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Michelle Williams Feet

Michelle Williams

No actor working today has evoked the tragedy and pathos of the leading lady — and brought those qualities to her art — as deeply as Williams. Now she’s figuring out how to fuel that same creativity from a very different place.

Tgreats.white_yellow

In our 2022 Greats issue, out Oct. 16, T celebrates four inimitable artists across music, film, fashion design and sculpture whose talents — and ability to transcend the expectations of their craft — have cemented their place in the culture.

Read more about the making of the issue.

The Greats nomination process — that is to say, the conversation/debate/slugfest that produces the names of the people we end up profiling for this issue — typically begins in January. The discussion can, at times, sound like a wine tasting. “What about so-and-so?” someone will ask. “Mm, yes, so-and-so,” someone else will agree dreamily, “that’s a good one.” No one ever shouts down or openly disparages anyone else’s choice, but sometimes a name is met with no reaction at all, a silence more damning than outright disapproval. Overall, though, the exercise is good-natured: It allows us to collectively revisit or make the case for our personal heroes, ones both obvious and obscure, famous and forgotten. The people we ultimately choose as Greats mustn’t just be accomplished; they must be inimitable in some way, and their nominators must make a compelling case for their singularity. What we end up with, then, is a group whose talents — and place in the culture — are undeniable. Just look at Demna, the artistic director of Balenciaga and co-founder and former creative director of Vetements; over his seven-year tenure at the head of the French fashion house, he has, as editor at large Nick Haramis writes in his profile, created clothes and accessories that have “become somehow symbolic of a cultural moment.” Demna’s inventions — the leather totes that resemble blue Ikea shopping bags; a logo riffing on the one from Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign; the pantashoe, stretchy, satiny leggings morphing seamlessly into a pair of stiletto heels — are born of and for a social media era, when everything can be spliced, and everything is branded. Then there’s Lynda Benglis, who, at 80, is the art world’s ultimate iconoclast, known for her poured-latex sculptures, which took art off the wall and placed it on the floor, but also for her revolutionary 1974 Artforum ad (look it up: New York Times standards guidelines prevent us from republishing it), which remains as arresting as it is unknowable — a shocking image still, even in an age of shocking images. “Few other artists have displayed such nerve, or been less obedient,” Sasha Weiss writes of Benglis. “She has helped drive the trajectory of various artistic movements — the heroic eloquence of Abstract Expressionism, the grandeur and engineering feats of post-minimalism, the gaudy cleverness of Pop — and yet belongs fully to none of those traditions.” Equally uncategorizable is the musician Anderson .Paak, though, as Adam Bradley writes, .Paak is also and ultimately “a living embodiment of” soul, a “bedrock Black musical tradition that variously expresses itself in gospel and funk, hip-hop and punk. Soul is the imperative governing all of his music: the will to move the crowd.” .Paak’s music and performance are acts of generosity, Bradley notes, but his colorful, smiley, cheery persona — his eagerness to move the crowd — is also a way of holding the world at arm’s length, of protecting something vulnerable within. That tension, between expressiveness and vulnerability, is also what defines the actor Michelle Williams, writes Susan Dominus. What we know most of Williams’s personal life is the tragic loss, 14 years ago, of her former partner Heath Ledger, the father of her eldest child. And in her craft, too, Dominus notes, “Williams offers audiences portrayals that seem to embody the agony the public associates with her youth, while also transcending it, making of it something original in each iteration.” Another performer might have denied viewers the opportunity to watch her grieve onscreen, to express something so private for a crowd — Williams, however, makes pain visible. Transcendence; generosity; a refusal to obey: Not every creative person possesses these qualities. But those who do are especially thrilling for us to watch — and to be grateful that they are with us, plying their own paths and daring us to do the same. — HANYA YANAGIHARA

Michelle Williams Feet

Demna

‘It’s easier to show pain or joy through my work than to say it out loud.’
By Nick Haramis Photographs by Lise Sarfati Styled by Suzanne Koller

Michelle Williams Feet

Lynda Benglis

‘I knew that there was something that I could do that didn’t have to go back to the figure. My brain wasn’t built for anything like that.’

By Sasha Weiss Photographs by Justin French

Michelle Williams Feet

Anderson .Paak

‘People died in order for my smiley ass to come out here and carry a Gucci purse.’
By Adam Bradley Photographs by D’Angelo Lovell Williams Styled by Ian Bradley

Michelle Williams Feet

Michelle Williams

‘I was totally amorphous and penetrable. So to begin with, pretending to be other people gave me at least somebody to be.’

By Susan Dominus Photographs by Luis Alberto Rodriguez Styled by Charlotte Collet

Michelle Williams

No actor working today has evoked the tragedy and pathos of the leading lady — and brought those qualities to her art — as deeply as Williams. Now she’s figuring out how to fuel that same creativity from a very different place.

By Susan Dominus Photographs by Luis Alberto Rodriguez Styled by Charlotte Collet Luis Alberto Rodriguez Styled by Charlotte Collet –>

Oct. 13, 2022

IF MICHELLE WILLIAMS had been cast to play you in a movie, she’d do all the things you’d think she’d do: She’d watch you in videos and interview your family members. But she might also meditate on a piece of jewelry you liked. She might request a set of teeth to shape her mouth like yours. She might decide those teeth were not good enough and ask for a better, more natural set. She might invent a back story about your grandmother or send the director photos of hairstyles that you wore — or that she thinks the version of you that she’s playing, who is not actually you, would have worn. She’s not an impersonator; she’s an actor. She takes the character in the script, gathers scraps of relevant evidence, imagines the rest and then imbues it with whatever parts of herself will meld. She works hard, but the part that’s all empathy, which spills out of her and fills up her performances, comes naturally.

Steven Spielberg recently cast Williams to play his mother, or the role closely modeled on his mother, in his new film, “The Fabelmans,” out next month. The movie tells the story of the American director’s own unusual family upbringing. A concert pianist, a restaurateur, a pet monkey adopter, his mother, Leah Adler, was a charismatic partner in play for her son, someone who nurtured him creatively and loved him fiercely. At times, the filming was difficult: Spielberg, 75, has lost both his mother and his father in the past six years. Seeing his own childhood brought to life in such vivid detail sometimes left him flooded with emotion. In one of those moments, Spielberg says, he found solace in the woman who remained enough in character, even off camera, to comfort him in just the way he needed to be comforted. “Michelle knew how to hug me,” he says, “the way my mom used to.”

