Balenciaga F/W’17: More ‘Fake News’ than ‘Feel the Bern’

The Gvasalia brothers are a fascinating, frustrating pair. If you’re a fan of fashion, it was impossible to make it through 2016 without coming into contact with the minds behind Vetements. A label seemingly fuelled in part by its avant-garde reconfiguration of style and culture (arguably a continuation of the methods Demna would have learned whilst working at Maison Margiela) and in part by the label’s powerful grasp of Internet culture and the power of hype, Vetements is in some ways something entirely new, and in other ways something we’ve seen dozens of times before. The arguments that erupt around the label’s memetic releases seem unique in their current configuration, but it’s the same as the likes of Duchamp, Hirst, Koons et al; even if people are arguing about whether your work is or isn’t art, they’re talking about you.

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So it is that the brothers have set the fashion scene on fire with £300 DHL t-shirts, wholesale polyester rain-smocks screen printed with a logo and sold for a several-thousand percent markup, weed-grinder necklaces and so on. At one level, Vetements could be interpreted as a celebration of the inherent fashion of everything; that everybody has their own style and swagger.

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Such an interpretation is supported by an item like their brass cigarette-packet holder. In spite of various government taxes, restrictions and regulations, cigarettes are broadly available to all at an affordable price, and are surely one of the most heavily-stylized household goods that we buy at that price. The Marlboro smokers are the bad boys; the B&H smokers are geezers; the Vogue smokers are sophisticated (or, if you’re a Marlboro smoker, too pussy to smoke a real cigarette); and in the world of smokers, the rollie smokers are like that friend that creates their own style, more down-to-earth, less caught up in the bullshit.

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Another interpretation is that perhaps Vetements is a mockery of the hyper-marketed consumer society we now live in. From high fashion to pound shops, it’s common knowledge that we are paying high margins for the products we consume, with wave after wave of new labels stepping onto the scene to provide the next level of premium. Buscemi sneakers, which sell for upwards of £800 a pair, exist because people were already buying expensive sneakers. Jon Buscemi basically came along and made something even more expensive, and it’s one of the bestselling brands in every store that stocks it.

Vetements’ aforementioned weed-grinder necklace falls into this category for me; from luxury glasswares to goldleaf rolling papers to high-end strains, weed culture has warped into a global industry far removed from the “Cheech & Chong” stoner stereotype that dominated conversations before. Thirty years ago, guys in suits would have scoffed at the idea of a £400 bong and said, “A stoner with that much money is only buying one thing; more weed.” Now, those guys in suits are cornering the market.

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Guram Gvasalia’s business acumen has been a prominent aspect of Vetements’ outward-facing identity. Whilst interviews with Demna, the designer, have been rare, Guram has been open about the Vetements business model of limited supply, high price clothing that is intended to sell out and catalyse hype. At times it feels like an art performance in itself; a fashion brand with such a polarising central concept talking about itself only in terms of budget, revenue, income, outcome, profit margins. It reminds me of Matt Stone and Trey Parker of South Park taking acid and going to the Oscars in dresses, agreeing beforehand that they would not under any circumstances, answer any questions about the dresses, instead deflecting with empty platitudes about other people looking wonderful.

When Demna Gvasalia was announced as the new Artistic Director and Head Designer of historic French fashion house Balenciaga, then, there was obviously a lot of talk about what the maverick Georgian designer would do. Gvasalia’s process at Vetements has largely been an exploration of street style and “ground-floor” fashion; how would this translate into a Balenciaga collection? For the most part, relatively seamlessly; his debut Fall 2016 collection brought Vetements’ signature boxy, amorphous cuts to suiting and tweed jackets, countered with asymmetric styling and jackets that seemed to defy gravity, sitting on the models’ bodies without ever touching the shoulders.

