Why Vetements Wouldn’t Exist Without Cindy Sherman, Walter Van Beirendonck and Bernard Willhelm
- Words Jacob Victorine
- Date October 12, 2017
There are few designer brands that have received more praise than Vetements (meaning “clothes” in French) over the past three years. Led by brothers Demna (who handles design) and Guram Gvasalia (who handles the business) and operated as a collective, Vetements debuted for Fall/Winter 2014 with an undeniably approachable collection that played with construction and silhouette in surprising, but not groundbreaking ways. The Gvasalia brothers couldn’t afford a runway show for their first season, so they shot their thirty-look collection in Demna’s Paris apartment with their single model standing on a small portable stage. Since then, the brothers’ company has accomplished what could be called a global fashion takeover: becoming a staple of celebrities and streetwear fanatics with iconic logo sweatshirts and DHL t-shirts; accumulating sought-after stockists; and even rereleasing its first collection despite being too young to have anything that could reasonably be called an archive. The brand’s rise has been so spectacular that Demna was named Balenciaga’s artistic director less than two years after debuting Vetements’ first collection—a feat that is unheard of for such a young designer.
And, although Vetements has experienced remarkable success since its inception, the reality is that the brand produces relatively ordinary looking clothes and makes no bones about it: “A garment is a product. It’s not made to be in a museum. It’s meant to be in somebody’s wardrobe,” Demna explained to Business of Fashion in 2016. Demna is no Takahashi or Kawakubo or Simons or even Margiela (where he worked for three years, two of those years occurring after Martin’s departure). What then, other than Guram’s business savvy, explains Vetements resounding success? Like many of the great conceptual artists and designers of the past fifty years, Demna consistently demonstrates the ability to recontextualize familiar references until they feel new. Warhol, of course, was a master of this, but there are also more contemporary artists and designers—in particular, Cindy Sherman, Walter Van Beirendonck and Bernard Willhelm—who perfected this technique years before Demna could have even been aware of it, thereby setting the table that Vetements now eats from.
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Despite being a conceptual photographer who doesn’t work within the fashion industry, Cindy Sherman has been highly influential for designers (and visual artists, in general) over the past forty years. Born in Glen Ridge, New Jersey in 1954, Sherman first received recognition for her 1977-1980 photo series, The Complete Untitled Film Stills, in which she took black and white photos of herself while costumed and posed as various unnamed actors in imagined film scenes that were reminiscent of those from Hollywood blockbusters, B-movies and film noirs, among other genres. Over her many years as an artist, Sherman has continued to explore the concepts of identity, representation and performance through photographs in which she or, sometimes, dolls inhabit real, imagined and previously represented lives. Whether through her History Portraits—in which she depicts roles from archetypal paintings—or through a more recent series that portrays types of women from California, Sherman depersonalizes her subjects in a way that allows the viewer to impose their own meaning(s) while simultaneously experiencing the work as part of an artistic and/or sociohistorical lineage.
At its heart, Sherman’s work uses cultural and societal references as foundations to play with her viewers’ biases and expectations, which is not so different than what Demna has done at Vetements, or even Balenciaga. Whether it’s the former’s Spring/Summer 2018 lookbook, which features “real” people mimicking a series of stereotypical fashion model poses, or the latter’s Fall/Winter 2017 Bernie Sanders inspired collection that appropriated the style and branding of the Vermont Senator’s 2016 Presidential campaign, Demna attempts to give new context to familiar representations. Yet, the designer has not merely played with some of Sherman’s techniques—he literally turned Sherman’s approach to photography into a ready-to-wear collection: Vetements’ Fall/Winter 2017 runway show featured a cast of style archetypes, from a spikey-haired punk to a bespectacled librarian, to a camouflage-clad soldier to even a heavily veiled bride. Yes, there were technical risks in the clothes—namely double-layered jackets and coats constructed from multiple upcycled garments—but the main appeal of the collection was the placement of familiar styles in an unfamiliar setting. “A new stage has to come. What we do here is always a reappropriation of something which already exists. So we took a survey of social uniforms, researched the dress codes of people we see around us, or on the Internet,” Demna explained, as reported by Vogue. There’s irony, of course, in Demna’s reappropriation of social uniforms, but there’s arguably even more irony in his appropriation of Sherman’s ideas.
Of course, Sherman’s ideas made their way into the fashion world far before Vetements; numerous designers, from Vivienne Westwood to Thom Browne to Walter Van Beirendonck have built collections—and even brands—by reinterpreting social uniforms; Van Beirendonck, in particular, can claim an influence on Vetements’ approach to design—even if Demna has mostly eschewed his connection to the Flemish designer: “When I worked with him, it was on menswear, but at one point I just realised it was a bit limited for me,” Demna explained to Business of Fashion in 2016 regarding his time studying under Van Beirendonck at the Antwerp Royal Academy of Fine Arts. In contrast, the designer has spoken of his time at Margiela in glowing terms: “That period of my life was probably the most formative in terms of fashion. My real studies, where I learned about clothes, was working at Margiela, especially in this kind of transitional period after Martin left; when the company was trying to modernise its DNA and find ways to continue its history. For me it was like an MA in fashion,” he said in the same interview.
