First Look: A New Balenciaga

Balenciaga AW 2016 G1

Balenciaga’s new design director Demna Gvasalia, 34, is a man of his generation, a person peering at his peers, a creative soul at one with the collective taste for borderline extremes. His debut at Balenciaga reflects the prevalent attitude towards fashion. These are clothes that cannot be categorised, consisting different elements and influences, composed for camera lenses, whether those in front of the smartphone or the filter-fitted zooms of street-style photographers. It is not a stretch to imagine Anna Dello Russo wanting them now, so that she can wear them in Tokyo next week to attend an editorial meeting at Vogue Japan, and be photographed along the way.

Mr Gvasalia’s clothes for Balenciaga need a second viewing for them to sink in, even if not deeply. There’s the temptation to seek out the signatures of Vetements, a label Mr Gvasalia established in 2013. There’s definitely the lure of making connections even if they aren’t necessarily there. Oh, those shoulders—so large that they flopped forward, aren’t they rather like those at his Balenciaga that made the models look like they’re hunching? What about the oversized shirt worn slightly away from the rear of the neck: aren’t they like his Balenciaga ski jackets with the extended-backwards neckline? Or the same-same layering and the general don’t-really-care styling at both collections? The possible presence of dotted lines has everything to do with Vetements’s increasing influence on young fashion and the lack of deliberate distancing between a new label and a nearly 100-year-old one.

Balenciaga AW 2016 G2The link to Vetements did not end there. A nagging suspicion arises: Mr Gvasalia wants to bring you back further, to a time when he was working at Mason Martin Margiela, where he stayed for eight years. That re-proportioned denim jacket strikes a chord. So do those flimsy dresses of different floral fabrics that appear to be remnants from a factory floor. And the opaque leggings, only now in candy-cane stripes (or swirls of jam in a pot of yogurt?). One can’t forget one’s formative years, that’s true, but sometimes the best of one’s training can be left behind for a du jour that’s better disconnected. It would really be nice to see output cut off from the not-so-distant past, rather than Margiela-isn’t-quite-Margiela-now-so-let’s-pick-up-from-where-we-last-left-it.

Mr Gvasalia is au courant with the zeitgeist, we’re told. That perhaps explains why his Balenciaga has to have clothes that look like fashion and can re-script the story of modern elegance. Alexander Wang tried doing that before he left last year, but was less successful than Nicolas Ghesquière. While Mr Gvasalia has been saying that he designs clothes that are to be worn rather than for a sojourn on the catwalk, it won’t be clear yet if Balenciaga’s customers will take to his couture moves veiled by a strong street sensibility. Does Balenciaga need such a makeover? Can women embrace these clothes with the same seriousness as they did back in the day? Should Balenciaga be serious at all? Hard questions are floating in the air.

Balenciaga AW 2016 G3Sometimes, there’s a sense that nobody today quite knows what to do with Balenciaga, a label with no immediately obvious sartorial codes other than those stunning shapes and silhouettes associated with the grand master himself or the photographs of Irving Penn. Unlike Christian Dior, Cristóbal Balenciaga did not seem to want to change the way all women dressed. His clients were mainly the rich and the royal, who had the means to let the couturier dress them the way he saw fit. In his 49-year career, Mr Balenciaga gave only one interview: to the first fashion editor of The Times, Prudence Glynn—also known as Lady Windlesham. “In post-war fashion,” she wrote, “Dior became a household word through the influence of the New Look, but for the purists there was only one proper direction in which to bow, Cristóbal Balenciaga.”

How do designers carrying on the Balenciaga legacy cater to these purists? Do such customers still exist? Michel Goma, the first to take on the stewardship of the house in 1987, tried, but the look he created was somewhat derivative. Next in line was Josephus Thimister, who attempted to modernise the house aesthetic, but was not terribly convincing. It would take Nicolas Ghesquière, initially a license designer before he was appointed as head in 1997, to draw the world’s attention to Balenciaga again. When Alexander Wang took over in 2013, he vacillated between contrived 1950s elegance and his own athlesiure leaning, which now looks sadly soigné in the light of Demna Gvasalia’s street vibe that mixes the awkward with the refined. In the end, do customers waiting for the next ‘Lariat’ bag really care if Balenciaga became Balenciaga again? When social media calls, probably not.

