Under normal circumstances, Guram Gvasalia presents as the slick and canny businessman with a machine-mind for numbers and a formidable insider knowledge of the industry. This season it was jolting to hear a much, much more vulnerable man talking about the harrowing and pitiful personal memories embedded in the Vetements garments for spring. “This collection is about my life, it’s about my childhood, and my first acquaintance with fashion,” he said, standing in the raw, bunker-like concrete shell of the about-to-be-demolished Tati store in Pigalle. “It tells you every single story.”
That is, about the meaning of the objects he attached to as a Georgian child refugee from a proxy war with Russia in 1992, his use of imagination as an escape, and the simultaneous repression of his socially taboo gayness, while also being assigned to the role of responsible good-boy future financial savior of the Gvasalia family. This, he said, was his “coming out” collection as Vetements’s sole creative director.
“The only toy I had when I was a child after the war was this twisted teddy bear thing, here, like this jacket.” He was pointing to a tan-colored fake-furry bomber, with another one spilling out of its side. “It was so patched.” A red plaid ankle-grazing poncho reminded him of “blankets that we got in a refugee camp, because we didn’t have the clothes when we were escaping; we were stuck in the mountains for over a month. And there were no clothes, no food. Nothing.”
It’s only too obvious why these memories should be resurfacing in Gvasalia’s mind now. Is he feeling re-traumatized by watching Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine? “I’m super-traumatized, not just (about) Ukraine,” Gvasalia replied. “I’m traumatized with the world.”
Amongst the urgent stomping march of the broad-shouldered tailored suits and super-wide distressed jeans, there were special moments that harked back to the five-year-old Guram’s first inklings about fashion. He has a vivid memory of “falling in love” with Kim Basinger in 1990 (pre-war in his family’s home, the Abkhazia region). Also, he said, “my cousin had a Malibu Barbie. I saved up all my birthday and Christmas money to buy it from her. Then I would wait for everyone in the house to go to sleep so I could play with her.”
Vetements’s Malibu Barbie had a grown-up sugar pink tailored coat and fluid-legged trouser suit, and—full circle—Gvasalia had wrangled Kim Basinger’s daughter, Ireland Baldwin, to walk his show. The twist, as in Gvasalia’s re-tread of traditional tropes, is that the tailoring was made from puffy sweatshirt material. Some of his wasp-waisted men’s jackets were also cut in sweat fabric, and disguised by tweed prints. Punk hairdos bristled with another innocent memory. I would go to school on the bus and imagine what the driver or a lady next to me would look like as punks! We didn’t have that in Georgia.”
He pulled it back to the present with checkered raincoats made out of fabric that looked like the red-white-and-blue of the Tati bag pattern. Tati itself might be obsolete—the building Gvasalia chose, once a popular French shopping destination, is about to be demolished. Here’s the thing about childhood memories, trauma, and shared cultural experiences, though: They can never be erased. Sooner or later, there’ll come a time when it’s possible to transform them into some sort of creative shape that people will want to wear.