WILLIAMS, WHO IS 5-foot-4, keeps her container small: She doesn’t go for big heels or hair. Her cut is short and close to her head; she prefers ballet flats, her feet as near to the ground as possible. Right now, she is expecting a baby, due this fall, her third child, and her second with her husband, Thomas Kail, who is best known for directing “Hamilton” (2015). But Williams appears serene when she turns up in June at a cafe of her choosing in Brooklyn, a place near her home that’s ordinary enough to be almost empty. In jeans and a crisp white maternity shirt, she seems not just content but in a state of surprise at the pleasures that the past three years have brought her: marriage, a second child, a third pregnancy, low-key joy over family dinner. “It’s like I’ve walked a path that was rocky, and I didn’t know where it was going,” she says. “And it led to a meadow. And here I am in the meadow.”

Even the most casual observers of popular culture might forever associate Williams, 42, with a kind of tragic embodiment of grief, in life and in art. Williams lost Heath Ledger, the legendary actor who was the father of her daughter, Matilda, when she was 27 and he was 28; in “Manchester by the Sea” (2016), released eight years later, a scene of her as a bereft mother, tearfully trying to assuage her ex-husband’s pain, is surely the most indelible of the film. Williams offers audiences portrayals that seem to encompass the agony the public associates with her youth, while also transcending it, making of it something original in each iteration. For much of her career, her characters have suffered in ordinary lives, often because of a longing that threatens to undo them: the charmless, unvarnished Wendy, of “Wendy and Lucy” (2008), a lost soul determined to make her way to Alaska; a bright woman in “Blue Valentine” (2010) who mistakes deep romance for the makings of a marriage; a young wife in “Take This Waltz” (2011) who pursues sexual desire with the wobbling propulsion of a child intent on learning to walk. Such performances make her a rare kind of leading lady, a character actor whose visual appeal is just another tool in her possession. By the time she played Marilyn Monroe in “My Week With Marilyn” (2011), Williams had earned the right to inhabit a mythic figure whose fragility was partly what made her so much larger than life. Eight years later, she won her first Emmy and her second Golden Globe Award for her crackling, complicated portrayal of the 20th-century Broadway star Gwen Verdon, the collaborator and wife of the brilliant but philandering choreographer Bob Fosse, in the FX mini-series “Fosse/Verdon” (2019). Verdon demanded much of herself and of others, in her relationships, in her work, and Williams captured that hunger, along with the vulnerability that so much wanting lays bare. With the part of Mitzi Fabelman, Williams seems to be building on that energy, with a brave, at times gutting portrayal of a loving, conflicted mother who brings more drama into her family’s life than is easy for them to bear.

Spielberg says he first noticed Williams, who had a starring role on the television series “Dawson’s Creek,” when he watched the show with his kids in the late ’90s. He has followed her closely ever since: “There’s not a lying bone in her body of work,” says the director, who started thinking of her seriously for the role of Mitzi while working on the screenplay with its co-writer, the playwright Tony Kushner. To be asked to play the creative force behind one of the most important creative forces in modern cinema can only be considered a professional landmark — an anointing, even. (“I know,” says Williams, nodding her head, practically slap-happy with wonder. “I know. I know, I know, I know, I know, I know, I know.”) At first, when they spoke about the project, she didn’t quite grasp what Spielberg was offering her. “When I realized what he was asking, it took me so long to get my head around what was happening,” she says. “And then afterward, I just laughed for a day, and then cried for a day. It was a lot to hold.”

AFTER “FOSSE/VERDON,” it wasn’t obvious to Williams how, exactly, her career would continue to grow. Many actresses start to despair of the scripts being sent to them once they hit 40. But more than that, she wondered, now that she was content, what the engine of her creativity would be; much of what drove her for so many years was one kind of longing or another.

‘All she cares about is trying to get into the skin, and under the skin, of this character, as much as she possibly could.’

Some people start acting because they want to be big, to see themselves onscreen; Williams wanted to be a small part of something bigger than she was — that throng of people having fun, up there, onstage or even backstage. She started out as a girl in a car pool: Williams and some other kids from San Diego making the two-hour drive to Los Angeles for auditions, leaving school early to get there. Small parts suitable for a lively girl next door came her way — a role in the family film “Lassie” (1994), a bit part on “Baywatch” the year before — but were few and far between. Then, when she was 15, she did what she says was common among the child actor crowd, for purely professional reasons: She became an emancipated minor, which afforded her an early, unnatural independence. She was living on her own in Los Angeles before she was 16. “You could work the hours of an adult,” she says. “You [didn’t have to have] a social worker or a teacher with you, which makes you more cost-effective as a hire.” A hint of darkness creeps into her voice as she continues: “So I didn’t have to have anybody looking out for me.” Her father — a trader who dabbled in Republican politics — was conservative in many ways, but her parents didn’t discourage her from leaving school or moving out.

Left: Thomas Guiry and Williams in “Lassie” (1994). Right: James Van Der Beek, Katie Holmes, Williams and Joshua Jackson in “Dawson’s Creek” in 1997. Left: © Paramount Pictures/Courtesy of the Everett Collection. Right: James Minchin/© Columbia TriStar Television/Everett Collection

When she was cast in “Dawson’s Creek” at 16, she was sleeping on a two-inch-thick egg crate mattress; breakfast was pizza with orange juice, dinner was pizza without. “It felt like somebody was withholding all the secrets,” she told GQ in 2012 — “how to take care of yourself and where to get the things that would help you take care of yourself.” When she talks about that early phase of her professional life, she sounds like someone who thinks a lot about what could have been a near-catastrophic car crash: The car swerved just in time, but she still feels the chill of how close a call it was. “The place where I started, at the bottom, is where the people are who give this business a bad reputation,” she says.

