What would Cristobal Balenciaga make of what Demna Gvasalia has made of Cristobal Balenciaga? Would he recognize a similar rigorous radicalism? Would he relate to a fellow fashion alchemist? As counter-intuitive a choice as Gvasalia may have seemed as standard bearer for the most scrupulously demanding legacy in fashion, he’s managed to respectfully and insightfully insinuate himself into the story Cristobal started. By sheer coincidence, his osteopath even happens to be the son of the same osteo who treated Balenciaga more than half a century ago. Looking for the similarities, not the differences, Gvasalia has evolved orthodoxies, rather than shattering them. Same with his project for Re-Edition. I flew to Zurich, where he’s been living for eighteen months, to meet him in the Hotel Baur au Lac, whose splendour would probably have provided a backdrop for at least some of Cristobal’s couture swans back in his day. Gvasalia – once upon a time hardcore techno boy and born iconoclast - seemed quite at home amidst the wealthy Swiss burghers. He’s calmed down. Or, as he puts it, “matured”. A new chapter opens. But he’s still posing questions, offering answers. The Re-Edition project does both.
DEMNA GVASALIA: We produce a lot of visual material now within our internal network for our own Instagram, and I realized recently that I would like to get more involved, to make things that correspond to my vision for the house and what we really do here, rather than just give out pieces to be shot randomly. So this is one of the first projects like that. Jo from Re-Edition wanted something about Balenciaga for the new issue and one of the topics I always had in mind was a definition of what beauty really means. That was the theme we started working on with the casting. It was specifically for Re-Edition, but a big part of it is also for the show in September. We cast in a new way, working with different kinds of headhunters with different aesthetic views. Some of them are good with street casting, some better with character casting, or movie casting. We went everywhere, Mexico, Japan, China, obviously America and Europe. They’re not just actors and models, each of them does something, each of them has the presence I’m always looking for, each of them has their own way of wearing clothes.
TIM BLANKS: I thought all your castings were kind of like that.
DG: We worked a lot with agencies before, with a mixture of models and “real” people. Back then, the casting was done by me and Lotta and some friends around us. This time, it was more specialized. We had somebody who casts extras in Hollywood, who works with more mature people as well. It’s really like making a movie.
TB: So what directive do you give a guy like that?
DG: There were a lot, because the next cast is so large. We have guys who are bodybuilders, this is their definition of male beauty. We have very slim people with very model-like bodies, shorter people, very tall people, very diverse body shapes and skin types. In addition for Re-Edition, we have people who worked with plastic surgery to modify their bodies or faces, because for me this is also a part of aesthetic beauty that has always fascinated me. It’s very difficult to mix it in with the general cast of a fashion show, but for a shoot like this, I thought it was a good opportunity to express that view of beauty.
TB: Do you mean quest-for-perfection cosmetic surgery or body-modification cosmetic surgery?
DG: Both. We have the girl who dreamed to be Barbie. We have people like that who modify their face or their body in their quest for their own ideal of perfect beauty. It’s interesting how judgmental other people get about it.
TB: Traditionally, the pursuit of beauty has always had something melancholic about it, because it’s a doomed effort. You’re never going to get what you want. Is that something that appeals to you a little bit?
DG: I think imperfection is something I came to accept very recently. My way of designing was to be very in control. I believed in a certain perfection in my design aesthetic and last year I realized I have to accept there is no such thing. That’s new for me: accepting imperfection is finally looking into the eyes of your demon.
TB: What brought that change?
DG: Age, in my case. I’m 37 now, I feel I’m getting more mature, but two years ago I wouldn’t have thought that. I wanted to be perfect to myself. I’m my own biggest critic of myself, but but I realised the only recipe for doing something well is to let it go, be accepting. You don’t have to be perfect. When I see those people who work on their visual appearance and go so far, their drive really fascinates me. I would love to have so many complexes about myself that I would love to correct, but I would never dare go in that direction. The idea is already painful to me.
TB: You mean your idea of beauty is something that you’re not?
DG: For sure, that’s why my quest for beauty is so intense because I always looked for it as a kid. I always thought I needed it around me, and I was never sufficient to provide it. I myself could never wear most of the things I design that I would love to wear.
TB: When you were a kid, were you surrounded by beautiful things, or ugly things that you needed the beauty to escape from?
