Paint it Black
Black – the colour of the night, the colour of nothingness, the most mysterious cosmic matter, is the favourite colour of Georgia. There is no other country in the world with such a special relationship and historic attachment to black.
If you have ever visited Georgia in the last seventeen centuries, whatever your mission, however short your visit, you would remember the local folk – young and old, clergymen and laymen, posh and poor, frocked in black.
The little country by the Black Sea has a unique penchant for this colour and there is a lot more to it than meets the eye. Black has been woven into Georgian DNA by history itself, thread by thread, throughout the generations, absorbing millions of told and untold stories, meanings and symbols along the way.
Black is everywhere, in cities and remote villages, in vineyards, on construction sites, in glass-clad offices and cobbled streets, open-air cafes and closed-door casinos, cone-domed brick churches, yellow busses and tinted-windowed SUVs, at weddings and at funerals.
Tourists notice it, foreign expats notice it, Georgians who live abroad notice it when they return home. The catwalk takes notice, too. Tbilisi Fashion Week features signature pieces in black by various talented Georgian designers every year, further expanding and exploiting this exceptional loyalty.
Young locals will tell you ‘It’s an obsession’ but in fact it’s more like a vintage storage chest, inherited by them from their ancestors. The chest that holds insights from their grandma’s answer to looking slim to their grandpa’s longing for the Georgian national costume – the Chokha.
Georgian fashion’s favourite colour was also associated with mourning throughout the volatile history of the country. Georgia’s geopolitical situation has been determining its often unintentional and undesired engagement in historical processes bigger and more politically significant than its small size would suggest.
Situated on the crossroads of the East and West, nested among competing religious beliefs and opposing political powers, Georgia was at war for as long as it had existed.
Georgian women wore black because they were mourning their sons, brothers and husbands for most of their lives. Georgian men wore black because blood was less visible on it on a battlefield, and mud was better tolerated on it back in the wheat field.
The adoption of Christianity, which brought spiritual guidance and solace to the nation, tied black, the colour of the Orthodox clergy, with faith, hope, salvation and spiritual leadership. Monks, and the rich monasterial tradition that they built, were revered and cherished by Royalty, as well as lay public, from early Christianity to the present day.
From the Middle Ages to the 20th century, Georgia has suffered centuries-long suppression and subjugation from various powerful neighbours from all sides of its borders. Black clothing suited the emotional distress and overt or covert struggles that people were going through.
During the Soviet era, the story of the colour black attained an additional dimension in the Georgian psyche. Universal literacy, industrialisation and the rapid development of this new reality brought affluence to fun-loving and proud Georgians. The increase in general wealth and cultural output brought an appetite within society for more clothes that could be worn to attend cultural events and special occasions. Houses of Public Culture, with drama clubs in every Georgian town and village, and the popularity of the theatre and cinema in the country led to the development of taste, dress-sense and fashion.
Internationally, since the 1920s when Coco Chanel put black on the pedestal of global fashion forever, it has become the colour of style, elegance, allure, depth and complexity. To quote Chanel herself: “Women think of all colours except the absence of colour. I have said that black has it all. White too. Their beauty is absolute. It is the perfect harmony.”
This appraisal of black is still resonating with the nation that boasts of its unique creative genius and its fascination with everything beautiful and complex.
By the mid ‘60s, black was firmly established in Tbilisi as the colour of stylish and graceful women and educated men.
Starting in the ‘70s, Georgian women faced a new issue: body image, caused by the dissonance between genetic propensity to shapely forms and the perception of beauty adopted from the ‘Twiggisation’ of beauty and fashion. Abundant food and a unique feasting culture, as well as traditional gender roles in Georgia, where women cook for their family and prepare feasts for all occasions, were obstacles to attaining a body shape that corresponded to the ideals seen in Western fashion magazines. Black became a solution, a magic wand that made everyone look a bit slimmer, a bit taller, and well put-together. An easy trick that helped women come to terms with their reflections in the mirror.
The belief in the slimming magic of black has transcended through decades and shows no signs of diminishing. Street fashion embraced it and took it to new heights. Black is integral to all modern trends in Georgia.
Whilst Black is still the colour of loss, easily distinguishable from a fashion statement by the absence of flashy accessories, colourful make-up, and by an unassuming cut, for today’s young Georgians, black is not just beautiful, cool, daring, adventurous and classy, but also practical. The opinionated digital generations of the new millennium need to have it all – comfort and beauty, simplicity and complexity, individuality and commonality, fitting in and standing out. Black, just like Coco believed, has it all for them. You can dress it up and dress it down, add any colour to it, any accessory, any gadget and make-up for self-expression. And you can do it quickly and effortlessly, achieving that statement of chic which doesn’t look over groomed or overdone.
And finally, buying, making, and dressing in black clothes has become, for all of these reasons, a national habit, a second nature. And, as with any habit, it is very difficult to change, creating a solid foundation for the unique longevity of black in Georgia.
