The Future of the Fashion Show: Super-Stylist Lotta Volkova

Lotta Volkova has been called the “coolest stylist in the industry,” “queen of the Parisian underground,” and the “fashion arbiter of her generation.” In addition to editorial projects

with Juergen Teller and Harley Weir, the 32-year-old Russian works with the menswear designer Gosha Rubchinskiy, styled Sander Lak’s debutSies Marjan collection last February, and will be aiding and abetting Johnny Coca at Mulberry for the first time next month. But it is her ongoing collaboration with the rule-breaking Demna Gvasalia that has electrified the fashion world and earned her those superlatives, his clothes for Balenciaga and Vetements being among the most coveted and copied around.

I sat down with Volkova on the eve of her summer holiday in California to talk styling, the influence of Instagram, and the industry’s love-hate relationship with speed and excess. She’s thoughtful and animated on the subject of all three, quick with a laugh and a candid comment. This interview is part of an ongoing series about the future of fashion shows, but it was just as much a conversation about Volkova’s own future. Photography and filmmaking are both interests of hers. At age 19 she had a collection of ripped and ravaged jeans called Lotta Skeletrix, and someday she could try her hand at design again. For the moment, though, she’s “quite fulfilled” disrupting things alongside Gvasalia.

“Disruption” has been fashion’s favorite talking point this year, but it seems to me that it’s standard operating procedure for you and Demna.

We’ll be having a drink, and I’ll say, “What if we [fill in the blank],” and he’ll say, “Yeah, we should do it.” And he’ll do it. Not many people would be able to follow through with some crazy, stupid thing, like with the Depot [the underground Paris club where Vetements’s third collection was shown]. I had a little brand when I was 19 in London. A friend of mine, Thom Murphy, who is a stylist, said, “You should do a show, and you should do it at the Depot, this sex club in Paris. Everybody during Fashion Week goes there. You’ll do a show there and people will just be there automatically.”

Demna wanted to do that show at Le Queen originally, at a nightclub in a dark space. I was like, “Why not Depot?” We hesitated at the beginning, because Depot is quite small, but then he met them and they said we could use downstairs and upstairs. Again, it was cool because somebody else would’ve been like: The space is too small, the space is too tricky. We just worked around it and kind of sacrificed the idea of a perfect catwalk, because we thought it was exciting for the atmosphere. That’s how we work. If you really like something, you make it work. People think it’s completely different from doing things normally, but in reality it’s just an accident.

I saw you wearing a Disruption T-shirt on Instagram, in fact. How important is that to you as a concept?

We follow our intuition. That kind of instinct is disruptive in the end because what we like isn’t what everybody else likes, but we don’t care. In the end, I think that’s why everybody reacted so positively, so fast. They felt it was real. Even though aesthetically it might not be everyone’s taste, somehow people were excited by the fact that we were just having fun.

What do you think of the new Instagram Stories?

I like it; it’s fun. I’m not on Snapchat. My friend told me about it a year ago: “You have to get on Snapchat—it’s new, it’s the future.” I got it, but never really got into it. I like Instagram because it’s kind of like a little mood board. You find pictures you like, you post pictures that inspire you, and, of course, a little selfie here, a little selfie there. It’s something that makes you excited. Snapchat is literally about what’s happening in your life. It’s even more intrusive. I’ve only posted a few things on Instagram Stories [so far], but they weren’t videos.

I still haven’t. I’m a bit scared. The videos tend to be so mundane, but still I can’t stop watching.

Yeah, it’s the voyeur thing. I think that’s an interesting point, what exactly people put out there.

Speaking of putting yourself out there, why do you put yourself in theVetements shows?

Ooh la la! [laughs]. That came by accident, in a way, or maybe Demna plotted it all along. I never intended to open a show; I don’t really care about it. But you know, for him, it meant something; I’m a friend, somebody whom he makes clothes for. That’s the kind of people we have in our casting anyway, our friends, people Demna would imagine wearing the clothes. I remember the first season, we had a lot of our circle of friends, but we still needed a few models, and at that point it was really hard with agencies. They didn’t really understand. In the end, it was a natural reaction against the fact that we couldn’t get the models at the right price. That’s why we used predominantly street casting; it happened naturally.