If the life of a young actor didn’t serve her, the work itself did. “I was totally amorphous and penetrable,” she says. “So to begin with, pretending to be other people gave me at least somebody to be.” With the encouragement of Mary Beth Peil, the opera soprano and Broadway actor who played the grandmother on “Dawson’s Creek,” Williams started driving to New York from Wilmington, N.C., where the series was filmed, seeking out bookstores, independent cinemas and theater companies, eventually auditioning for stage roles. While she was still acting in her television teen drama, she was also, during its filming hiatus, performing in Tracy Letts’s dark Off Broadway hit “Killer Joe” (1993). Within a year of the “Dawson’s” finale, she played Varya in a 2004 Williamstown Theatre Festival production of Anton Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” (1904) that Tony Kushner still recalls with some awe. “I had one of those moments where you just can’t believe what you’re seeing,” he says. “What I love about Michelle is that there’s not a moment’s concern about how she is going to come across — is she going to be lovable enough? All she cares about is trying to get into the skin, and under the skin, of this character, as much as she possibly could.”

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With “Brokeback Mountain” (2005), in which she played the wife of a man in love with another man, came a new level of fame: awards shows, celebrity, paparazzi. Her relationship with Ledger, one of the film’s leads, also brought her Matilda (now 16), though she was separated from Ledger by the time he died of an accidental prescription drug overdose in 2008. Already feeling vulnerable as a single mother, she became an object of morbid fascination in the tabloids, fleeing Brooklyn for “the country” — even now, she instinctively avoids identifying the location, as if still protecting the privacy she had to fight for back then. After that, the drive to act came from a different place: an overwhelming sense of responsibility. “I only related to my work for a very long time as our only means of survival,” she says. “Work was how I made money, and money was how I could propel my own family out into the world.” Work was hard — she had to keep getting better to keep getting work, but to keep getting better, she believed, she had to keep taking harder roles, which meant learning, but also sometimes risking humiliation in front of other people.

She committed, for example, to working with the director Kelly Reichardt, who had directed her in “Wendy and Lucy,” in “Meek’s Cutoff” (2010), an indie film about pioneers trying to survive crossing the Oregon desert in 1845. She, along with the rest of the crew, spent a week in the blazing heat learning how to light a fire without matches, and how to put up tents of that era, so that it would look rote. Beyond that, says Reichardt, it was a film with so many long shots that called for a particular skill in acting; Williams’s face was covered with a bonnet for parts of the movie, so that her body — the stance of her shoulders, her gait — had to do much of the work of communicating her character. That kind of total conversion of the self is something at which she excels, says Kenneth Lonergan, who directed her in “Manchester by the Sea.” He considers one of the most exquisite moments of that film to be a gesture that he only noticed in the cutting room: Williams’s character, years after her own tragedy, attending a funeral, nervously brushing a lock of her coifed hair into place — a woman almost anxious to appear composed. “There was something about it that just said everything about what she’s become since the tragedy, and what she’s trying to do,” he says of the character, as portrayed by Williams. “It breaks me up every time I see it.”

The physicality with which Williams inhabits a character is perhaps her greatest talent; it seems at times as if all her molecules have fallen apart and been reassembled to create a slightly different version of herself, the material attributes the same but the essence transformed. This quality, says Lonergan, is what puts Williams in the company of actors like Robert De Niro, someone whose very handshake is invented anew with every character he plays. She sheds her beauty as if it were a useless skin in “Wendy and Lucy” but owns and somehow amplifies it in “My Week With Marilyn.” To watch her body of work is to understand that so much of how the world decides who we are depends upon how we hold ourselves. And yet consistent throughout is something intrinsic to Williams herself, some outward manifestation, perhaps, of what an especially vulnerable young adulthood can do to someone who, despite the artifice of growing up on camera, fought hard to hold fast to her natural, searching curiosity.

THE PHENOMENON OF Williams’s embodiment is never more remarkable than in “Fosse/Verdon” (five episodes of which were directed by Kail). It’s one thing to learn a dance, or even how to dance, and Williams, who also starred as Sally Bowles in “Cabaret” on Broadway in 2014, has taken many lessons; it’s another to try to manifest, in your every moment onscreen, the spirit of one of the greatest dancers and performers of her time, the self-conscious artfulness of a true show-woman. “She really got to a whole other place with it, down to her fingers,” says Reichardt. After Williams runs her hand over her face following one teary breakup scene, her hand trails away with a slight, expressive waving of those fingers. In most characters, the movement would be overly stylized, but for Williams’s Verdon, the gesture is a natural channeling of feeling outward through her body.

Williams says the biggest challenge of playing the part was in accessing the energy of Verdon, the kind of charismatic performer who could be ruthlessly seductive, almost insatiable in her desire for recognition but also in her pursuit of originality. “I realized I was going to have to make myself a bigger person to play her,” Williams tells me at the coffee shop; even as she says this, she is unrecognizable as a movie star, a quietly stylish pregnant woman drinking a decaffeinated cappuccino. “Because that is not my aura. I was going to have to expand my magnetic field to encompass this great woman. How great for me, Michelle, that I got to work on those kinds of less prominent aspects of myself. It was good for me.”

On the first day of filming in 2018, a set dresser came up to Williams and mentioned to her that she was wearing only one earring and would have to take it off — otherwise, it would look strange on camera. Williams thought for a moment. In the scene, she was rushing away from a beach house after a painful breakup with Fosse. Maybe it would be perfect for her to be missing an earring, she suggested — the dialogue even had her saying, “Let’s see, what am I forgetting?” When the dresser pushed back, Williams decided to bring her idea up with Kail, the director of that episode, whom she barely knew at the time. “I was like, ‘What’s his name, Tom? Tommy?’” she says, recalling the moment she approached him: “I really want to do this thing. I was told there’s a problem with continuity, but I think it’s kind of perfect.” He responded with two words: “Yeah — great.” From that moment, she realized, as she puts it, “Oh, OK, I can bring things here.” She had ideas — ideas like wanting that set of teeth, to shape her face more like Verdon’s; wanting more dance lessons, more voice lessons. “And when you have that kind of permissiveness, it opens up the whole world inside of you,” she says. “Because you don’t stop anything. And that was our experience for six months. We started on that day — we just sort of kept going with each other and then, all of a sudden, you can wind up in places you wouldn’t have expected.”

In June 2018, Williams told Vanity Fair that, after many years of looking for the radical acceptance she’d felt from Ledger, she was “finally loved by someone who makes me feel free.” She was about to marry the songwriter and singer Phil Elverum, and she was sharing the news of her happiness, she told the reporter, in the hope that she might help other women who were like her, in the club of single mothers, to keep the faith.

