The major fashion brands that made it cool to be cool again

Seating was limited at the most anticipated fashion show of 2016, as you would expect. The invitations, printed primly with each attendee's name and affiliation, no larger than a pack of gum and eminently lose-able in the dark hole of a handbag, were in short supply.

If there was a no-show or an empty seat in the padded television studio where Demna Gvasalia was showing his first collection for Balenciaga, I didn't see it.

Could it work? Six months later, the starchy plaid coats and skirts he designed, mostly deflated of their padded hips and shoulders, were the thing to wear to his latest show; his swanning denim jackets and ski parkas, falling off the shoulders as if pulled by a stronger gravity than their wearers, are selling out. So in a word: Yes.

In search of the authentic

Gvasalia had been an unexpected choice for Balenciaga, a sainted name in Paris fashion, when he was appointed, to shock and clamour late in 2015, five months before. He was the reigning head of Vetements, a largely anonymous designer collective whose productions grew in rumour and regard until their after-hours, off-the-schedule presentations (9pm at the sex club!) conferred bragging rights on those who ventured off the grid to find them.

But when he ascended to the top of a historic Parisian maison, he did not seem cowed by the height. He did not ship in the celebrities or the supermodels to deck out his show. Where his predecessor had Gisele strut the catwalk, he has had Lotta Volkova, his friend and stylist, with a mushroom haircut and a thousand-yard stare. Gvasalia did not cast off Vetements. He brought it with him.

"I need to have those people around me," he told me in March, after that first Balenciaga show. "A very big part of my creative process is linked to that. These are the people I not only work with, I spend my weekends with, I do stuff with, we go on holidays together, we listen to music, we watch funny cat videos on YouTube. We do all this together."

It was a move that would be repeated in its way throughout the year and across fashion's stages. Designers until recently on the fringe have been invited into the establishment, bringing with them friends, collaborators and models who eschew the traditional glossy aesthetics for something more personal, or, to use the year's most conflicted yet overindulged compliment, "authentic."

They privilege the individual over the collective, the subculture over the culture, their friends over the professionals in a celebration (a suddenly profitable celebration) of free to be you and me.

Fashion's return

Suddenly, or so it seemed in 2016, it became cool to be cool.

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"It feels like a return to the 1980s, when things were centred around you as the individual, instead of the more 1990s feeling of the collective," Alessandro Michele, the once-anonymous, now-famous creative director of Gucci, told System Magazine. "I think that idea of self is something we need now, because after 15 years of globalisation people want to express themselves as individuals."

Michele was even less known than Gvasalia when he was plucked from the back rooms of Gucci to reboot the brand in 2015. His vision, a daffy mash-up of Renaissance art and granny's attic, emphasised recombining its many parts in order to make it your own, and his take on the brand's most sacred marks has been admirably impious.

His Gucci is so flippant about its Gucciness that he knocked off the knockoffs, sending out vintage-inspired logo shirts that looked like those once sold on street corners. When Michele discovered that a graffiti artist named Trevor Andrew was masquerading as "GucciGhost," online and in spray paint, rather than shut him down, he set him loose to collaborate on a collection of bags, shoes, clothing and the entire facade of the Fifth Avenue store.

In 2016, Michele climbed even higher, bringing Gucci's vintage kookiness to no less hallowed a hall than Westminster Abbey, for the label's cruise collection show. Nor was he alone in scaling to larger stages.

Gvasalia's Vetements was invited to show its collection during haute couture and presented a collection made in collaboration with 17 brands hungry for the halo effect of a Vetements seal of approval (Manolo Blahnik, Church's and Brioni as well as Hanes and Champion, the company Gvasalia made his name parodying and reinterpreting without permission). And at Pitti Uomo, the menswear trade fair long established for its jacket-and-tie style, went off the suited path and invited the Russian photographer-turned-designer Gosha Rubchinskiy to show his cult street wear to his biggest audience yet.

The outsider

Rubchinskiy brought his skater crew – friends, and friends of friends, and Volkova, who collaborates with him as well as with Gvasalia – to Florence, where he jettisoned the usual palazzo for a decommissioned tobacco factory. His business has been growing by leaps and bounds since he brought it out of Moscow and onto the Paris Fashion Week calendar, but the Pitti show expanded it further than ever before.

"After Pitti, many people who never knew about Gosha started to know about it," Rubchinskiy said in an interview this month. "It's interesting: It got more established. Or, more people from the establishment know about it."

Rubchinskiy has taken steps to ensure that the brand remains tied to his personal experience. He still lives in Moscow, where he has recently opened a larger design studio. His business is managed by Japanese fashion label Comme des Garçons, which also produces the collections, but under its umbrella he has free rein to design as he pleases, to stock his shows with his friends and to shoot his own images, which are compiled in his own collectible books.

Design for the personal

"I still feel it's very necessary for my brand to stay personal, and for me it's only interesting if it's still personal," Rubchinskiy said. His next show, after Pitti, will be in far-flung Kaliningrad, a Russian city (technically an exclave) wedged between Poland and Lithuania on the Baltic Sea. Future shows will be in Russia as well.

"I tried to do everything by myself – all the styling, all art direction for the show: It's Gosha total control," Rubchinskiy said with a laugh. "We try to do this time the same as it was eight years ago, for the first show. I made it myself, outside of any fashion weeks, in Moscow."

Yet despite its ultraspecific purview – try to think of another fashion brand stocked on shelves in London, Los Angeles, New York and Paris with a logo in Cyrillic – Gosha Rubchinskiy is resonating with a global audience. Its business is up 350 percent this year, according to Comme des Garçons, and larger brands, including Reebok and Vans, line up to work with him. Collaborations with Fila, Kappa and Levi's will arrive with his spring collection.

"They sell out within the blink of an eye, basically," said Federico Barassi, the menswear buying director of Ssense, a forward-leaning e-commerce site with a global clientele (and a Montreal brick-and-mortar shop for good measure). "The collaborations, once they appear on the website it's couple of hours, if not minutes."

Youthful uprising

In fact, Ssense, which caters to a younger audience than many traditional luxury stores – its clientele is 77 per cent millennial, according to Barassi and Brigitte Chartrand, the womenswear buying director – does a brisk business in all three of these designers. Vetements, Barassi said, is a "unicorn brand; it's been out of this world." In the past few weeks, Gucci was added to the mix; in 2017, global distribution for Balenciaga will come, too.

Of course, when cool becomes profitable, it also becomes a commodity. And one indication that the individualised approach is working is that companies are now mushrooming up to offer it. This fall, Rachel Chandler and Walter Pearce, who have done casting for fashion shows and magazine shoots, joined forces to create a new agency, Midland, to bring to a wider (and more moneyed) range of clients the kind of street-cast kids they had been putting into shows for New York indie labels like Eckhaus Latta and Hood by Air.

"It became quite apparent that this is now bleeding into all levels of the industry, in terms of brands – even if you have stockholders, even if you are mainstream," Chandler said. "The agency is there so if larger brands want to usurp this aesthetic, we can make sure that these kids are treated fairly."

Shooting at street level

They now represent a roster of non-professionals, mostly part-time models whose look is more street corner than billboard – though, with one of Midland's first big commercial projects, a campaign for Helmut Lang, they are now pasted all over New York.

"We were asked to cast people for the campaign, and we presented a deck of people both from within the agency and also other people," Chandler said. "They ended up shooting almost all Midland kids. That felt like a pretty good indicator that we were doing something right."

The New York Times