DG: I’m not sure I was surrounded by ugly things. I was surrounded by something that was very unsafe. Where I grew up, I wouldn’t say there was an aesthetic setup. My grandmother would wear interesting clothes. She was a very beautiful woman and I was fascinated by her ageing beauty. I don’t think her husband saw her without makeup once in his life. Now she’s 80 and she’s never done anything to her face and she gets very angry about ageing. She feels exactly the same, like a sexy woman, but she doesn’t understand why she’s suddenly a grandmum. I think that’s really where my interest in beauty started, in this relationship with the women around me.
TB: I’m always curious how ideals of beauty form in young minds. When I was a little kid, mine was Elizabeth Taylor because I loved “Cleopatra” so much.
DG: My grandmother would show me all these movie stars like Elizabeth Taylor and Sophia Loren and they were classic ideas of feminine beauty in my mind. But from the time I was small, beauty was something I wanted. I remember when Guram was born, my mother was away for three days and I had the fun of dressing myself as much as I could. She wouldn’t let me usually because I would get dirty playing. But I changed my look five times a day and when she came back, she was really angry, because I’d had a whole fashion week in three days.
TB: So you associated beauty with the freedom to change yourself?
DG: I pretty much always have identified beauty with freedom. But now I’ve come to the point where I started to also appreciate different types of beauty. I see it more around in nature. I didn’t really know it before, because I was in cellars in Paris, or clubbing, or making oversize coats, and then suddenly I discovered there is nature and its beauty, so powerful and so strong. It’s more accessible in Zurich than when you’re living in Paris or London. I’m not making collections about nature, God forbid, but it just gives you this freedom and sense of lightness, and somehow you let things go and you create better.
TB: We’re conditioned to think that beauty is rare because it’s precious, so it’s an interesting realization that beauty is actually everywhere. It’s not rare at all.
DG: I believe it’s everywhere and in every being. We always look for it and sometimes we get distracted and go in a different direction, but it’s given to us by nature, or God. People call it the God particle. It’s quite spiritual.
TB: But for something to be beautiful, something else has to be ugly.
DG: Yes, someone needs to lose for beauty to win. But also I feel that’s nature’s formula. If everything was paradise, there’d be nothing to compare. It creates balance. This is kind of the idea behind this shoot.
TB: You mean, introducing artificial elements that might be considered quite controversial, just to highlight the more natural elements?
DG: For sure, I’m hoping we can shoot it in a way that even those people who would disagree with the idea of something being beautiful will still be able to see the beauty. It’s not just something we know from the cover of magazines, it’s something I’ve been trying to speak about for five years.
TB: How seduced are you by the idea of inner beauty? So often it’s made to sound like the consolation prize.
DG: It’s like falling in love with people you’d never think about. I think it is much stronger than the texture of the skin or the size of the eyes in relation to the nose or those classic criteria.
TB: But do you respond to those as well, when you see an absolutely physically stunning man or woman?
DG: I’m not used to people like that. In the places where I grew up like Antwerp, I never saw actors or movie stars. It’s only recently that I’ve seen such people. I have to be honest, when I saw Nicole Kidman, I nearly dropped dead. I found her extremely fascinating because of the idea I had from her on screen and then seeing her in reality. It was one time when I was very stunned by somebody’s presence and their look. And the first time I saw Kim Kardashian’s face, she was so much more beautiful than in pictures. For me, it’s not about who it is, it’s about how is it possible to have that?
TB: We think about Ancient Greece as being a standard of classical beauty, so I think it’s interesting that apparently their word for “beauty” was the same as the word for “good”. It’s like we’re programmed from the beginning!
DG: That unfortunately is a fact, because we’re conditioned since we’re children whether we want it or not. When kids now become consumers it will be completely different because they spend their childhood on digital media. That’s fascinating too. How will the new generation see beauty?
TB: Do you feel you’re giving them a lesson in diversity with this project?
DG: No, it’s really a part of my analytical research about beauty in relation to Balenciaga in particular. Balenciaga is a couture house and the roots of its visual heritage is in those images we know from the 50s and 60s, the ideal of beauty as seen in that era. I want to know how I can reinterpet that for today. Cristobal Balenciaga loved to dress women who had a belly and a hunch. The models from Balenciaga were nicknamed “monsters”. When I did my research, that was one of the links I saw between myself and Cristobal, the way he saw women. Knowing that, back then, someone like Cristobal, who was a tutor to a lot of other big couturiers, would prefer to fit on someone with a belly and a short neck, who couldn’t wear corsets… this was more than you learn in four years in fashion school. If you can make that older woman look like she’s standing straight just through ingenious cutting, that’s all you need to do in fashion. Still today, the ideal didn’t change. The mentality behind that beauty is the same for me as it was for Cristobal. What he did with clothes on the body was like a cosmetic surgery of clothing.