 

And now I bet they’re begging you to be in the show.

The budgets still are not crazy, but things have changed.

How involved are you in terms of conceiving of the actual show?

I’m present at all meetings, and we always discuss. If I don’t feel right about certain music or a location, Demna really trusts me. At the men’s show, I was not there at the original viewing of the space, and we had to change quite a lot of things, because I was like, this doesn’t feel quite right.

That sounds like a big deal.

It wasn’t that dramatic. But it’s so important to create the right atmosphere. When you’re looking at the collection, and if it doesn’t work—if the light is wrong or the space—it’s such a shame. The show is a happening; I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s a performance art piece. It’s a happening that has to leave you with a feeling about the collection. It’s not about seeing every single detail on a piece of clothing. It’s about a general vibe. At the Vetements show at the Chinese restaurant Le Président, the models walked so fast, it was crazy. I’m sure people didn’t see everything, but again, it was about energy, about creating energy.

Do you think the live experience is still important?

It’s important for people who work in the industry. I don’t think it’s important for the world in general, to be honest. It’s interesting to present clothes to a small amount of people who are writing about it and the people who have to buy it.

It’s the domino effect. If you turn on the right people, it shows up in magazines, it shows up in stores.

I don’t think it has a long-term influence, actually. It’s quite an insider’s thing. But I do think people work so hard in fashion, it’s nice to be able to sit down for 10 minutes and experience the clothes the way the designer wants you to experience them. I think that’s important for people in the industry, not necessarily even the people who buy the clothes. I don’t think that people who don’t work in fashion look at Vogue.com or actually look at every single collection. But young people do. Kids do. It’s incredible how aware they are.

Are young people looking on computers or on phones?

I think most of them are on social media. The brands that they like, like Raf Simons, they’ll go [online] and look them up.

When you are working with designers, do you think about the social media moments?

Not really. Mind you, [Balenciaga] had drones at the last menswear show.

And the women’s show used that 360-degree camera technology for the live-stream.

That show was a total experience. That’s what Demna wanted it to be: 360 degrees. Immersive. It was quite funny, we were watching the screen, and when the show finished, people waited a moment before they started clapping, and we were like: Oh, my God, they didn’t like it. It was such a stressful moment; it was really funny.

So you get nervous?

Of course.

But of course they did like it. A lot. What do you not like about fashion shows? What should change?

I think the speed, this incredible, crazy speed. This need to produce so much clothes. I think that’s slightly out of control. I don’t really know what’s the way out, or what’s the way to change it. Recycle? I don’t know. But I think the industry feels slightly overwhelmed. It’s a lot of everything at this point. But I think it’s happening, people are starting to do things their own way, look at different strategies, and more from a personal point of view. I think that’s really important.

Fashion used to be a creative business. It’s supposed to be a creative job, and I think it’s important that people who are creative have a chance to survive and produce and make a living. But I think what also changed—our generation doesn’t really believe in rebelling against the system so much. We’re just trying to make the system adapt to what we want and need. I believe there’s always a way to do things your own way. I take it as a challenge. I love to challenge myself. Even to work on a piece of clothing that you don’t necessarily think you would wear or you don’t find interesting. I think it’s quite cool to turn it around, make it something you would find exciting.

EXPAND

Volkova, in her show opening look at Vetements’s Fall 2016 show

Photographed by Kevin Tachman

One issue I see, watching as many shows as I do, is that as stylists become popular and influential, they don’t change their style from one designer to another. What do you think about that?