Her marriage to Elverum proved short-lived. “I made a mistake,” she says. “It’s embarrassing to have lived some mistakes in public — in my personal life and my professional life — but I’m proud of my desire to keep going.” Ultimately, she found what she was looking for in Kail: the openness, the joie de vivre, the spirit of expansiveness she discovered on set. By December 2019, six months after the show aired, she and Kail were engaged, and she was pregnant with their son, Hart.

“I spent my entire life thinking, ‘When will you know you’re in love?’” she says. “ ‘What is it? How do you know? How do you know into whose hands you should put your life? And your children? And your children’s lives? Who do you trust with that, and how do you know and when will you know?’ I have made decisions using my heart, and I made decisions using my head. None of those seemed to work for me. Then I started thinking, ‘Maybe I’ll make decisions based on signs from the universe. Maybe I’ll interpret things — signs — falling from the sky.’ That didn’t work out for me. Then I realized: It was experiences. For me, it was having experience with this person and knowing how they would respond in all different situations. On a Monday morning; on a Wednesday afternoon; on a Friday night. Trusting the depth of that experience to make a decision about a life and going forward in a life together.”

There, in the coffee shop, she was spontaneously delivering a reverie, a monologue: sweet, building, moving. As she spoke, I had the sense that I was sitting across from an actor who could also have been a writer. “It’s too late for that,” she says. “I never went to high school. I don’t know any punctuation.”

To watch her body of work is to understand that so much of how the world decides who we are depends upon how we hold ourselves.

Often actors known for well-chosen roles with artistic integrity lead with an evident intensity or intelligence; Williams’s characters, by contrast, often present humbly, as she herself does, belying a reserve of power that’s there all along. Even if Williams confesses to a lingering sense of insecurity, she nevertheless spoke up, strongly, when news broke in 2018 that she had been vastly underpaid for the reshooting of scenes for the film “All the Money in the World” (2017), compared to her co-star Mark Wahlberg. She talked to the press about sexism in pay disparities in Hollywood but also beyond the film industry; she spoke at the Capitol Building on Equal Pay Day at a news conference; and when she won an Emmy for her performance in “Fosse/Verdon,” she returned to the subject in her acceptance speech. “The basic impulse for any kind of genuinely progressive politics is generosity,” says Kushner. “It has to be outward expanding and outward reaching. And she has that in her art, and in her mind.”

WE AGREED, AT the coffee shop, to meet the next day at a bookstore in Brooklyn. Both of us were late; one of us — Williams — was clearly relaxed nonetheless, even though she had lost her cellphone in a Lyft earlier that day. She wore a loose white dress with embroidery at its neck, looking cool and unbothered by the suffocating heat of another of the summer’s endlessly steaming days. She was enjoying the freedom of a temporarily phoneless existence, rather than fighting to fix it.

Instead of browsing through novels as planned, we headed straight to the cafe for peach kombucha and some more talk about the meadow: “I really hope I get to stay in the meadow,” she told me. “I really want to stay in the meadow.”

Williams’s professional life did not start with her relationship with Ledger, any more than it stopped with his death. But his death marked the beginning of a new phase of adulthood, as unexpected as it was painful and prolonged. “When I meet people now who are grieving, the one thing I would say is, ‘It’s a decade. It’s not a bad month or a year or two. It’s a decade,’” she says. “So give yourself time.” During that period, when she lived in the country, teachers at her daughter’s Montessori school took her and Matilda into their homes, supporting her but helping her grow, too; helping her learn how to grow things — how to raise a garden, to cook, to feed her child. For someone who had taken on the mantle of adulthood before she could really wear it, feeding her family, she says, still strikes her as a remarkable achievement. “It’s when the combination of the foods is right, and each of the three foods is perfect in its own right, you have a synthesis, and then you have balance,” she said. If she could have any superpower, she told me, it would be to spontaneously throw a meal down for 20 people at a time — to be able, with ease, to entertain a group, to be the place where that group wanted to go. Her husband is the same way: “He always says if he hadn’t been a director, he’d be a camp counselor.”

Our conversation made us hungry for cookbooks, and we wandered among them, comparing notes on home-meal triumphs, puzzling over why we cared so much, trying to decide whether there was something beautiful or reactionary about this love of feeding our families. But Williams’s mind was also working through our previous conversation at the cafe. “It’s such a relief not to be in that kind of grief anymore,” she said. She looks back on her wedding, in March 2020, a day when she could see how happy Matilda was, how connected she was to Kail, as a moment that was “free of the shadow side.”

Finally, it was time to head back to her children and her husband. On the walk there, Williams talked some more about suffering, which she seems to understand more fully in her current state of happiness — how it could bind humanity, even be an exquisite vehicle for connection. It was not permanent, she knew — her own life was evidence of that — but it was not adjacent to the path of life, either. She had committed to memory a line quoted by the author Rebecca Solnit in one of her books of essays: “Emptiness is the track on which the centered person moves,” itself a quote from a 14th-century Tibetan sage. “Life is suffering,” Williams said emphatically. A middle-aged woman who was walking by made eye-contact with Williams and nodded knowingly, as if to say, “You can say that again.” A few minutes later, Williams repeated some variation on the sentiment, and laughed to see a Chihuahua on a leash, stopped in its tracks and looking up at her with its sad, sweet empathetic face, so that it, too, seemed intent on acknowledging that truth.

We parted ways, and then Williams kept going, her mind on dinner, her step light, on her path home.

Hair by Lucas Wilson using Oribe at Day One. Makeup by Sally Branka at LGA Management. Set design by Ian Salter. Production: AP Studio, Inc. Manicurist: Gina Edwards for Dior Vernis. Lighting technician: Ian Rutter. Digital tech: Michel Oscar Monegro. Photo assistant: Donna Viering. Set assistants: Robert Forbes, Scott Kuzio. Tailor: Matthew Neff. Stylist’s assistant: Shant Alvandyan

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Demna

In his always provocative, culture-shifting work, the artistic director of Balenciaga is constantly revealing himself — even as he sometimes seeks to disappear.

