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.
The 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.
Sometimes, 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