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Culture · 6 min read

Vetements X DHL Express – Beyond The T-Shirt

It’s been two years – a lifetime in fashion – since the first Vetements x DHL Express collaboration. Instead of floating away like another catwalk fad, this relationship has lasted.

Demna Gvasalia has been busy. Alongside his brother Guram, he caused a fashion earthquake in December 2015 after launching Vetements in Paris, the high-end fashion house that saw models taking to the catwalk in inky Doc Marten Boots and banana-yellow cotton tees emblazoned with the DHL logo – retailing for US$300. Gvasalia uprooted the sedate and at times snobbish culture around Fashion Week, turning his back on venues like Le Grand Palais for the basement of Le Depot, a renowned sex club, and Le Président, a garish Chinese restaurant. And where competing brands used the latest hot face, Vetements cast people with no modeling experience to promote its pieces.

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Shock tactics, and the subversion of a mainstream brand do not always work. And even when they do, the hype Gvasalia has enjoyed doesn’t always last. On the subject of achieving long-term success after such explosive beginnings, we spoke with Lisa Armstrong, Fashion Director at The Telegraph and a Vogue Contributing Editor, who explained, “I think the Gvasalia brothers and their team are very talented and smart.” 

Admittedly, it was a risk. What was to stop this interplay of high and low culture from chafing? Ben Seidler, an accessories designer at Ralph Lauren and fashion illustrator who has been featured in Vogue, WWD and the New York Times, spoke with us about this exchange of culture: “Vetements linked street wear with high fashion, creating something new, whilst appealing to the fanatical followers of both businesses. The DHL logo, with its representation of a function rather than a luxury, stood for a rejection of frivolity and people found a certain authenticity with that, as well as a kind of humor that resonates with the way people express themselves on social media.”

The Gvasalia brothers bottled a spirit and Vetements clothing was met with hysteria. A search, for instance, of the Vetements hashtag on Instagram yields more than 143, 973 results. Likewise, plug DHL into any social platform to reveal a parade of glossy men, women and celebrities, the likes of Louis Tomlinson, dressed in the signature canary-colored tops.

And the fashion world solidified the label’s cult status when an enterprising 22-year-old New Yorker created Vetememes, launching a starchy navy raincoat with the word Vetememes, retailing at $59 – digging the bedrock of subversion one layer deeper. 

If you can run a successful small brand, you’ll be given a big one 

As well as disrupting, designer Demna Gvasalia has been embraced by the fashion establishment, and towards the end of 2015 he was named artistic director of Balenciaga, one of the darlings of Kering, the luxury group whose brand portfolio also includes Gucci, Bottega Veneta, Saint Laurent and Alexander McQueen, to name a few.

Furthermore, as Lisa Armstrong explains, “That high-low marriage was so perfectly articulated in the T-shirt. It was very satirical. It also asked a lot of questions, about our perceived values of clothing, and the sums consumers will pay for a hyped object.”

This celebration of the ordinary that was first made so joyous by the Pop Art of the 50s and 60s and then had its heyday in 80s fashion became muffled in the ensuing decades. As Ailsa Miller, Fashion Director at Stylist, tells us, “Vetements launched at a time when the fashion industry was taking itself particularly seriously. After the recession, there was a real shift away from fun fashion. We were overdue a resurgence of frivolity and someone who was willing to inject humor into the industry again.”

The lesson for business? Keep your finger on the pulse

Now, launching its 2018 collection, Vetements has not only kept in the same vein of pop culture symbols, but they’ve added eight more DHL-themed items, including a baseball hat, jacket and socks, all proudly sporting the instantly recognisable DHL logo. The new looks were released as part of the fashion brand’s next chapter, alongside its relocation from the famous streets of Paris to the less culturally popular Zurich. Of the move, Gvasalia told the Swiss newspaper Tages-Anzeiger, “Paris kills creativity. Its environment with the ‘bling bling’ is destructive. I’m done with the whole showing-off in fashion and the superficial glamour.” And in the same pages, Gvasalia referred to Zurich as a 'clean slate'.

Once settled, Gvasalia hit the streets to photograph his latest campaign comprising of Swiss locals – of all ages, backgrounds and looks. The campaign images themselves were delivered with wit. Subjects stood outside ordinary locations – a bank, a grocery store, a bridge – posed with elbows out and lips pursed, as if fronting Vogue. The resounding message: to hell with the conventions of fashion magazines and marketing.

Don’t forget the streets

Of course the idea of street fashion bleeding into traditional campaigns and catwalks is by no means unique. Current campaigns from both Gucci and Oscar de la Renta reveal the influence of street style – for example, Oscar de la Renta is launching a bright pink anorak in its 2018 collection. The same can be said of designs from as far back as 1992, when Marc Jacobs sparked controversy sending models down the catwalk with silk shirts treated to resemble polyester flannel tied around their waists – a more casual approach to couture than was accustomed.

The end result, as expressed by fashion expert Armstrong, is, “Ironic for sure.” But as for the future of the Vetements clothing itself? “I think some of the pieces will be in fashion museums and certainly fashion books in years to come. Maybe they will be considered icons of irony?” A slogan that would look right at home on a US$300 Gvasalia-designed T-shirt.

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