Balenciaga Fall/Winter 2016

Balenciaga Fall/Winter 2016

The biggest conversation point, however, seemed to be the casting for Gvasalia’s two runway shows, both of which featured exclusively white models. After a bit of hand-wringing and comments about curating a particular aesthetic (yawn), casting a diverse range of gay Russian people (close, but yawn) and people from different cultural backgrounds (can you hear me yawning?), the case was closed with the conclusion that this was basically a dumb move on the part of Gvasalia and stylist Lotta Volkova. For my two cents, you’re totally welcome to “curate” an “aesthetic” of exclusively white people, but there are plenty other people interested in pushing that “aesthetic” and they’re not all that great. Be smart.

Balenciaga Fall/Winter 2017

Balenciaga Fall/Winter 2017

A year on, last week saw Balenciaga reveal its men’s Fall/Winter 2017 collection at Paris Fashion Week, and as always in a Gvasalia brothers production, there were plenty of talking points. Firstly, the collection’s heavy use of corporate branding, not only of Balenciaga but of its parent company, Kering, laid bare the multi-billion dollar industry that is concealed behind that magic and mystique of all these historic fashion houses.

Balenciaga Fall/Winter 2017

Balenciaga Fall/Winter 2017

Likewise, leather shopping bags and suiting pointed to fashion as a commercial venture. Styling that then paired these suits with garish running trainers and unbuttoned shirts was suggestive of Gvasalia’s own laissez-faire stylistic perspective, and seemed to stick two fingers up to the corporate stiffs.

Balenciaga Fall/Winter 2017

Balenciaga Fall/Winter 2017

Much more attention was paid, however, to a particular graphic that appeared throughout the collection, a re-appropriation of the logo from Bernie Sander’s campaign to be the Democratic nominee in the 2016 election. Appearing on navy blue bomber jackets, t-shirts, quilted scarfs and polo shirts, there seemed to be clear nods to typical campaign merchandise and staffer uniforms which, combined with styling that saw t-shirts yanked over hooded sweats and flannel shirts, conjured images of kids on the campaign trail.

Balenciaga Fall/Winter 2017

Balenciaga Fall/Winter 2017

In the current political climate, there’s a multitude of ways to interpret Gvasalia’s use of imagery from Sanders’ campaign in his collection. Perhaps its appearance alongside corporate garb and suits is a reminder that even political campaigns are, in many ways, more about selling a product than creating a revolution… but this doesn’t quite fit. The most convincing argument I’ve heard is that this is a “two fingers” of sorts to America’s newly-inaugurated president, a declaration of progressive values on a global platform, but that falls flat for me also.

Balenciaga Fall/Winter 2017

Balenciaga Fall/Winter 2017

Earlier in the week someone tweeted about something they’d observed on Wavey Garms, a Facebook group where people buy and sell streetwear and vintage clothing. There’s been a small phenomenon of people buying and selling uniforms for Deliveroo, the “Uber of takeaway foods” that has been the subject of a lot of negative press recently around how little it pays its delivery riders and their controversial “self-employed” contracts that prevent the company from having to provide basic employment rights like a minimum wage, sick pay or holiday leave. The person described this as “the ultimate refusal to engage in the politics of fashion”.

Balenciaga Fall/Winter 2017

Balenciaga Fall/Winter 2017

Put more simply; to buy a piece of Deliveroo uniform ironically, as someone unlikely to ever work for Deliveroo or be in the position where such a job is one of your few options, is pretty shitty, and if you can’t understand why then you need to think a bit harder. The people who have to wear Deliveroo’s clothing every day have been fighting tooth and nail for basic employment rights, and then you’re wearing that same brand as if being an employee of that company is some kind of a joke. It’s comparable to the fuckwits who bought “Make America Great Again” caps as a hilarious ironic joke, somehow failing to understand that their witty joke was putting money into the coffers of the very same campaign they supposedly stood in opposition to. Newsflash: There’s no such thing as a left-wing or right-wing dollar, only dollars, and you gave yours to a hatemonger.

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This phenomenon was arguably central to the DHL t-shirt that made Vetements the hottest brand of 2016. Sure, the t-shirt was produced in co-operation with DHL and was supposedly inspired by the delivery drivers that Gvasalia interacted with on a nearly-daily basis, but what does that actually mean? It’s unlikely the money that Vetements paid to DHL will trickle down to the employees, so instead we’re left with an anecdote about a fashion designer looking at the delivery driver collecting their packages and seeing a fashion statement, creating a product that none of the people who have to wear that logo every day would likely be able to afford. Maybe I’m being thick, and for that I apologise, but I don’t get what’s so clever about it.

