what would cristobal balenciaga make of what demna gvasalia has made of cristobal balenciaga?

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.


TB: How much do you think beauty is dictated by the people who are looking at it?  You have the male gaze and the female gaze. Is that the sexual element of beauty?

DG: If we’re talking about the most classical understanding of beauty, there is always the connotation of sexuality in how each of us sees beauty.  This is what conditioning does. With something we see on our screens all the time, in advertising and magazines, which society tells us is beautiful, there is always the presence of sexuality.  Though desirability is maybe a better word.

TB: We’re constantly hearing, for instance, how on-line porn is breeding generations that are disgusted by pubic hair.   

DG: That’s conditioned beauty.  It’s very unnatural but somehow I feel there is nothing we can do about it apart from accepting this is the times we’re living in.

TB:  You can confront it, you can comment on it.

DG:  I don’t think I would, because I don’t totally disagree with it.

TB: But you’re a big hairy guy. 

DG: That example, probably not. But I spend a lot of time on screen because I don’t have a lot of time for travel research,  so most of my ideas come from the Internet and I get to see those kinds of things. I don’t have a problem with it because I can no longer imagine living without this digital presence in my life.  And I don’t think that I wanna fight against it, because I think it’s impossible to fight against.

TB: But you’re celebrating the human with this casting, and that seems like the complete antithesis.  

DG: But it isn’t, it’s just part of the life we are facing. I think we’re at the beginning of a social revolution that we’re not even aware of, and we cannot ignore that this will be part of it. It’s a part of human evolution and what beauty means in it too. I know I have a lot of friends who remove their body hair because it disturbs them, probably because of what they’ve seen. I was super-disturbed by hair on my body when I was a teenager. I was shaving my arms. I did it with wax once and I almost died. I grew up in Georgia with big noses and hairy bodies as a part of male physiques and I was always attracted to something that was not so around.  I wanted to NOT have body hair and NOT have  a big nose. The shoot is giving humanity the freedom not to be judged.  The freedom is humanising the digital revolution.  If I want to have cheekbones like THIS and elf ears, this is exactly the kind of beauty I should have.  The good thing about the digital age is that it gives us the choice, the bad thing is making good choices is not always easy or always the case.  That’s where the freedom is a bit tricky.

TB: And the freedom is ultimately confrontational, because it makes the “real” people real-er. 

DG: I don’t think a human being is really threatened by these directions if we learn how to deal with it.  I think it sometimes becomes confrontational because it’s difficult to digest.  It’s like growing, it hurts sometimes, it’s necessary.

TB: But we’re in a  really difficult moment.  People are pushed into corners by all this idealization. When I heard what you were doing, it felt very much in tune with your defiance of convention.  So it’s funny when I hear you say you don’t mind all that digital tyranny.

DG: I don’t mind when people don’t want to have body hair because this is their freedom of choice and how they define themselves.

TB: But if they ALL don’t want to have body hair, then it becomes something strange.

DG: Then we have clones, and this is the scariest thing ever.  But everything is so global and accessible because of the Internet it actually makes a different human being more interesting and exciting.  It’s contradictory, but I think one pushes another and this is what I’m trying to hopefully communicate with this project. It’s part of fashion to be interested in this kind of  creative research.  It’s my sociological research into what’s happening in society, which is  really our customer today.  We have an audience of over six million just on social media so we need to speak about these things.

TB: Do you feel that as a responsibility?

DG: It makes me very happy and fulfilled. I think the views I have are in accordance with the DNA of the house, and I feel this is what modern fashion is about, having conversations and making great product which people want to wear.  The other day on the Bahnhofstrasse, I saw a woman wearing a denim jacket that was a bit inspired by the cocoon, and I liked it, and only then did I realise it was our jacket, and for me this was an important moment.  I’d never seen this woman before, she was quite short, about the same age as my mother, and she looked good. And I think that is what beauty is about in fashion.   

TB: Inclusivity?  Bringing people into the tribe?

DG: Absolutely. I think fashion has to be tribal.  Before I was in fashion, when I was a student helping the dressers backstage at the Belgian designers’ shows in Paris, I saw people dressing up like crazy, the Raf Simons crowd, the Dries people, and I found it fascinating that you could be part of a tribe.   

TB: Do you feel there’s a political edge to this freedom to change?  It relates to ideas that are very critical in society at the moment.