Yet, Demna has begrudgingly admitted that his schooling helped build his foundation as a designer: “They try to push creativity—it’s not a very technical school. No one really explains how to construct a tailored jacket, you have to find out about that yourself, which is a hard process but it absolutely pays off […] I mean we studied works and the names and methods of work that we heard about every day. So naturally it had an impact on me.” This DIY approach is very much the basis for how Vetements constructs its garments. Nearly all of the brand’s designs either shift a garment’s traditional silhouette, thereby making it both recognizable and strange, or incorporate previously produced garments into a new creation. Whereas designers who attend highly practical institutions may take a construction-centered approach to design, those who graduate from more theory-centric schools often take a conceptual approach into the world; this dichotomy can be seen in the difference between Demna and designers like Abdul Abasi and Greg Rosborough of Abasi Rosborough, who founded their brand on the idea of creating a more anatomically constructed suit after graduating from the Menswear Design program at the Fashion Institute of Technology, a school known for its emphasis on patternmaking.
But Van Beirendonck’s influence also takes shape in more immediate ways; a single look at one of his collections makes his use of pop cultural totems and humor readily apparent—design languages that inform a large swath of Demna’s designs, as well. For example, Van Beirendonck’s Fall/Winter 2005 lookbook, entitled “WEIRD” features knit Mohawk hats, animal-shaped neck pillows constructed from suiting fabric, and even what appears to be a stuffed machine gun. These pieces are undeniably weird, but they are also deeply ironic. Or consider the invitation for his Spring/Summer 1990 collection, “Fashion Is Dead,” which took the form of a newspaper featuring a series of fake stories such as “Is Walter an Alien?” and advertised a fake perfume, “EXCESS = his Master's Choice.” Van Beirendonck designed the collection as a retort to perceived slights by fashion journalists, but most protest art isn’t so selfishly indulgent or strangely funny. This seemingly anti-establishment yet inherently establishment approach to design and marketing has become one of Vetements’ staples, from doing fashion shows in nontraditional venues (but still doing fashion shows) to giving up fashion shows (but producing lookbooks) to selling anti-fashion items (for high-fashion prices). Like Van Beirendonck’s “Fashion Is Dead” promo materials, these tactics invite rabid analysis by the press while not challenging the fashion system in a way that actually creates pushback.
Still, it’s important to note that Demna is far from the only one of Van Beirendonck’s students to take a conceptual approach toward design or use Shermanesque photography to present a collection. During the ’90’s, German-born designer Bernhard Willhelm studied at the Antwerp Royal Academy of Fine Arts and worked for Van Beirendonck at W. & L. T. (Wild & Lethal Trash). After graduating in 1998, Willhelm founded his eponymous label, which has developed a reputation for its playful designs and conceptual presentations. The designer has based collections on everything from McDonald’s Happy Meal figures to American football uniforms and often designs with the hope of eliciting strong emotions from his audience: “When I’m designing, I don't see the clothes as crazy. I’ve got to exaggerate to find the essence of an idea. In starting a collection, the most important thing is to bring an idea out quite clearly. Fashion people only react to very strong ideas,” Willhelm explained in an interview with Hint Mag. “The beauty thing isn’t important to me. It’s about making a strong idea and producing the image. Beauty comes from emotion. It’s satisfying if I can feel something.”
Of course, exaggeration is one of Demna’s favorite techniques, as well, and there are blatantly obvious comparisons to be made between Vetements and Willhelm’s collections. In fact, much of what Vetements does feels like a considerably toned down version of Willhelm; whereas Willhelm goes full throttle when translating inspiration into design, Demna will take the most prominent ideas from his inspiration and incorporate them within common garments. For example, the padded shoulders and dropped armholes in Vetements’ Fall/Winter 2016 collection look a lot like a restrained version of the oversized graphic jerseys and hooded coats featured in Willhelm’s Fall/Winter 2004 American football collection; both designers even showcased split shoulder seams. Or scroll through nearly any of Willhelm’s lookbooks over the past ten years and you’ll see the designer’s affinity for self-reflexive framing, nontraditional stages and social uniforms. For example, his Speinf/Summer 2014 collection is an absurdist rumination on wealthy suburban style; the lookbook features fifty and sixty-year-old male and female models decked out in track pants, swim trunks, tights and robes produced in unusual fabrics and covered in scissor graphics. In many ways, the collection feels like a direct bridge between Sherman and Demna; Willhelm’s image of a blonde suburbanite dressed in a crinkly pink track suit and snuggling with a black marble jaguar is akin to both Sherman’s Untitled #397 and any number of photos from Vetements’ Spring/Summer 2018 collection.
Despite Demna’s aversion for comparisons, it’s hard to ignore how conceptual artists and designers of the past forty years have helped shape his design ethos: from the use of social uniforms to “candid” photos to acceptably subversive promotional tactics—the parallels are all there. Yet, not only does the work of Sherman, Van Beirendonck and Willhelm, among others, precede that of Vetements, it exists beside it; all three masters are still alive and continue to produce new material at a steady clip. So, it’s possible that Demna’s obliviousness to his predecessors is not about ignorance, but about the designer’s desire to cast Vetements as a singular brand that exists beyond comparison. In an age when appropriation is often seen in a negative light, it’s a tactful move for a designer who appropriates so readily. It’s one thing to take a logo from a corporation, but another entirely to take ideas from people whose work your audience might find more meaningful than your own.