By Nick Haramis Photographs by Lise Sarfati Styled by Suzanne Koller Lise Sarfati Styled by Suzanne Koller –>

Oct. 27, 2022

ON A WARM Paris night this past July, in the same neo-Classical palace off the Place de la Concorde where coronation balls were once held for Emperor Napoleon I and King Charles X, Balenciaga was hosting a dinner for Demna, its artistic director of seven years. Earlier that day, the 41-year-old Georgian designer had presented his second couture collection for the French fashion house founded in 1917 by Cristóbal Balenciaga, the Spanish designer whose bubble hemlines, sack dresses and cocoon coats offered an adventurous postwar alternative to Christian Dior’s hyper-feminine New Look of the late 1940s. Now, in a grand reception room of the recently restored 18th-century Hôtel de la Marine, the magician David Blaine was performing a card trick for the pop star Dua Lipa; the actor Alexa Demie was chatting with the reality star and real estate agent Christine Quinn, whose Balenciaga handbag, one of only 20 in existence, was also a Bang & Olufsen speaker; and Kim Kardashian, the brand’s most loyal and most famous customer, posed in one of the designer’s tinted polyurethane face shields, which made her look like she’d stepped out of a John Baldessari photograph.

Across the room at the friends’ table, I found myself where Demna would usually be, with the painter Eliza Douglas, Demna’s longtime muse; her partner, the artist Anne Imhof; the pop singer Róisín Murphy, who would later perform a few songs in the courtyard; the model Julia Nobis; the photographer Nadia Lee Cohen, who shot Balenciaga’s fall 2022 campaign; Martina Tiefenthaler, the company’s chief creative officer and one of the founding members of Vetements, the influential fashion collective Demna started in 2014; and Tiefenthaler’s boyfriend, Gian Gisiger, the graphic designer behind the latest iteration of Balenciaga’s logo. Among other things, Demna is known for being loyal to his tribe, a creative gang — and informal focus group — of like-minded nonconformists who walk in his shows, star in his look books and cheer him on. “What a crazy carnival of people,” Tiefenthaler said to me with pride. “And there he is, in the middle of it all.” She motioned in the direction of the designer, whose gray cotton hoodie stood out amid all the sequins.

His sense of alienation isn’t incidental to his work or a talking point on a press release; it’s visible in every garment he makes — if you know where to look.

Demna was hired by Balenciaga in 2015 with a clear mandate: to make the clothes feel urgent again. As an heir to the legendary tailor once described by Dior as “the master of us all” and by Coco Chanel as “a couturier in the truest sense of the word” — as well as a more immediate successor to the urbane, forward-thinking French Belgian designer Nicolas Ghesquière, who spent 15 years at the brand’s helm before departing in 2012 — he was not an obvious choice. Cristóbal Balenciaga was a perfectionist intent on achieving sculptural purity through minimal construction, a feat he came closest to realizing in his spring 1967 collection, which included a wedding dress held together by a single seam. Demna, who looks like a headbanger, in torn jeans and ratty band T-shirts, with piercings in both ears, seemed to have emerged onto fashion’s biggest stage straight from a Rammstein concert.

But since his appointment at Balenciaga, Demna has become, if not his generation’s most important designer, certainly its most exciting. In an industry where strategy teams struggle to get people talking about their brands, he can’t release a pair of shoes without them turning into a Cardi B lyric. What’s more striking, though, is how dexterously he has exhumed the archives, reinterpreting Cristóbal’s classic silhouettes with cheek and reverence, splicing house codes with streetwear style principles, making haute couture not just from satin and velvet but nylon and denim, as well. His contributions to the house have ranged from homage (his fall 2016 debut opened with a two-button gray flannel jacket that flared at the hips, a subtle take on the trademark Balenciaga bell shape of the 1950s) to histrionic (for spring 2020, he took the construction to its extreme, exaggerating the form so that models in matching gold and silver lamé gowns resembled a pair of Hershey’s Kisses on creatine).

Much as he might want to recede at times, Demna has found himself ever more scrutinized. In this way, too, he recalls his predecessor: Back in the 1940s and ’50s, Balenciaga the man became an international fashion star despite his best attempts at anonymity. As Mary Blume, author of “The Master of Us All: Balenciaga, His Workrooms, His World” (2013), told NPR, “Nobody knew how tall he was, if he was slim or fat. … Several French journalists thought he wasn’t one person but that he was a team of designers. And this is simply because he did not appear.” In 2021, Demna attended the Met Gala with Kardashian, both in matching black fabric face coverings. Although his attendance was meant to signal his emergence as an industry star, many people speculated that it was Kanye West, Kardashian’s estranged husband at the time. Still, the mask served at least two purposes: Wearing it calmed his nerves, and it prevented the flashing cameras from capturing unflattering photos of him. “I’ve always had a problem with myself in the mirror,” says Demna, whose somewhat stern features — pale skin, strong nose — are softened by his hazel eyes and a warm smile. Since then, he’s chosen to wear one whenever he has to have his picture taken.

Words like “rebel” and “iconoclast” are thrown around so often in the fashion industry that they might as well be the names of new fragrances. And while it’s impossible to think of the creative evolution of clothes without the contributions of such brilliant, genuinely tortured souls as Yves Saint Laurent or Lee Alexander McQueen, brands almost reflexively market their designers, especially the ones without name recognition, as misfit mavericks who’ve arrived, against all odds, to alter not just a dress but the very notion of fashion itself. In Demna’s case, however, this happens to be true. His sense of alienation isn’t incidental to his work or a talking point on a press release; it’s visible in every garment he makes — if you know where to look.

WHEN DEMNA WAS 11, he was convinced he was going to die. About a year after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, ethnic conflict broke out between Georgians and the people of Abkhazia, a disputed area of land in the northwestern region of the country. Early in the war, Abkhaz troops descended on the Georgian-held city of Sukhumi, where Demna was born, laying waste to the popular subtropical tourist destination on the Black Sea. For months, every night at 7 p.m., the wail of an air-raid siren signaled that it was time for him to join the rest of his family — his Georgian father, Guram, the owner of an auto repair shop; his Russian mother, Elvira, a housewife; his younger brother, also named Guram; a pair of uncles and their four combined children; and his paternal grandmother — in their underground garage, where Demna played music to drown out the thunder of exploding shells.

Before the area was reduced to rubble, Demna and his family evacuated their home, packed the car with only a few essentials — food, warm clothing and photo albums, as well as some weapons with which to protect themselves — and followed the other estimated 240,000 displaced Georgians into the Caucasus Mountains on their way to Tbilisi, the country’s capital, where they had relatives. They drove as far as they could, at which point they took what they were able to carry and started walking. When Demna’s grandmother became too weak to continue, Elvira, a natural negotiator, traded a machine gun for a horse.