DG: It’s kind of political from my point of view. I studied economics, on 9/11, I was an intern at Georgian TV translating from Reuters live in the studio because they needed someone who spoke English.  Freedom, beauty…these things have always been part of my interests.  

TB: Are you reconciled to the fact that it’s maybe a losing battle in the end?

DG: The battle can still be fun.  If we all die in two years, we don’t have any control so let’s at least have fun doing it.   in fashion you can change things for the better, and you can make people question.    

TB: I can imagine fashion over the next few years becoming more of a vehicle for comment, because people are going to have take a position.  

DG: For me this involvement is the future of the luxury industry in general.  I’m lucky to have a chance to do with Balenciaga.  With The World Food Programme, which is part of this shoot and part of the last show,  we were able to give an example of how fashion can involve itself as a tool of communication. I chose to use the easiest pieces, the t-shirt and hoodie which I’m most known for – unfortunately for now – as the carrier of the message and show that not only can we give a percentage of sales but also carry the message further with the people who will wear the clothes.  So fashion becomes a tool of this social communication.

TB: How much does a fashion show shape contemporary ideas of beauty?

DG: More and more they’ve become so local and quite exclusive for the small selection of people who experience shows, but for me they gain another importance in their role in fashion by creating this scenography or narrative that I want to transmit at Balencaga.  We started a bit with the last show, with the mountain, which was the most scenographic thing we ever did.  The mountain was interesting - why would you do that for 350 people when you couldn’t see it properly on the screen or in the runway pictures? I came to the conclusion it was super-important, because it was there to convey exactly my vision to this circle of people who could further convey the message in their own ways. So a fashion show’s role in defining what beauty  is according to the creative direction of the brand is very, very important.  There was a moment when I was questioning the importance of fashion shows in general as an event, but it’s impossible not to have them.  A show has to be strong.  I have 15 minutes to tell these people what Balenciaga wants to tell after six months of work, and it’s all about beauty again.  Every silhouette we show,  our priority has to be modern beauty and modern elegance and what they represent

TB: And what is that?

DG: It’s this diversity and freedom of choice, having an identity and being different from others. I think being different is the most luxurious thing. Not falling victim to all the conditioning, not being a clone.  In the end, that’s the actual challenge.  

TB: And all that is happening in the real time of the fashion show, while the digital entity is off somewhere in a digital eternity? 

DG: You have zero control over what happens digitally.  It’s out there and people will do what they want with it. But in the show, I have the possibility for 15 minutes to represent everything the way we want.  It’s like making a movie.  You have to consider the soundtrack, the cast, what they wear, the story they tell.  

TB: Why do you think it connects with people the way it does?

DG: …or it doesn’t.

TB: That bothers you?

DG: I think it would bother me if it did connect with everyone. No, it would bother me when it doesn’t connect to the people who wear our clothes and like what we do.  What’s most important to me as a designer is to serve the customer at the end of the day.  It changes something to wear the piece.  Whether it’s a shirt with a t-shirt attached, it needs to give something to the wearer.

TB: So why does it connect? The t-shirt and shirt is kind of obvious, even if it’s quite perverse. It’s like the Beatles.  A simple idea, but nobody had done it till they came along.  

DG: Yes, a lot of things we have done are like that, from the blue leather bag to the DHL t-shirt from my previous seasons.  Of course you can buy it for 15 euros so why didn’t you before it came out on the catwalk?  This is how fashion is today.  It feels like many other ideas that are simple but they are only strong when they first come.  Of course you can attach a t-shirt to a shirt and style it like this and its fun to wear for someone who likes fashion.  For me it would be even too much, but it’s playful and it makes you part of a fashion tribe.  And if you can also pin it yourself at home, why didn’t you do it?  

TB: What is that process? The eye sees the ordinary world and makes it extraordinary.

DG: There is a lot of beauty in that process, it’s probably the thing I enjoy most in creating.   Changing something, finding something very simple and turning it into an idea that can be a product.

TB: That’s the alchemy of fashion.  Do you like that idea?

DG: I love it, there is a kind of magic in it. I think magic is so unreachable that its very fascinating.  Georgia has lots of fairytales and folk stories. I love hearing these scary tales,

how a prince took out a princess’s eyes so she can cry diamonds.  And the whole village is collecting those tears and they make a dress for her.  It’s a very romantic ending to a very brutal story.  They somehow went through a lot of suffering in those tales to make things better and make things beautiful.

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