Like many of you, we were initially rather perplexed by what Demna Gvasalia did at Balenciaga. Admittedly, it took us a while to get used to his idea of what Diana Vreeland referred to as “devastating”. “One fainted. One simply blew up and died,” she said of her favourite designer’s work. We’ve since died other deaths. Mr Gvasalia not only resuscitated Balenciaga, he brought us from the brink… of what, it is hard to say other than something associated with excess. He opened us up to possibilities, such as oddness, plainness, or the fit of garments—they don’t have to cling; they can fall away from the body. And they can look good.
He has made us realise that we do like fashion that is not easy, that makes us think, that makes us wonder how it’s all going to sit into the general scheme of things or fit with the rest of our wardrobe. Perhaps, by now, we’re used to his less-than-ordinary proportions and the jab at femininity, with results that baffle the opposite sex. Mr Gvasalia understands irony and subtlety and the non-so-subtle (such as logos) and how all can come together with as much lure as Facebook feeds, dissonant as they may be. And some of us are—eventually—sold.
The first look, so appealingly worn by Stella Tenant, immediately drew us into its un-Balenciaga androgyny. But there is something else at work here: something lowbrow. The striped shirt is ordinary-looking (buttoned-down!); it’s unadorned and it looks large enough to belong to a guy at home or work (the accounts department?). And the skirt—what our mothers used to call the “tight skirt”—is as unassuming as they come. We won’t be surprised if a school teacher or a HR manager lays claim to it. For added interest, a charm belt fastened with a key chain is hung low across the waist. “Re-purposed office wear”, they call it, and we thought office wear, as a product category, has all but disappeared.
The shirts may have the appeal of Van Heusens, but those with prints of international banknotes could have been from Japan’s Don Quijote general store! If one charm can be attributed to Mr Gvasalia, it is in the unpredictable high-low stir that keeps many a fashion editor fascinated and craving. His modus operandi seems to suggest a deliberate avoidance of the Balenciaga archives; he gives the impression that he procures solely from the karang guni, or the French equivalent of the rag-and-bone man. Maddening and, at the same time, delightful is this mixed bag, this disparate sources of influence: you never can know where he’ll glean from next. Even when he tackles the crass and the kitsch (and he does), the method in his calculated madness (invariably considered “cool”) makes us reconsider the elegance we were brought up with—chuck it out of the window.
To date, this is Mr Gvasalia’s most elegant collection for Balenciaga, and a wearable one to boot. Elegance as sum effect may be meaningless to Millennials, but before we scoff at it as dated grace and style or fixation, we should consider the point that effortless ingenuity will eventually take the place of vulgar overkill. Sure, the Balenciaga of today can no longer be the “very soul of discretion”, as writer and chief curator of fashion and textiles at the Musée des Arts Décoratfs in Paris, Pamela Golbin, said, but it can still be looked to as arbiter of style with strength. Balenciaga today has captured the shape of things now, and possibly, to come.
On the surface, Mr Gvasalia may have disregarded the traditional Balenciaga shapes, but he has not abandoned shapes. Not one bit. Sure, these are not forms associated with the couture of yore, but they are those that ring as alluringly as a cocoon coat, only now they fall with an insouciance that is in step with a preference for the relaxed and the less studied.
Despite the redefined shapes and the refreshing oddness, we sense a jolt of déjà vu: the newsprint pattern, which, although used differently, reminds us of John Galliano’s Dior and those coats that look like another is layered on top of each, a visual extra that has been seen at Comme des Garçons on more than one occasion. We are, however, not dismissing them as facsimiles. On the other hand, they make anew what’s been successfully birthed in much the same way his own Vetements breathed new life to trashy labels such Juicy Couture.
The fear-not-of-the-banal at Vetements is certainly brought along to Balenciaga. Just as you think that the haute bearing of the brand will be untarnished, out comes platform shoes by the crassest of crass footwear: Crocs. Its appearance towards the end of the show seems to give the collection the exclamation mark it does not need, but is fun to have—a ‘screamer’, as the exclamation mark is also known in the printing world. No one could imagine a campy Balenciaga, but no one expected it to be this delightfully twisted. We now wonder what it would be like if Demna Gvasalia takes over the house of Chanel. Now, that would be fun to witness.