Photos: The Cut/Alessandro Lucioni/Imaxtree

 

The Shoe Inspired By A Shirt

Lacoste L 12 12The new Lacoste L.12.12 premium leather sneaker. Photo: Jim Sim

For so many sportsmen and not-so-sporty individuals, the Lacoste polo shirt is an iconic garment. Having crossed the backlines and sidelines of a court to live large in every corner of our urban spaces, the Lacoste polo shirt is no longer restricted to the game of tennis for which it was designed to be worn. Despite its many reiteration and fits and the staggering plethora of fabrications, the original polo shirt, born in 1933 and code-named L.12.12, remains one of the most popular in the brand’s selection of sport tops.

It is, therefore, not surprising that Lacoste would create a shoe inspired by the shirt that has placed the brand on the world’s fashion map. The L.12.12 as footwear is every bit as sleek as the polo shirt, with a purity of design that articulates the same sense of what is logical and practical in terms of wearability. There are no superfluous elements in the shoe. From the padded collar (surprisingly sans pull-tab) to the PU insole (unsurprisingly moulded for extra comfort and cushioning) to the 5-hole perforation at the top of the toe box (to improve internal ventilation), every detail serves a specific purpose.

Lacoste’s introduction of the L.12.12’s is, to some, a little belated, since Adidas’s Stan Smith has staked out a huge chunk of the tennis-shoe-as-fashionable-footwear market of the past three years (not to mention every other luxury brand’s take, including the near-facsimile of those by Saint Laurent). Still, we’re partial to Lacoste’s refined version in monochromatic washes of very handsome hues (there are six colourways, but only five are available in Singapore). The silhouette, with a toe box that’s neither too rounded or pointy, is flattering on wide Asian feet and the Derby construction—characterised by quarters with eyelets for shoelaces sewn atop the vamp—lends the shoe an elegance that can easily make the scene outside the tennis court.

L 12 12 shirt and shoeThe classic L.12.12 polo shirt and the shoe that is named after it. Photos: Lacoste

The L.12.12, interestingly, is not just a style number. L, as you guessed it, is for Lacoste. The 1 “represents the uniqueness of the petit pique material used for the polo” and the 2 is the code for short sleeves. The following 12 (rather than 1 and 2) is the number of prototypes developed before the version we see today is designated for sale. The L.12.12 has spawned not just a pair of shoes, but eau de toilette too.

For those with a penchant for details, a kick may be derived from the knowledge that the shoe is lined with a piqué that is akin to that used in the polo shirt. The piqué is a weaving style—usually used with cotton yarn—woven lengthwise with raised yarns or what fabric technologists call ‘ribbing’. The result is a fairly loose weave that makes the fabric ‘breathable’. Lacoste’s piqué was originally developed with Andre Gillier, the co-founder of La Chemise Lacoste. Mr Gillier was France’s largest owner–manufacturer of knitwear at that time; who had, prior to Lacoste, produced his country’s first men’s underwear label Jil, known for its slip kangourou (or kangaroo slip, a pouch-crotched brief).

For sure, Rene Lacoste, whose last name is now sometimes used as synonym for the polo shirt, was a far bigger legend. However, not many people these days know or remember that Mr Lacoste was a tennis player and a world-famous one too. The ignorance is understandable since France no longer dominates the world of tennis. But in the Twenties, specifically 1925, the sport was roaring with the triumphs of the then 20-year-old Rene Lacoste’s win of the French Open and Wimbledon just a month apart. Within a mere four years, he would claim seven major singles titles together with three doubles championships, securing the status as France’s most eminent tennis star.

As for the crocodile association, let’s leave that to another post. The reptile, however, is definitely sported on the L.12.12 shoe.

Lacoste L.12.12 premium leather sneakers, SGD199, is available in black, white, grey, red, and dark green at Lacoste Wisma Atria