use all the brand energy it can muster.
That is the sort of lift Kering presumably hopes Mr. Gvasalia can provide at Balenciaga, in what could be the most radical departure for the fashion house since the Spanish designer Cristóbal Balenciaga established it in Paris in 1936.
If Mr. Gvasalia is one of fashion’s democrats, Mr. Balenciaga was its most famous dictator. But Mr. Gvasalia shares the fascination with form found in the original work of Mr. Balenciaga, who was known for his exacting, sculptural creations — like the sack dress and the cocoon coat — and for an affinity for breaking rules.
Mr. Gvasalia’s work also reflects the current trend of “wardrobing” in fashion — creating pieces that build on one another, as opposed to creating season-specific fads. The approach has found success at Saint Laurent and Gucci, two other Kering brands, as well as at Louis Vuitton.
“Clearly, Balenciaga needs to shift gears,” said Luca Solca, a luxury analyst at Exane BNP Paribas. “They have yet to break through.”
Vetements, though, has already done so.
It was founded in 2014 by a group of seven who had left the label founded by Martin Margiela, the reclusive Belgian designer whose brand, since renamed Maison Margiela, is now owned by Renzo Rosso and designed by John Galliano.
Vetements made an explosive show debut last season, startling a jaded fashion world with the rawness and immediacy of its work. Though the members of the Vetements team have a clear debt to Mr. Margiela in their desire to take quotidian clothing and reshape it to alter perception, they are unique among current designers in their continued dedication to the idea.
“I’m driven by making clothes both wearable and financially accessible, fashion that has a place in the real world,” the bearded and soft-spoken Mr. Gvasalia said in an interview in his vast blacked-out studio in the 10th arrondissement of Paris the day before the announcement.
Vetements was named a finalist for the LVMH Young Fashion Designers Prize this year. Its show on Thursday at a kitschy Chinese restaurant in Paris featured undone bodysuits, logo sweatshirts, plastic rose-strewn apron dresses and supersize tailoring — as well as models found among friends and on Facebook. Almost every major fashion editor, as well as the rapper Kanye West, was in the audience.
“Financially accessible” is in the wallet of the beholder. Though they may look unvarnished, Vetements’ clothes are not cheap: On Net-a-Porter, which began stocking them their first season, cotton jersey prairie print dresses cost 1,230 euros, and patchwork jeans were €1,025. But Alison Loehnis, president of the Net-a-Porter Group, said they were selling well.
Mr. Gvasalia will continue in his role as head designer of Vetements while artistic director of Balenciaga.
At Balenciaga, he fills the post left vacant by Alexander Wang, an American who founded his own contemporary label and who had been creative director at Balenciaga for less than three years when he announced in August that he was leaving. Mr. Wang’s last show for Balenciaga was on Friday.
Mr. Wang’s time at Balenciaga did not produce significant critical or commercial growth, however, and he found it difficult to balance the demands of his own brand with that of Balenciaga.
Mr. Wang also worked in the shadow of his predecessor, Nicolas Ghesquière, who was creative director of Balenciaga for 15 years. Mr. Ghesquière took a then-moribund brand and revived it to the extent that it caught the eye of Gucci Group in 2001, which bought it for what would become Kering’s luxury portfolio.
Mr. Ghesquière left in 2012 after disagreements with the management, and the next year he became creative director of Louis Vuitton, which is owned by Kering’s rival LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton. News of Mr. Gvasalia’s announcement here on Wednesday morning overshadowed Mr. Ghesquière’s Louis Vuitton show.
If the timing seemed an example of playground politics that was surprising, even by the standards of the fashion world, Kering denied any ulterior motive. The appointment, a spokesman said, was “related to the internal appointment process.”
Mr. Gvasalia also worked on the design team at Louis Vuitton from 2012 to 2014, and briefly overlapped there with Mr. Ghesquière.
Whether Mr. Gvasalia can shrug off Balenciaga’s received history and create a new voice for the house will be his first test. His debut show for Balenciaga is scheduled for March.
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