For nearly three weeks, they traveled from village to village, sleeping mostly outdoors or in the back of an abandoned truck. Before his displacement, Demna had been a good-natured boy who loved to put on musical shows for his family, give his grandmother fashion advice and draw pictures of the Miss Universe pageant contestants; now all he could think about was the “Chechen tie,” a particularly sadistic form of mutilation he’d heard about involving the tongue. One night on the road, Demna walked in on his father, a former soldier, explaining to an uncle what he’d do if they were ever taken hostage. “I have the grenades,” he recalls his father saying, by which Guram meant that he would sooner kill himself and his boys than risk being captured and tortured.

Until this point in our conversation, Demna — who no longer uses his last name, Gvasalia, professionally, to separate his private self from his work persona — has been recounting the story of his family’s escape like someone telling the plot of a war movie. But he utters those four words the way I imagine his father might have: steely voiced yet in pain. “Just the idea that he. …” Demna says, unable to complete the sentence. “I think he would never have done it, but it made me afraid of him. And I was never afraid of my father before that.”

The Gvasalias arrived safely, but penniless, in Tbilisi. Demna, wearing oversize hand-me-downs, the sleeves on his shirt dangling well past his fingers — a motif he would revisit later artistically — shared a mattress with his brother that first night. “Sleeping on a bed — I will never forget it. What more do you need in life?” he says. Just then, the waiter at our bar arrives with drinks, jolting Demna back to the present: a wood-paneled simulacrum of a Gilded Age drawing room in Manhattan’s financial district on a muggy May afternoon. The next day, he’d become the first designer ever to stage a show on the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange. “I’m sorry,” he says with a slightly embarrassed laugh. “I don’t mean to abuse you as a therapist.”

That child, that experience, is never far from him. This past March, 10 days after Russia invaded Ukraine, Demna presented Balenciaga’s fall 2022 show at an exhibition complex a few miles outside of Paris. Separated from an indoor arena by a glass dome, an audience of fashion editors and celebrities — including Kardashian, who wore a catsuit made from what appeared to be yellow barricade tape — watched like spectators in an operating theater as models in stretchy dresses and large hoodies, many of them hauling leather trash bags, struggled to stay upright against a battery of wind and artificial snow. Originally conceived by Demna as an indictment of our failure to address the climate crisis, the presentation had become an allegory for the plight of the roughly one million Ukrainians, mostly women and children, who in that first week of war had fled to neighboring European countries. In the accompanying show notes, Demna wrote, “The war in Ukraine has triggered the pain of a past trauma I have carried in me since 1993, when the same thing happened in my home country and I became a forever refugee. Forever, because that’s something that stays in you. The fear, the desperation, the realization that no one wants you.” Today, he tells me, “That’s why fashion has never really mattered to me. I love doing it, but I don’t care, to be honest. I’ve seen things that make fashion seem so irrelevant.”

Demna is often thought of as fashion’s playful saboteur, suffusing his work with comedy bordering on contempt — and yet behind it all is a kind of sincerity that can sometimes be difficult to discern amid the spectacle. No other working designer is as confessional; with each collection, what seems like irony is often a chapter in an ongoing autobiography. Take the $270 DHL-branded T-shirt he made for Vetements in 2016, which was alternately derided by critics as puerile and anti-fashion. “I’d see these guys every single day delivering parcels to our office, and then we’d have to pay DHL bills, which was a lot for us,” he explains. “It was so visually present in my daily professional life. And that’s what I often do. I take something and I make something.” Then there’s his resort 2023 collection for Balenciaga, which included models in wool coats and sequined gowns worn over full-body latex bondage suits — for another designer, the S&M gear might have been little more than an outré gesture, but that, he says, “was very personal to me, part of my sexual education.”

HIS SEXUALITY IS something Demna can’t discuss without some degree of sadness creeping into his voice; an early encounter with a neighborhood friend ended abruptly when a family member walked in on them and forbade Demna from seeing the boy again. The first man he fell in love with, who introduced him to sex clubs and cruising spots, “taught me how to love him,” he says, “but unfortunately not how to love myself.” The most difficult indignity, though, is the one that hasn’t happened: “I can’t go back to Georgia because people have threatened to kill me if I return. … My own uncle is one of them.”

He didn’t come out to his parents until he was 32, although he had a boyfriend at 25. Demna studied international economics at Tbilisi State University but, even then, he was regularly sketching clothes. He befriended a group of “sort of criminals” who probably knew he was gay but didn’t care and protected him from anyone who did. “Growing up in a country where I couldn’t say I was gay, I always tried to look like the kind of tough guy who would survive in the neighborhoods where I lived,” he says. “But I didn’t feel like that on the inside.”

After graduating, Demna came across a newspaper article about Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts, the Belgian college that gave birth to the Antwerp Six: the influential fashion designers Dirk Bikkembergs, Ann Demeulemeester, Walter Van Beirendonck, Dries Van Noten, Dirk Van Saene and Marina Yee, who all graduated from the school in the early 1980s. Against his mother’s wishes, Demna applied. Van Beirendonck, who taught in the academy’s fashion department at the time and is a designer known for his own playful riffs on kink, found in Demna a kindred spirit. “We are both stubborn, and we want to dream out loud,” Van Beirendonck said in an email. “Being critical, making political statements and adding irony and humor in our work is important, but so is our love of perfect tailoring and beautiful fabrics.”

‘That’s why fashion has never really mattered to me. I love doing it, but I don’t care, to be honest. I’ve seen things that make fashion seem so irrelevant.’

