Unpacking the Paris Label’s Musical Reference System
Text: Adam Lehrer
People do not buy into brands just because they like the clothes. We connect with and consume fashion labels because we identify with their cultural references and feel that they communicate something about ourselves. But unlike Raf Simons’ visions of alternative youth culture or Gosha Rubchinskiy’s fascination with post-Soviet Russian skateboarders, Vetements interacts with culture in a manner that best reflects how people engage with it in the digital era: all of it, all the time. The brand doesn’t feed its audience a narrow definition of “cool,” nor does it offer a specific idea of what culture should be, but proposes a method of interacting with material that already exists. The brand’s musical inspirations, for instance, are not beholden to any one style or genre. You are not buying into Vetements’ taste in music—you are buying into their mode of receiving and interpreting music.
RUSSIAN ROCK N' ROLL
Graphics featuring Russian alt-rocker Zemfira plaster a limited-edition Vetements hoodie. Zemfira, like Vetements designer Demna Gvasalia, was fascinated by once-distant Western culture. During her youth in the 70s, at the height of the Soviet Union, her access to rock n’ roll records was restricted to her older brother’s collection, which introduced her to Queen and Black Sabbath. Starting her career covering Soviet post-punk bands like Kino and Aquarium, Zemfira released her debut album in 1999.
At 14-years old living in post-Soviet Tbilisi, Georgia, Gvasalia associated himself with an “East Coast gang” that revered the East Coast Hip-hop coming out of the United States in the 90s. “Our hero was The Notorious B.I.G.,” he told 032c. The gang would feud with the similarly themed “West Coast gang” that claimed an affinity for Snoop Dogg and Tupac. Despite Gvasalia’s evident East Coast leanings, the quintessential West Coast rapper Snoop Dogg appears as a graphic on a t-shirt in the Vetements Fall/Winter 2016 collection. Snoop’s response when asked if he’d buy the shirt himself: “Hell nah!”
At 16, Gvasalia entered his “dark and angsty” teen period and felt the pull of goth music and culture: “I was extremely asocial, depressed, and hated everything,” said Gvasalia in an interview. “I was listening to Sisters of Mercy and stuff like that, it was my rebellious period.” The Leeds-based goth-rock band Sisters of Mercy proved a powerful and enduring influence. Their music was used in Gvasalia’s Balenciaga Fall/Winter 2016 and Vetements’ Fall/Winter 2016 shows, both DJ’d by Vetements collaborator Clara 3000. The Vetements Fall/Winter 2016 collection showcased Gvasalia’s goth tendencies, with skull prints appearing on hoodies and garments adorned with large, hanging chains—the wallet chain has a longstanding association with goth culture.
Gvasalia evidently has a soft spot for heavy metal, and Vetements has been credited with popularizing—or at least re-popularizing—a heavy metal aesthetic in high fashion.
Demna associates the “Polizei” and law enforcement-referencing graphics that peppered the Vetements Fall/Winter 2015 collection with an air of imposing authority that reminds him of German metal band Rammstein. “It’s a scary piece of clothing, and you’re a scary guy or girl when you wear it. It references things I personally associate with Germany, like the band Rammstein, all of which evoke an idea of power and fear that interests me.”
Vetements’ Fall/Winter 2016 collection featured a series of graphic t-shirts that recall the merchandise of black metal band Cradle of Filth, a Hot Topic mall rat favorite. That reference is particularly telling of Vetements’ disregard for traditional notions of good taste. Cradle of Filth is not especially well-regarded, even among metalheads—as critic Chris Chantler once wrote in UK metal publication Terrorizer Magazine, “Hating Cradle of Filth has always been chapter one of ‘bluff your way in heavy metal elitism.’” 80s speed metal act Powermac, a similarly dorky act, saw their song ‘Slaughterhouse’ get the Vetements treatment when Clara 3000 included it in her soundtrack to the label’s Spring/Summer 2016 show.
Vetements maintains an air of countercultural authority while referencing cheesy pop culture idioms. The plaid dresses that appeared in the Vetements Fall/Winter 2016 collection paired with ties wrapped around models' necks like nooses and sloppy tucked shirts suggest a rebellious, punk rock schoolgirl.
Punk rock’s DIY ethos also applies to the genesis of the Vetements brand. Gvasalia and his team all held positions at luxury houses like Louis Vuitton at the time the label started, and the team worked late nights designing their own clothes out of a sense of dissatisfaction with certain facets of the fashion industry.
20-year old French Vetements muse and model Paul Hameline, an artist who creates collages of violent and sexual imagery appropriated from films and fine art, connects Vetements to the harsh sounds and visuals of industrial music. In a recent interview with Wonderland Magazine, he listed off some favorite acts, most of which could be classified as industrial: Coil, Vår, Death in June, Psychic TV, and Lebanon Hanover. Hameline provides a portal to the darker and harsher aesthetics that define a portion of the Vetements aesthetic.
Popular hoodies from the Spring/Summer 2016 collection featured prints taken from posters for James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster Titanic. Titanic and its theme song, Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On,” were inescapable global phenomena, shared experiences for millions worldwide. No matter where your enthusiasms lead you later in life, there is a good chance that you saw Titanic in 1997. In the world of Vetements, one doesn’t need to abandon a childhood love of Titanic or Celine Dion to be hip.
Text: Adam Lehrer
Mainpage Image: Pierre-Ange Carlotti / Idea Books