PARIS, France — Backstage, behind the Vetements’s Autumn/Winter 2016 presentation at the American Cathedral on Paris’ Avenue George V, an excited yet calm energy fills the air. Lotta Volkova, the uber-stylist of Paris’s new fashion scene, kneels on a bench in the midst of it, eating a sandwich while flipping through one of the many magazines to which she has recently contributed. She clearly enjoys looking at her work, pointing out certain images to the crowd surrounding her. What does her bright-red jumper say? “SURRENDER.” But isn’t the 32-year-old Russian-born Lotta on the opposite trajectory? Isn’t she conquering?
“She is!” says Lisa, an artist from New York. It is her first time in Paris, her first time in Europe even. She owes the trip — as well as her modeling debut at Vetements and Balenciaga — to her Instagram account. “Lotta cast me there,” she explains. “Most of us here were cast on Instagram.”
Lisa is quite short and has a bird-like face, bleach-blonde hair and an inimitable attitude. She is one of Vetements’ 52 striking models, who are neither conventionally beautiful, nor necessarily skinny and young. Most of them have never walked a runway before and therefore have no agency representation. What they do have is attitude.
While waiting for rehearsal to start, Demna Gvasalia sits on a centre-aisle prayer bench. The music starts, played by Clara3000, a close friend who soundtracks all of Vetements’ (and now also Balenciaga’s) shows. Lotta leads the rehearsal as she opens it in a tight, brown mini-dress. She is holding a small bouquet of narcissus. Following her down the aisle are girls in oversized men’s shirts, mini-skirts and knee-high socks, with ties wrapped around their necks like scarfs. They alternate with boys in one-sleeved shirts and gold velvet suits that look as though they were washed too hot. Martin Margiela’s spirit is visible in every outfit. Clara models, too — an all-leather outfit. “YOU FUCK’N ASSHOLE,” reads a t-shirt. “MAY THE BRIDGES I BURN LIGHT THE WAY” is written on a sweater. Remixing apocalyptic streetwear with Margiela concepts, this is Gvasalia’s vision of what we should wear: appropriation at its best. It is cryptic to some, offensive to others, hailed by critics, and adored by consumers. The future of fashion is led by this very collective, and Lotta Volkova is one of the industry’s brightest new stars.
Jina Khayyer: Why do you love fashion?
Lotta Volkova: I have always been more interested in clothes than fashion. The way you look at clothes, and how they represent what you like in life, how they represent your interests. For me, clothes are a uniform presenting the culture you feel connected to. I love how a t-shirt says so much about you. I grew up in Vladivostok, Russia, in the former USSR. We had nothing, but we had the Internet. I was obsessed with information. I was obsessed with finding things out. That is still my driving force, to find something new. I want to discover and make other people discover. Obviously, there are no subcultures to be discovered anymore, at least not in the Western world. It’s more about the remix of information. Kids today — the new generation — they think in different ways. They don’t even have the knowledge of what a subculture is. It is not relevant to them. If they want to wear a punk shirt, that doesn’t mean that they have to listen to punk music or have a political point of view. They don’t have that mentality. In my generation, when we were grunge, we were grunge. It was a mindset. That’s why today I am so interested in the different codes of social uniforms. Demna and I, we discuss this a lot.
We need the system. We just want to do what we enjoy doing. The system helps us do that.
How did you meet Demna Gvasalia?
Through a friend. Through parties, really. One night he showed me his first collection. It was just some lookbook images. Apparently, I saw the lookbook and I said, “Great clothes, but bad styling.” So he said, “Why don’t you style it then?”
Who was the stylist before you?
Please explain what you do.
At Vetements I am involved in the casting, the styling and I’m also consulting Demna with the collection. We have meetings about directions and shapes. Vetements is very much about attitude, therefore shapes are very important. We are trying to translate moods into shapes and silhouettes. I never thought about clothes in this way until I met Demna. He is really interested in making a jacket that represents an attitude. For example, a jacket that looks as if you just got off your motorcycle. Demna constructed the sleeves in a way so that they stay as bulky as your jacket is shaped while you are riding a chopper. This is a completely new take on constructing clothes. It’s very sculptural.
Please give us another example.
One of my favourite pieces is an “I don’t care” jacket, where the shoulders are upfront, so you have a round back.
What impact would you like to generate? What is the philosophy behind your work?
I am interested in doing something that is real and true. And I would love to inspire. I am really into Instagram, for example. I really like it when people write to me that they like my work and that they find it new and different, because I am taking the side of different cultures and am mixing subcultural codes rather than just being glossy and glam.
Are you against the system? Do you want to beat the system?
No, not at all. We need the system. We just want to do what we enjoy doing. The system helps us do that.
Who is the most inspiring person in the fashion industry today? And why?