Demna’s first big job out of fashion school was at Maison Margiela, known for being a laboratory of experimentation and a leader in avant-garde fashion. The hiring committee gave him a week to submit a project. He sent them 10 looks for consideration in a greasy pizza box; two weeks later, he was living in Paris. After a couple of years there, he was hired to work at Louis Vuitton in 2013 at the end of the Marc Jacobs era, during which the American designer introduced fashion to art, collaborating with Stephen Sprouse on graffitied monogram bags and Yayoi Kusama on a polka-dot collection. Although their time together was brief, Jacobs showed Demna that a luxury house could engage with pop culture, anticipating Instagram fashion even before the age of influencers. “I love Marc,” says Demna, who learned valuable lessons from Jacobs, like how to make an entire collection in three days. Plus it was fun: “He’d be working at midnight, doing Barbra Streisand karaoke.” When Ghesquière took over for Jacobs a few months later, the mood became more serious. Still, Demna found it helpful to watch Ghesquière execute his sophisticated and futuristic vision of luxury — one very different from his own. For a few seasons, he was charged with designing complex outerwear garments, including the most expensive piece he’d ever made. “I flew business class for the first time thanks to a crocodile coat,” he says. “You couldn’t fold it, so the coat had its own ticket.”

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But he was growing weary of developing only other people’s ideas and, finally, he launched a label of his own with a group of friends. The name Vetements, which in French (with a circumflex) means “clothes” — a bit of a joke, since none of the collective’s members were French — came to Demna over lunch at a falafel restaurant as an alternative to his original thought, Factory of Found Ideas. “When I started Vetements, I was at a point where I was so frustrated with the industry,” he says. “I couldn’t pay my bills, but I didn’t care. I just wanted to make clothes.” During his five years as the brand’s creative director, and with his brother, Guram, as its C.E.O., he organized a show in the basement of a gay club, which one critic complained smelled like a lavatory (fall 2015); partnered with 18 different brands, including Manolo Blahnik, Brioni and Juicy Couture, for a single collection of dubious collaborations (spring 2017); and held what was referred to as a no-show with life-size photographs of nonmodels shot around Zurich, and presented in a parking lot in Paris (spring 2018).

Vetements became a sensation because of the confusion it caused: No one could tell if Demna was joking or not. Although there was the sense that he was having a good time, there was also the fear that he might be laughing at the industry, a community that, despite its tolerance for frivolity, takes itself extremely seriously. Some of the clothes were ill-fitting, others covered with corporate typefaces — all of them embraced … not ugliness, exactly, but not beauty, either. “It was more of a provocation,” Demna says. “What I wanted was to trigger an emotion. It didn’t matter to me which one.” As more people began paying attention to his off-balance prairie dresses and big bomber jackets, which were immediate hits at stores such as Dover Street Market, journalists started drawing parallels between Demna’s deconstructions and those of Martin Margiela. “I was really mad,” Demna says. “Suddenly I was in a place to do what I wanted, and it was getting reduced to those two years [I spent] at Margiela.”

So for his fall 2019 collection, unsubtly titled the Elephant in the Room, Demna dragged his audience to the Paul Bert Serpette flea market on the northern outskirts of Paris to show them where these so-called Margiela designs were really born — from someone else’s clothes. He laughs now thinking about all the stunts he pulled: For his spring 2020 show, another response to feeling misunderstood and marginalized, he paraded models in law enforcement gear around a Champs-Élysées McDonald’s to the sound of attack dogs. “I felt barked at by this industry,” he says. He even added an umlaut to the reappropriated Bose logo on a T-shirt, translating the name of the audio equipment company into the German word for “angry.”

In 2015, on the heels of Vetements’ initial success, he was approached by an executive at Kering, the multinational corporation that owns Balenciaga, Gucci, Saint Laurent, Alexander McQueen and Bottega Veneta. He recalls being asked, “ ‘Would you be willing to give up what you do now and go to a big house in Paris?’ He didn’t tell me where it was.” Demna said that he might be, on the condition that he could keep running Vetements. In the taxi going home, he opened his phone to the news that Alexander Wang was stepping down as Balenciaga’s creative director.

DEMNA COMPARES THE experience of being at Balenciaga to that of Jesus carrying his cross. “The legacy is amazing and nourishing,” he says, “but it’s also very heavy.” When he arrived at the house in 2015, Paris, he says, “was asleep.” Like Alessandro Michele, who took over at Gucci that same year, Demna knew what was expected of him. “My job was and is to create desire,” he says, although it’s notable that neither brand has relied heavily on sex for sales: Michele’s Edenic universe celebrates romance rather than lust, and even when Demna explores kink, it’s more about the exchange of power than of fluids. In 2019, four years after his appointment, Balenciaga reported record annual revenues, surpassing €1 billion (about $1.12 billion) for the first time.

Every designer of a major luxury house has a fiscal responsibility. But they’re supposed to do something else, as well: create clothes that not only bring in profits but that become somehow symbolic of a cultural moment. And Demna has had plenty of those in the past decade. For Balenciaga’s fall 2020 collection, a deranged twist on Cristóbal’s ecclesiastical garb — the designer tailored one of his first velvet dresses for a marchioness to wear in church — he sent models in blacked-out contact lenses, chastity belts and flowing clerical robes wading through recycled Paris gray water as the sound of a storm echoed throughout the auditorium and lightning forked across a digital sky. During the early days of Covid-19, when shows could no longer be presented live, he partnered with Epic Games on “Afterworld: The Age of Tomorrow,” a video game set years in the future whose characters battle it out in Balenciaga’s fall 2021 collection, which included NASA-stamped outerwear, his signature red puffer coat and boots recalling medieval-style armor. Following the return to in-person assemblies for spring 2022, Demna transformed the red carpet into a runway — or maybe it was the other way around — using the footage of celebrities arriving at his show as the show itself by broadcasting the images inside a theater filled with editors, buyers and friends of the house. The “show” culminated in the premiere of a special mini-episode of “The Simpsons” that follows Marge and Bart as they pursue modeling careers in Paris (all dressed in Balenciaga, of course).

Although he has many fans, Demna is not without his detractors. One journalist called his work at Vetements “the bastard attire of a broken generation,” while another recently admonished him for selling an $1,850 pair of torn and stained Balenciaga sneakers, a “barely wearable shoe costing more than some people’s monthly rent.” Demna was surprised by the reaction. “It’s just a dirty shoe,” he says. “But if you want it to be my shoe, it has to look like somebody just dug it out [of the ground].”

It’s not hard to understand why the designer frustrates some critics. It can feel at times like he’s throwing out too many ideas all at once, making it impossible to absorb any one of them. As he works through the attendant concerns of his own identity — as a Georgian refugee, an outsider with impostor syndrome and a gay man with body issues — he’s simultaneously expressing a broad spectrum of emotions and creating content for his fans the way they consume it: with the relentlessness of a million open tabs. Taken together, what Demna has accomplished isn’t just a selfie of the first designer who truly understands internet culture. It’s also a snapshot of a chaotic digital world.

