The University of Goldsmiths has quite a few success stories in the creative field to its name; Sarah Lucas, James Blake, Malcolm McLaren and Margaret Howell to name but a few. But if there’s one individual that Goldsmiths really likes to pin to its hat, and hammer into the heads of every person that studies there, it’s Damien Hirst. That was my experience of it, anyway.
The important thing that we were taught to understand about Damien Hirst, from an academic perspective, was his particular approach to art and creativity. Rather than treating art as a strictly creative endeavour, focusing on the art and nothing else, Hirst took an approach to his artistic process which was, in fairness, quite groundbreaking; he understood that the art world was just as much about the people in the room, and the way the art was sold, as it was about the art itself.
As a result, during seminars for a few of my courses we were given all sorts of articles and studies into the Young British Artists (YBAs) – how Hirst held their debut ‘Freeze’ exhibition in an empty building in South London’s docklands, deliberately laid out to imitate art collector Charles Saatchi’s recently-opened gallery. Not only that, Hirst then rode around London in a black cab, personally “chauffeuring” important people to the exhibition, including Saatchi himself.
When you study the Freeze exhibition and its subsequent legacy as a formative moment in the creation of the YBAs, it’s hard to ignore Hirst’s unique grasp on art not only as art itself, but as a system of symbols and experiences and, most importantly, business. He arguably perceived the art world as an extension of marketing and PR. He knew that if you could get a load of people in a room with Charles Saatchi, and get Charles Saatchi to buy something, then everyone else in the room would be watching, and there would be a much higher chance of them getting out their wallets.
Following Hirst throughout his subsequent career, those same elements of marketing and commerciality keep popping up. The simple and visually-pleasing aesthetic of his popular spot pieces, a series of paintings of various randomly-arranged spots in geometric grids, has lent itself to merchandise from t-shirts and fine china to a collaborative skate deck collection with Supreme. As for the paintings themselves, the last rough estimate put their total number at over 1000.
So too with his elaborately-named spin paintings – straightforward, easily replicable pieces that can be literally knocked out and shoved on a wall as quickly as possible. I probably sound cynical, but Hirst literally donated one to the Burger King in Leicester Square during the London Olympics. It was titled, ‘Beautiful Naked Psychedelic Gherkin Exploding Tomato Sauce All Over Your Face, Flame Grilled Painting 2003’. I am not joking. Google it.
Even his famous large-scale installations of animals preserved in formaldehyde, for all their bombast and extravagance, have that same element. It’s a familiar trope, eternally associated with the Hirst name, which can be placed in any location to give its surroundings a touch of modern art chic. By all accounts, I’ve heard the Tramshed restaurant in Shoreditch has pretty average food. But there’s a massive Hirst in there. So it’s always going to be busy.
A few years back, Hirst exhibited a number of his spot paintings in eleven Gagosian galleries around the world, simultaneously. In a Time interview with Belinda Luscombe, Hirst is asked what his motivation for doing so was. He explains that at the Gagosian gallery, they advertise the other exhibitions taking place at other Gagosian locations around the world, and Hirst had never seen one artist with their name at every gallery simultaneously. So he decided to do it.
A few years later, Hirst opened his Newport Street Gallery in Vauxhall, South London. Since opening, the gallery has played host to a number of modern artists whose artistic integrity has been endlessly debated, such as Jeff Koons. There is also, of course, an expansive gift shop full of Hirst’s signature skulls, butterflies, spots and so on. I always try and hold myself back from my most pessimistic tendencies, but one can’t help but wonder if Hirst opened a gallery so that he could then have a gallery to put himself and his mates in, because being in a gallery is what validates an artist to broader audiences. If you build it, they will come.
So there’s some context about Damien Hirst, his art, and my understanding of it. And it’s important for me to stress that my often cynical tone when talking about Damien Hirst is coupled with a genuine admiration for the way he’s managed to balance creativity and commerciality. It’s something that I imagine many creative people, myself included, aspire toward, but few of us ever achieve – certainly none to the level that Hirst has.
