In 2021, Demna Gvasalia redefined the reach and possibility of fashion design. His Balenciaga has challenged our assumptions about celebrity, luxury, popular culture, and even reality itself. As designers struggled throughout the pandemic to adjust to virtual fashion shows, Balenciaga seized an opportunity to plunge into the metaverse, partnering with Epic Games, the developer behind Fortnite, to create a video game for fall 2021. A few months later, Balenciaga boot-pants and hourglass jackets showed up on Gucci’s runway, part of what both brands (which are owned by the conglomerate Kering) deemed the “hacker project.” Over the summer, Gvasalia directed two of Kanye West’s stadium-size Donda listening parties—and in the midst of all this, relaunched Balenciaga couture, recharting the industry’s direction, away from hype and toward handcraft. In September, Balenciaga ruled the Met gala red carpet, and cemented a partnership with Fortnite that allowed players to dress in its signature looks. At Paris Fashion Week in September, Balenciaga served up a rare moment of genuine surprise and delight, debuting a 10-minute-long Balenciaga-packed episode of The Simpsons.
Gvasalia is a populist interested in subverting fashion; what he has done with each of these projects is dismantle, brick by brick, the false boundary between vernacular and luxury. His platform-sole Crocs, satirical prom suits, and leather Ikea bags—all at luxurious price points—get a rise from the masses, and expose the clichés of fashion elitism. But with video games, cartoons, and mega-wattage celebrities, Gvasalia is finding unexpected ways to extend the reach of a luxury brand.
“I am not interested in anything average, including the average consumer,” Gvasalia wrote to me in an email this fall. “If someone is personally offended by Crocs, there might be a more serious problem within that person than the design of a shoe.” As for those who think they’re getting one over by pointing out the absurdity of Balenciaga’s multi-thousand-dollar versions of mass-produced lowbrow objects: “Everything I do has a reason for it,” he says. “The trashy prom suit or an ‘unreasonably expensive’ market bag did not just accidentally slip into my collection without me super consciously putting it there. Do I know that this may not be ‘understood’ by the average social media critique? Yes, I do. Do I care? I am pretty sure you know the answer. I just do fashion that I love and enjoy; it is really as simple as that.”
Gvasalia ascended through the fashion industry over the past six years as a provocateur, but he now sits atop it as a lover, as its most electric practitioner and biggest fan. The Georgian-born designer, who is 40, yanked streetwear and an ambivalent Eastern European menace into the luxury business, first as the de facto head of the collective Vetements, and then, starting in 2015, as the artistic director of Balenciaga. He has not changed the way the entire world dresses, but has done something more fascinating: He codified the way we were already dressing into a global style sensibility, transforming the quotidian into items worthy of worship. In the process, he positioned Balenciaga as an embodiment of a certain surliness toward big corporate fashion, and as the coolest brand on the planet.