Awkward Elegance As Balenciaga Turns 100

Balenciaga AW 2017 pic intro

Cristóbal Balenciaga of the golden age of couture was a designer with a fondness for dramatic silhouettes. He created clothes with a sculptor’s eye, and manipulated shapes with a potter’s hand. He made black as chic as any colour (which itself is now the subject of an exhibition at the Musée Bourdelle in Paris). He redefined the space between fabric and the body by creating the tunic dress, the baby doll dress, and the cocoon coat. That daring was seeded 100 years ago when he, then aged 22, opened his first fashion house in San Sebastian, Spain. And stunningly expressed 80 years ago, when his first couture house was established in Paris.

Cut to the present: autumn/winter 2017 season. Demna Gvasalia literally skewed his already off-beat proportion for Balenciaga. He showed outers with a centre-front buttoned to the shoulder, effectively challenging the traditional idea that a jacket’s pivot point (or break point) is in the middle. This, Mr Gvasalia told the media, was in response to many of the old Balenciaga photos that he had seen, in which women often held the front of their jacket that way.

Balenciaga AW 2017 pic 2

How this new way of wearing a jacket feels isn’t clear (unless you’re one of the models of the show) as there must have been a pull at the underarm area considering that the fore seam on one side would have been affected or shifted. From the video of the show posted online, the models did not look uncomfortable, perhaps because of the generous armhole and, in some cases, the oversized shoulder pads that Mr Gvasalia favours. The right side of the jacket worn across the body to the left had the effect of a blanket shawl swept aside. Will this distort catch on?

The off-centre shifts that Mr Gvasalia has made with Balenciaga no longer warp our view of what this storied house stands for. Maybe we’re getting used to them. Or, maybe, some semblance of elegance had pervaded Balenciaga and it was an appealing spread through. Despite the odd way to fasten an outer—also applied to a toggle coat, a pea coat, and a bubble coat (that was styled in such a way that the model looked like a gypsy awaiting the kindness of tourists during winter), Mr Gvasalia showed a surprising number of instantly appealing looks that made this collection his best to date.

Balenciaga AW 2017 pic 3

Balenciaga AW 2017 pic 4

We will be the first to admit that when his Balenciaga first appeared, we were perplexed. But when your lenses are refocused, sometimes things become a little clearer, if not lucid. Now, with homage to hookers of yore rife at other French houses, Mr Gvasalia’s flying off on a tangent seems oddly appealing. We were especially drawn to the oversized pencil as well as pleated skirts, worn—rather, belted—in such a way that the excess fabric at the waist folded forward as a flap. There was a sense of nostalgia in the tented dresses that recall the couture master’s baby doll versions. Is imagining women actually wearing these approachable clothes a no-no? If not, let’s do.

Balenciaga in its heydays was the man to go to for women who wanted something special. The clothes that were made and bought were actually worn. If fashion lore is to be believed, the Countess von Bismarck, former Mona Harrison-Williams, the Kentucky-born socialite, wore only Balenciaga, even when gardening. If fashion legend Diana Vreeland is to be beloved, “The Kentucky Countess” ensconced herself in her Capri villa for three days when Cristóbal Balenciaga closed his atelier in 1968—presumably, to mourn. Wearability was not taboo at the house of Balenciaga. If Mr Gvasalia’s latest season is any indication, he’s restoring Balenciaga’s to its rightful pro-customer place.

Balenciaga AW 2017 pic 5

As if to proof this point, he showed a capsule of nine dresses that was ode to the Balenciaga couture of yesteryear: the icing on the 100th anniversary cake. These would have been familiar to those enamoured with the Balenciaga of the ’50s and ’60s, such as the Countess von Bismarck, if not for the models’ streetwise gait. Although their carriage (did they even know they were wearing couture?) wasn’t the same as those from 80 years, these dresses won’t disappoint the camera-toting horde that is Mr Gvasalia’s peer.

Mainly updates of the baby doll, as well as the flounced and tiered dresses, they were made charmingly irreverent by the pairing of a matching, oversized shopping bag to each, reminding us that this was 2017. One standout design: a take on the Amphora gown of 1959, a totally chic lantern of a dress that deserves to be revived and appreciated. The spirit of Balenciaga lives, even if only momentarily.

Photos: (top) Balenciaga, (catwalk)

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