And yet he is also a great assembler, decontextualizing, then recontextualizing, logos and memes — a $2,145 leather Balenciaga bag inspired by the big blue plastic totes sold at Ikea for 99 cents; a raincoat with a logo recalling the one from Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign for Balenciaga’s fall 2017 men’s wear collection; a T-shirt advertising a fictional outpost of the now-defunct Planet Hollywood restaurant chain for Vetements’ spring 2020 collection — to create new logos and more memes. Part of what Demna has been able to do so well is poke fun at, while also being openly complicit in, fashion’s endless loop of iteration. Nothing is too banal to be copied. And therein lies something else that separates him: Whereas most designers are inspired by a pretty artwork or landscape, he’s more interested in the industrial, the unpretentious, the everyday. “I don’t like that luxury is always intended to communicate that you’re rich,” he says. “I’d rather wear a bag that doesn’t make me look like the rare bourgeois bitch who can afford it.”

ON THE WAY to Demna’s new pied-à-terre in the Eighth Arrondissement of Paris, I pass by the string of luxury fashion stores, including Maison Margiela, Louis Vuitton and Balenciaga, that line the Avenue Montaigne. Although he moved away from the city six years ago — he and Gomez bought a home outside of Zurich, where Elvira now lives, too, and where, Demna says with relief, “everything is neutral and beige” — his work requires him to spend about half his time here. After walking a few flights up a grand marble staircase, I enter his apartment, which feels almost punitive in its emptiness yet somehow lived-in, too. From the foyer, a long hallway with herringbone parquet flooring leads to a balcony overlooking the Eiffel Tower just across the Seine. Along the corridor, there’s a Tejo Remy bench composed of neatly stacked Balenciaga blankets; a blue airbrush painting of a parent embracing their child titled “Hold” (2022) by the New York-based artist Austin Lee; and a vase of yellow chrysanthemums and carnations atop an antique console.

What Demna has accomplished isn’t just a selfie of the first designer who truly understands internet culture. It’s also a snapshot of a chaotic digital world.

In the dining room to the right, alcove shelves display assorted tchotchkes: six porcelain figurines of Diana, Princess of Wales; a glazed ceramic object made to resemble a Balenciaga sneaker; and a piggy bank. Demna leads the way into his kitchen, a mostly white box, where he brings a bottle of water and two Baccarat crystal tumblers to the table. He sighs contentedly. “I feel really empty in a good way,” he says. It’s the morning after his second couture show — and the nerve-racking dinner that followed — and he seems relieved. (It’s also the day of the show for Vetements, where his brother took over as creative director last year, but Demna, who left the brand in 2019, wouldn’t be attending: “I’ve had to learn to let that go,” he says, admitting that it took him about a year to do so. “It’s not my story anymore.”) The previous day, editors and clients gathered at 10 Avenue George V, the site of Balenciaga’s original salon, and watched, mesmerized, as he sent out models in molded black neoprene scuba dresses, pants composed of upcycled vintage leather wallets, sculptural aluminum-infused jersey shirts and a massive bell-shaped wedding gown with 820 feet of tulle that took 7,500 hours to embroider. The looks, which Demna refers to collectively as “a heritage-inspired futuristic extravaganza,” demanded as many as 10 fittings per garment, as opposed to the three or four he normally does for ready-to-wear.

Over the phone a few weeks after the show, Nicole Kidman tells me that she ranks Demna among such designers as John Galliano, Jean Paul Gaultier, Karl Lagerfeld and Alexander McQueen. “He uses fashion to communicate the world at this time,” she says, and compares Demna to the filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. “Stanley would always say to me, ‘Don’t ever put me on a pedestal. Let me have bad ideas and make mistakes, otherwise we’re done for.’ ”

But it’s another compliment, given to him by Naomi Campbell over dinner the night of the show, that makes him emotional. “I felt in your approach,” he recalls her saying, “the way you made that dress” — creating a silhouette by pinning it down to the exact millimeter — “how important this work is and how much you were putting into it. You weren’t just making a dress with a Cristóbal collar. You understood the coutureness of it all.” He adds, “She said the last time she felt that was with Azzedine,” referring to the French Tunisian couturier Azzedine Alaïa, who died in 2017.

It’s then that Demna starts to cry. Between apologies, he wipes away tears with his sweatshirt sleeve; he normally saves this type of vulnerability for his work. “They just think I’m good at making sneakers and selling,” he says about his critics in the fashion establishment, although he seems to be referring, as well, to a longer, deeper history of rejection: the classmates who bullied him, the men who didn’t return his affection, the family members who turned on him. He pulls himself together and sits a little taller in his chair. “I’ve given myself a mission in fashion to make it move forward by questioning it, by never being satisfied, by challenging the status quo and whatever the rules have been telling us we’re supposed to do for the last 100 years.

“The roughness of certain silhouettes and the moods of my collections express a lot of [what] I went through,” he adds. “It’s easier to show pain or joy through my work than to say it out loud.” Though he is working on that, too. At the couture presentation, before the show got underway and the music began to swell, a poem was broadcast over the sound system. Demna had written it in French with the author Sophie Fontanel. “I love you,” said the A.I.-generated voice reading Demna’s words. “I have loved you for 30 years. I’ve been waiting for you since I was 10 years old. … I closed my eyes and I thought of you.” It was a love poem, of course, but also one of longing. And then the models started coming down the runway.

Models: Shivaruby at Storm Management, Toni Smith at Elite, Blessing Orji at IMG Models and Barbara Valente at Supreme. Hair: Gary Gill at Streeters. Makeup by Karin Westerlund at Artlist using Dr. Barbara Sturm. Set design by Giovanna Martial. Casting by Franziska Bachofen-Echt. Production: White Dot. Manicurist: Hanaé Goumri at The Wall Group. Digital tech: Daniel Serrato Rodriguez. Photo assistants: François Adragna, Jack Sciacca. Hair assistants: Tom Wright, Rebecca Chang, Natsumi Ebiko. Makeup assistant: Thomas Kergot. Set assistants: Jeanne Briand, Vincent Perrin. Styling assistants: Carla Bottari, Roxana Mirtea. All product images in this story courtesy of Balenciaga

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