The people I work with. I am very lucky to work with Demna Gvasalia and Gosha Rubchinskiy. But also the photographers I work with, like Harley Weir. Also, my mother has influenced me. She taught me a lot about fashion, art and music, and about being different. She loved punk music and Vivienne Westwood, so she was a driving force in my life.
Was she working in fashion?
No. My mother was a professor of physics. I grew up with very strong women. My grandmother was a doctor, a surgeon. I was talking about feminism yesterday with Suzy Menkes, actually. For me, coming from Russia where women have to be strong and women have always been portrayed in such a strong, powerful way, especially on the communist posters, I have a completely different view on feminism. I never felt that I was weaker than a man. In our culture, women are much stronger than men, or at least they are portrayed in a powerful way.
What is the most important lesson you have learned so far about fashion?
To follow your heart and stick to what you want to do and work really hard. To do what is important to you and not compromise your integrity. I have been in this business for a long time, so I learned not to get carried away too much. I am not a youngster. I had time to develop my voice and I have the strength to stick to it. I know where I want to go.
And what is the most important lesson you have learned about the business? Are you interested in the business side?
I really appreciate that fashion is a business. I am very interested in products. I understand that the end result is a product. We are not selling a dream or a piece of art. It has to be a product that is well made. It has to be a product that talks to different types of customers.
What are you wearing today?
My shirt, jeans, and shoes are Vetements. My jacket is Gosha Rubchinskiy. My bag is Balenciaga.
What’s the attitude of your shirt, for example?
A shirt always makes you look professional and proper. This one is oversized, so it makes you look professional, confident, and relaxed.
And what makes it a good product?
That it’s made out of great quality poplin cotton.
You garnered a lot of headlines during a fashion week where the entire industry was desperately trying to spot the new, the newer, the newest — all jumping on Vetements, Demna, you. Please comment: “The Revolution Will Be Branded,” from The Business of Fashion.
I was quite surprised about that, too. Revolution is a big word. Yes, I agree that we have a fresh new way of making clothes and making a show. We are having fun making clothes we want to wear. We literally are making clothes for us and our friends. Our work is very personal. With every piece we make, we ask ourselves, “Will our friends wear it?” That’s probably what seems revolutionary to others.
What about Vogue saying, “Lotta Volkova is Bringing Back the DIY Haircut.”
I didn’t actually know what a “DIY haircut” was before I read about it, and then I was like, “What are you talking about?” We worked super hard to get this hair to look right. We spent four hours cutting this hair.
Which headline would you give yourself?
Fun clothes, good products. Clothes for men and women of all different ages. I like the diversity of it. The fact that we think of different stereotypes creates this diversity.
Speaking of diversity, how did you feel about the criticism that your runway casting this fashion week featured no people of colour? Was that lack of diversity an oversight, or was it intentional?
Those were some shocking allegations for us. We cast certain characters for certain looks and felt we were paying a lot of attention to diversity. We had Russian gay people in the casting, people from so many different cultural backgrounds. But I take this as a challenge now to pay more attention for the future. Not because I want to be politically correct, but because I don’t want to offend anyone.
What are your favourite stereotypes currently?
I have always been inspired by different stereotypes. I like the sexy secretary, or the biker or the goth kid. Or the Russian school girl that I was playing, walking down the runway opening the Vetements show. What is interesting about stereotypes is that people can easily relate.
It seems that one of the reasons why everyone is projecting all their hopes for the future onto Vetements is because you reflect the now. Tell me about your “now.”
It’s a remix of a lot of cultural references. A constant flow of information and immediate reactions to everything. I find that extremely interesting and exciting and overwhelming. It’s very fast. Incredibly immediate. It’s a crazy pace of life. A crazy pace of being influenced. Of course, I am talking about social media. Of course, I am talking about Instagram. I’ve had the Internet since I was 12, and I was obsessed with it. I was on it all the time. I would search about fashion and music. I was very aware. You know, in the former USSR we had nothing. No magazines, no Western TV. The Internet supplied me with all the info I needed. And it still does.
Do you read fashion magazines?
Which medium corresponds with your vision of the future of fashion?
Instagram. It gives you the opportunity to reach out to anybody you want. I find that very inspiring. I met so many people via Instagram, I just find them randomly, and then I send them a message.
Who in the fashion industry is in power today? The designer? The CEO? The stylist? The editor? The journalist, or the fashion critic? Or the consumer?
Please complete this sentence: The future of fashion is...
This article first appeared in 032c's special Issue #30 — Summer 2016: NO FEAR, which also includes an archive of artist Sterling Ruby's workwear, an interview with LVMH executive Delphine Arnault and a conversation between Hood By Air's Shane Oliver, Barneys' Dennis Freedman and Telfar's Babak Radboy.