The Coca-Cola Concept of Demna Gvasalia’s Fashion
If a person is looking for inspiration, he or she will find it anywhere. There are times when we don’t believe this paradoxically encouraging and discouraging fairy-tale-like narrative, but the story of Demna Gvasalia really puts things into perspective. Today, Gvasalia is the one of the most closely-watched designers of the world, heading the French fashion house Balenciaga. At one time, he was just a Georgian boy, accused of being the son of capitalism-lover parents, merely because young Gvasalia wanted cropped trousers. I’ll explain this one later.
Born in 1981 in Sukhumi, Abkhazia, Gvasalia had to spend many of his younger years in Georgia’s worst times – firstly the Soviet regime, then the Union collapsing and a new state emerging, and shortly after, the occupation of Abkhazia. After the Abkhazian war of 1992-1993, the Gvasalias moved to the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. There, Demna enrolled in Tbilisi State University, majoring in Economics. Suppressing his love for fashion as he saw no future in the field in his motherland, Gvasalia planned to pursue a profession in Economics. But when his family moved to Germany, the soon-to-be VETEMENTS co-founder had a change of heart, and enrolled in the Antwerp Royal Academy of Arts. Gvasalia’s fascinating edge was noticed during his years at the academy by Walter Van Beirendonck, who was the rector of the academy and Demna’s professor. He offered Gvasalia the designer position of menswear of his brand. Gvasalia worked with Beirendonck in Belgium for a year and a half, after which he sent his work to Paris. Intrigued by Gvasalia’s style, Gvasalia was invited to the Maison Margiela in Paris, as the main designer of menswear and womenswear, marking the start of his career in the high-end fashion world.
It wouldn’t be long until Gvasalia would move on to work for Louis Vuitton. In pursuit of finding, establishing and sharing his fashion views, Demna soon left the legendary label and, along with his friends, founded VETEMENTS, the soon caught-on urban ready-to-wear brand, sometimes angering the fashion critics for its “Unbearable Avant-gardness of (fashion) Being”.
First shown in the works of VETEMENTS, many of Gvasalia’s pieces are inspired by his Georgian, Abkhazian background. An example of this was Gvasalia’s statement about the VETEMENTS’s spring / summer 2019 collection – “I am from Georgia”. In an interview with Radio Freedom, he said: “For the first time, I wanted to tell my story. I knew from the start that it would be more personal. Every silhouette, from the first look to the last look, was a character who was someone special to me.” This very show was something special to all Georgians, and Lil Wayne who, during his concert, was seen sporting VETEMENT’s jean jacket with the names Shota, Vazha, Galaktioni on it, written in Georgian – three of Georgia’s literature masters. Gvasalia believes that the social-political environment around the world impacts fashion designs. His constant observation and reflection on the outside world narrows his pieces to everydayness, making him always relatable and in demand, and, at the same time, original.
Parts of his Georgian life continue to reoccur in his designs. Due to poverty, his parents had to buy him bigger sized clothes so that he would be able to wear them for a longer period. Overtime, Demna grew comfortable in oversized clothes, resulting in his designs today. When he was seven years old, he expressed his first fashion statement, convincing a tailor to shorten his trousers by five centimetres. The school then went on to investigate whether Gvasalia’s parents had capitalist views
“I just wanted to have cropped pants, but that was not part of the narrative that was dictated by, you know, Vladimir Lenin or whoever,” he told Vogue.
This Rebel, Rebel attitude, first displayed while still only a child, was possibly how VETEMENTS drew the attention of the world – it only took 3 seasons for the whole world to learn about the brand, as Celine Dion and Kanye West appeared in public in Gvasalia’s clothes.
However, the rebel in Gvasalia has now settled down in Switzerland with his French musician and composer husband Loïk Gomez away from the headaches of the fashion industry, diving into the calmness and creativity. Again, in a change of heart, Gvasalia left VETEMENTS in the hands of his brother Guram in 2019, now fully pursuing his artistic director position at Balenciaga, which he has had since 2015.
Balenciaga changed a lot under Demna’s influence, and in retrospect, so did the whole fashion scene. Gvasalia seeks to make clothes for everyone – celebrities, office workers, soccer moms and their spoiled kids, workaholic dads and their shy kids; his clothes in high-fashion are what Coca-Cola is in the soft drinks world. Maybe an education in economics served him better than one might think?
I grew up watching fashion shows. My feet would dangle in the air, well-above the floor, as I sat in a chair in front of the TV, watched the models wear beautiful, sometimes odd-looking attire and thought it pointless if designers showcased clothes that would never be worn just to prove their creativity. As Demna Gvasalia continues to influence the world, little girls like I once was, who grow up intrigued by fashion, will know that originality lies in interpreting the most mundane things, in the style of Demna Gvasalia.