The reason I bring him up, however, is to talk about something completely different. I’m actually interested in applying a similar lens to Demna and Guram Gvasalia and their Vetements label.
Over the past two years, Vetements has unquestionably been one of the biggest stories in the fashion world for a long time. Seemingly appearing out of nowhere in 2016 to become the must-have label for high-fashion insiders and Instagram influencers alike, Vetements has completely changed the game through its ability to appeal to virtually every corner of fashion consumers without compromising itself amongst any other.
Product has been selling out virtually everywhere it appears, and buyers have been scrambling to get it in their stores – and with Demna now Creative Director of Balenciaga, the historic fashion house is also experiencing similar fortunes. But the thing with Vetements is that it’s clearly an elevation, or pure modification, of basic streetwear; sweats, jeans, sports jackets and so on. Of course, collections present a whole range of silhouettes and styles, but what sells, and sells well, is that core selection of branded, everyday pieces.
And with that blend of hyper-normal pieces and hyper-inflated prices, Vetements has attracted much of the same controversy and criticism that has followed Damien Hirst throughout much of his career. Their collections have been interpreted at some points as making fun of the fashion industry and its stuffy, exclusive attitude, and at others as a massive joke being played on the people that buy their products. Considering the restrictive prices of their pieces, it’s difficult to find basis for the former interpretation. For most of us, Vetements appears to be a practice in paying luxury prices to look as normal as possible.
This may or may not be the case. In fact, as time as passed and subsequent collections released, I’ve warmed to the idea that Vetements might actually be a sincere celebration of boring, mundane, everyday fashion. Street-casting models, styling looks that clearly imitate regular people, and eschewing ornate tailoring in favour of ready-to-wear designs that are ready-to-wear in an aesthetic sense as well as construction, there’s definitely something enjoyable about a label which shoves high fashion’s elitism back in its face by turning benign clothing into the chicest thing on the catwalk.
It’s impossible to not see the parallels between Vetements and Hirst, also, in the shadow of that famous quote about modern art by Craig Damrauer: ‘Modern Art = I could to that + Yeah, but you didn’t.’ Just as how one of the most frustrating things about an artist like Hirst is his unbridled success creating simple and unchallenging product, so there must be that same thing going on when people look at Vetements creating elevated Champion hoodies and selling them for £500. They took stuff we’ve been wearing forever and sold it to a new customer – or in some cases, right back to us – for an obscene mark-up. Justifications about quality of construction and premium materials are virtually moot. Mate, it’s a fucking hoodie with a screenprint. Calm down.
Guram Gvasalia, CEO of Vetements and business mind behind brother Demna’s creativity, has been quite candid about the financial thinking behind the brand. In an interview with WWD earlier this year, he speaks almost mechanically about numbers, demographics, statistics and sales figures. He talks openly about Vetements’ system of enforced scarcity ensuring the brand remains rare and high-priced – not unlike Supreme’s well-documented ‘always produce less than you can sell’ philosophy. They eschew pursuing their own online store, and one has to wonder if there isn’t a touch of Hirst as well; when you’re an established high fashion brand, opening your own direct-to-consumer store makes sense; when you’re trying to establish yourselves, you get your product in other people’s stores, alongside those same brands. You validate through association. And most importantly, you get your name on those brand lists.
But this democratic restructuring of the fashion world, sadly, isn’t quite what it seems. For all the fun and irreverence of Vetements, the Gvasalias remain an incredibly privileged pair; we’re almost led to believe that it took a degree from the Royal Academy of Fine Art in Antwerp, followed by positions at Margiela and Louis Vuitton, for Demna Gvasalia to simply create regular clothes for normal people. The irony of the brand certainly operates on multiple levels.
Fundamentally, the reason I find myself looking at Damien Hirst and Vetements in such similar lights is because of the conclusion I always draw about the former. For all the amazing things Hirst has achieved, if not as an artist then as a marketer and self-promoter, it’s often so difficult to see where the broader art world has benefited. Stories have abounded about other artists having their careers made when Charles Saatchi begins buying their pieces, only for their “stock” to plummet when the same guy begins dumping them.
