The new fashion season begins with quite some intrigue. After Virgil Abloh’s announcement that he would take a break – on doctor’s orders – from his duties at Louis Vuitton and Off-White, it is now Demna Gvasalia’s turn to cause some ink to flow.
Earlier today, WWD released a statement announcing Gvasalia’s departure from the much-lauded and controverted fashion collective, in which the former chief designer expressed his decision to move on: "I started VETEMENTS because I was bored of fashion, and against all odds fashion did change once and forever since VETEMENTS appeared and it also opened a new door for so many. So, I feel that I have accomplished my mission of a conceptualist and design innovator at this exceptional brand and VETEMENTS has matured into a company that can evolve its creative heritage into a new chapter on its own."
Awkwardly enough, Gvasalia’s departure coincides with a milestone year for VETEMENTS: the 10-year anniversary of the collective which was initially founded in 2009 in Paris, and which has been quite successful ever since. A source close to this situation said that his departure is related to business differences with his brother Guram Gvasalia, but this theory has not been confirmed by the brand. Regardless of all this, there is no doubt that VETEMENTS has had a considerable impact on the fashion industry for the past few years. In no time at all, the brand was everywhere, and its hype quickly turned into a monster on its own, with a high demand to match. From initiating luxury industry trends such as logomania, multiple collabs, and streetwear, to breaking high/low dichotomies and tapping into the desires of the millennials and gen-z-ers, while ingeniously mixing pop culture, underground, and normcore aesthetics, Demna Gvasalia and his collective of nameless designers have been at the center of the industry’s attention –and both lauded and criticized – ever since their first Fall 2014 collection hit the runway.
However, after skyrocketing to fame – the brand’s pieces sold out whenever they dropped, and celebrities and influencers went crazy for the label – VETEMENTS has experienced an increasing customer fatigue in the past few years, so much so that press declared the brand "dead" only four years after it initially broke the Internet. The brand’s once successful business model – to create anticipation with considerably expensive pieces, which were limited in quantities and availability – seemed to have lost its attractive glow. But even after harsh criticism followed – mostly on class appropriation and the fact that prices were too high for the quality offered – VETEMENTS still remained a relevant go-to reference within the industry. Especially if you consider that it served as a springboard for Demna Gvasalia, who was appointed to the creative helm of Balenciaga in late 2015, merely one year after the hype around VETEMENTS started.
The brand's customer fatigue might be due to the fact that the die-hard VETEMENTS fans have grown fond of Balenciaga, as Demna Gvasalia's signature style is thriving within the collections of the Kering-owned brand. Slumping sales seem not to be an issue when it comes to Gvasalia's collections for Balenciaga: Kering is speaking of a "very strong momentum" powered by its heritage brands, with reported revenue of €7.64 billion in the first half of 2019, an 18.8% increase from the same period last year. While Gucci and Saint Laurent made up the majority of Kering's revenue (40% and 25%, respectively), Balenciaga is set to do €1 billion in turnover this year and performed particularly well via its e-commerce, with ready-to-wear for both men and women and shoes doing "extremely well" according to Kering's Finance Chief Jean-Marc Duplaix.
So, what does this all ultimately say about VETEMENTS? Is Demna Gvasalia’s exit an attempt to kill the hype monster that he created, while keeping the upper hand at Balenciaga? Or is it merely a way to show us that VETEMENTS wasn’t ever meant to last, that it was simply a "mission," as he told WWD, which he has now "completed"? After all, the VETEMENTS collective was borne out of designer friendships in a Parisian apartment with an initially honest goal: to refocus the attention of the fashion industry on the clothes themselves. Paradoxically, the brand has done everything but that. In fact, it has built its empire on an undisputed social media hype, one which came with a frustrating sales strategy and a cultural impact that went far beyond clothing itself.
Now that VETEMENTS is about to succumb to the pressure of its own fate, the industry wonders whether it can really survive without its star designer? But is it actually necessary for the brand to continue to exist and succeed? Wouldn’t it be more logical, for a brand like VETEMENTS, which is intrinsically bound and defined by its hype, to end when its hype ends too? Maybe that could be VETEMENTS’ final, nihilistic anti-fashion trick: to show to the luxury industry that perpetuating the heritage it is based on is a needless quest for success. That truly authentic creation is de facto one that is entirely in tune with its own generation – and one that is therefore based on the ephemeral. While the future of VETEMENTS remains uncertain, one thing is certain for sure: Demna Gvasalia knows how to leave on a high note.
VETEMENTS Spring/Summer 2020 runway show in Paris. Photo by Valerio Mezzanotti