A few years ago before Demna, before Balenciaga, I was working with a lot of young brands, with Gosha [Rubchinskiy], and editorially with different photographers. I really do like a lot of different things. And I met with a friend of mine who’s been working in fashion for a while, and he said, “In order to make it, you need to brand yourself. It needs to be a particular kind of style, and then you brand that style. If they want you, they want you for this.” And I thought: But this makes no sense. A stylist is primarily there to be able to see and work in different contexts and, of course, change with time. But [what he was saying] naturally happened with me. One side of what I do kind of intensified. In a way I guess I do have a style now. And so in a way, yes, it is easier for people to recognize somebody when they put you in a box, basically. I don’t know if it’s good or bad, we’ll see. But for sure, this is how it works.

When we met, I was flattered Demna wanted to work with me; I was quite young. Demna said, “I had people asking to work with me, but it’s important for me to work with someone from my generation, to do it our way, and not have to take somebody’s style that already exists and apply it to what we do.” That comes from designers not being too courageous. A lot of people want to be safe. My generation, we all got bored of this feeling of being safe in fashion. There’s nothing wrong with commercial. For me, fashion is about making clothes, clothes have to be worn, that’s what we do; we want to see people wearing these clothes. It’s a commercial business. It’s not art that you hang on the wall. For me, it’s a positive thing that pieces sell. For Demna, too, and for Sander [Lak, the designer of Sies Marjan], and a lot of people I work with. But this feeling of safety is fake; nobody is ever safe in general in life, I think.

Backtracking, what are the things that you don’t like?

Espadrilles. Flip-flops [laughs].

Maybe a year from now we’ll see espadrilles at Balenciaga. As far as challenges go, do you see yourself getting back into design?

A lot of people have asked me that recently. I don’t know; at the moment I feel really fulfilled. I think it’s really important to collaborate to exchange energy. I don’t know what I’d do at this point by myself. In order to do your own thing, it’s a reaction or a search for something you can’t find in the market. When I started my brand, I wanted to do these crazy ripped-up jeans with studs, really punked-up clothes. I was super-young and it was really naive and innocent. I made those for myself and it sort of caught on, so I started making them for my friends, then people wanted to buy them. It has to be something you can’t find that encourages you to make it. But right now I’m quite fulfilled.

You’re working with people making the things you want.

Exactly. With great factories and amazing ateliers. It was quite a relief when I started styling after closing my brand. It was amazing to see all those clothes turn up and not have to worry about that. For me, even when I made clothes, the most important part of it was producing the final image. A lookbook, a campaign. A mood. For me, that has always been the most exciting part of the job. In a way I’ve always been more drawn to styling or art directing or taking a picture.

Maybe photography?

I’ve studied photography. It’s something I’m interested in. And movies. I’ve always wanted to make short films. That may be the future.

Do you have favorite directors?

David Lynch, Gregg Araki, those films that talk about youth, subcultures. I love cinema of transgression. Richard Kern. All those kinds of kids and the type of movies they made, quite punk rock, and kind of a reaction against the Reagan era. If I do make short movies, it would be more like short sketches, not with plot or anything. More atmospheric. I worked with Renata Litvinova with Gosha; she’s this amazing director from Russia. [In the film she made,] I was hanging out and dressed as a soldier. It inspired both Gosha and me, how she’s always thinking about creating a scene. Even little moments in a day she describes as a scene in a movie. Her brain works so differently.

It seems like fashion film is still a relatively untapped area.

I think it’s hard to make short movies. And it’s hard to make short fashion movies. You shouldn’t try to make a fashion movie. You should have an idea you want to work with and make a little film, and clothes are just a part of it as an element. With Renata, in the end we didn’t even use some of the clothes in the movie in the show. The clothes were secondary.

Maybe that’s why they go wrong; it’s a brand that tends to pay for them, so it’s all one brand.

It’s about the purpose of it—why do you make a movie, why do you make a photograph? A movie is harder because it has to capture you, otherwise you just switch it off and you move on. With a photograph it’s much more immediate. It has to be intimate to capture your attention as a film. Clothes are secondary. It’s just costume design. It has to have an idea behind it, a plot, a purpose. If your purpose is just to sell the clothes, it’s not a movie, it’s not a film. That’s where people get it wrong. It definitely hasn’t been explored that much. Let’s see what happens.

This conversation has been condensed and edited. 

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