For Hirst, now estimated to be worth over £300 million, that’s not really a problem anymore. You might remember Hirst’s famous diamond-encrusted skull, ‘For the Love of God’, which sold for $100 million dollars. The skull was, in fact, purchased by an anonymous investment group or ‘group of businessmen’. Allegedly, one of the members of that group was none other than… you guessed it, Damien Hirst. I’ve even heard rumours that Hirst has a storage facility full of his own artworks somewhere, basically propping up the price. It sounds crazy, but think of it like this; if I keep selling a piece of artwork to myself for £10 million, then someone else comes along and buys one for £10 million, then I’ve made £10 million.
My point is, for all the change Damien Hirst has effected upon the world of art, there’s only really been one winner. Him. The majority of modern art that has decided to follow in his footsteps has been vapid, uninspired and bloated with cash. Art galleries’ obsessions with funding from wealthy investors and ever-more extravagant projects rarely do much to inspire people on the street. And the people who might travel to Venice to see Hirst’s latest exhibition this summer, for example, are unlikely to dig out exhibitions by other, lesser-known artists in the city at the same time.
And that’s kind of what I’m worried about with Vetements. On the one hand, I see a brand that has been doing interesting, exciting things to deconstruct fashion and its elitism in funny and tongue-in-cheek ways. But on the other hand, I see a brand who, like Damien Hirst, have identified the marketing and salesmanship in fashion, and turned that into the art of their creations.
The problem with that, though, is fashion doesn’t really operate in the same way as art. Art is (arguably, or at the very least should be) about pure creativity; aesthetics; things that look nice and possibly provoke deeper thought and intellectual engagement. When art engages with commerce, as it necessarily does in the modern world, it does so in spite of its purer intent. Hirst turning the commerciality into the art itself is a form of a snake eating its own tail. It’s this which probably makes debates about him so never-ending; it’s the art about the thing which is killing art, which is the art. Get it?
But fashion isn’t really the same, though marketers have been working increasingly hard to convince us otherwise. Fashion can be artistry. There have been few designers over the years who genuinely have created art through clothing – Cristôbal Balenciaga, Martin Margiela, Raf Simons, and the like. But they did this in spite of fashion’s primary function, which is to basically sell product. The majority of fashion designers are not artists. They are people who make product to be bought. It’s just that.
This is why so many designers associate with artists and the art world; it validates their product and gives it that allure of artistry to make it more than clothes. Collaborations, presentation locations, music and so on. All of these things are basically an attempt to make fashion more than what it is. And so what? I love it. I really do. And many of us really do love fashion. But we can, at the same time, recognise that fashion is just stuff being sold, desire being created and money being made.
So: Art creates, in spite of sales.
But fashion sells, with the help of art.
So when the Gvasalia brothers bring that cynical, marketing and money-centric mentality to Vetements, ironic or not, it doesn’t work in the same way as Hirst – to me, at least. Because when you present a fashion label to me and laugh about how absurdly expensive and restrictive and bloated it is, it just feels dirty and crass. Fashion fans are basically begging our favourite designers to tell us lies, sweet little lies. We know we’re wasting our money. Just let us believe we’re doing something else. This isn’t a ‘snake eating its tail’ scenario. It’s just a total short-circuit.
So Vetements ends up feeling like this nasty, mean-spirited project which, as I said earlier, takes money from its customers whilst giving them the finger. Guram Gvasalia’s declaration that he would never buy Vetements at the prices that he set is kind of grotesque and offensive, like a sexist, racist comedian like Roy Chubby Brown telling you he doesn’t actually agree with the material he’s written.
Where does that all leave us? In a situation where the Gvasalia’s become global sensations, Demna gets brought into an historic fashion house to apply that same formula to that brand (thus penetrating the inner-circles; watch it spread now), fashion magazines and editors are chomping at the bit to write about it and cover it, and people at the end of it all, somewhere far away from all the eye-rolling, eventually buy it. But none of us win. Except for the Gvasalia brothers.
Bit like Hirst, really.
With thanks to: Daryoush Haj-Najafi & Katrice Dustin