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Do you not then get a bit of a lump in your stomach at Gvasalia’s latest flip? Let’s interpret it as a tribute to a man who is a champion of civil rights, gender equality, progressive taxation, living wages and the causes of working and middle-class communities; someone who wanted to finally tackle the gender pay gap, poverty, social segregation and the plight of marginalised groups across the United States. How does creating product that will be sold to a customer base composed almost-exclusively of people whom aren’t affected by those issues (or are in such a position that they are able to disown themselves of it) create a tribute?

Balenciaga Fall/Winter 2017

Balenciaga Fall/Winter 2017

Okay, so maybe it’s not that. Maybe it’s a two fingers to Donald Trump? Right. In case you hadn’t noticed, Sanders’ run for the Democratic nomination ended almost six months ago after he was flattened, not by Trump, but by his own party. And last time I checked Trump won. I’m not sure Captain Combover is going to give that much of a fuck. If this is a two fingers to Donald Trump, it’s like getting back at the kid who beat you up by showing him a photo of all the kids you pushed out of the way to earn the privilege of connecting his fist with your face.

So is it a celebration of Sanders’ fundamental values? Perhaps, but look around you; the people who are affected by the issues Sanders championed don’t have time to sit there making toasts to Mr. Six Months Ago. Sanders was an important, prominent voice, but people are much more concerned about NOW.

Balenciaga Fall/Winter 2017

Balenciaga Fall/Winter 2017

With the Republicans gearing up to tear apart the Affordable Care Act, transgender people are working overdrive to build up a stockpile of hormone treatments and necessarily medical supplies to survive in a nation that is becoming increasingly hostile to their existence, once again. Women are doing the same regarding birth control, with many now looking to secure long-term reversible contraception, not only because birth control is fucking expensive, but because if they get pregnant their access to abortions is likely to be severely affected. Many prominent black activists, academics and figures on Twitter are now being painfully clear to their black American audiences: get a gun, learn to shoot, learn first aid, learn to grow your own foods and so on. Things are serious right now. Nobody has time to celebrate six months ago when things could be torn apart by February.

Which is kind of why I’m sat where I am about this Balenciaga collection. Between all-white castings and a fascination with cheap, “working-class” iconography like Champion sportswear, cigarette lighter stilettos and so on, the Gvasalias actually seem pretty tone-deaf about the shit they play with. I don’t quite see the self-awareness and irreverence that would make me think this is worth celebrating. If there really is some deeper message in there then it’s too convoluted and complex to be relevant to the people that really need support right now. While everybody else is going out into the streets and making sure their values, philosophies and belief systems are heard loud and clear, I’m loathe to defend the possibility of a fashion brand doing the same thing with a smirk and a whisper. You don’t topple a tyrant by winking at the camera; you do it by calling them out in no uncertain terms and joining the fight.

Balenciaga Fall/Winter 2017

Balenciaga Fall/Winter 2017

What’s most ironic is that for all the channelling of Bernie Sanders’ campaign and the implicit values that accompany it, the Gvasalia brothers seem much more aligned with a practice favoured by America’s right-wing; fake news. It doesn’t matter if it’s true or not, it doesn’t even matter if we get caught out for it afterwards, just shove it out there and create a stir, because people will click through, they’ll talk about it, and we’ll dominate the conversation. Furthermore, like America’s Idiot-in-Chief, they seem to hope that by creating a new conversation piece, good or bad, that they might be able to distract onlookers from all the other times they’ve been completely tone-deaf.

To their credit, they have. But it’s empty of substance or anything of value. For all the talk of left-wing echo chambers, this Balenciaga collection really feels like it’s dancing on its own. Thanks for the irony, Demna, but I’ll be giving my money to the ACLU, Safety Pin Box and Planned Parenthood instead. I suggest others do the same.

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