Is Balenciaga’s Demna Gvasalia the sole modernist in the still-rarified world of haute couture?
Shortly after the Balenciaga couture presentation ended, the Twittersphere was abuzz with delight that walking the runway were Nicole Kidman, Dua Lipa, and, not admirably, Kim Kardashian and, even less so, Naomi Campbell. Like many watching the sole show of the season that was worth waiting for, we took it in in front of our PC monitor (smartphone screens are too small for couture!). We were enraptured up to the segment where full face-visors (the show opened with them) were not used, and models bared their foreheads to chins. Even that was fine, until Ms Lipa appeared, followed by Ms Kardashian, and Ms Kidman, and, almost towards the end, Ms Campbell. Before these women sauntered in, we were able to concentrate on the clothes and to marvel at the rigours of Mr Gvasalia’s sharp lines and silhouettes. Then the celebrity appearances interrupted our concentration. We were not expecting to see them and, as we wondered what they were doing on the show floor, we were distracted, in particular by the half-smiling but blank-faced Kim Kardashian, who looked like she should be seated viewing than ill at ease (cat)walking.
Dubbed the 51st, but only Demna Gvasalia’s second, Balenciaga’s single-season couture collection roused the imagination made torpid by other shows of the week that were contented with the tiresome duo of fantasy and romance. Mr Gvasalia returned couture to its place on the pedestal (and why should it not be there?), on which his stark artistry was augmented with cuts (precise and, sometimes, brutal), the outré (but, by now, not quite), and the drama (missing in couture, and much welcome). His is work so exact and exceptional that it is anomalous in the present desire among those who design with “practical considerations” for the “pragmatic needs” of their clients. In couture, you don’t know what you truly require until you see them. You don’t know the desirability of a sumptuous carapace-like cape until you witness it, in sensational form on the runway. Or the want of a T-shirt, crushed and with the hem rough-hewed upwards, even to wear to go buy milk, until you look at it in its typhoon-swept suspension. When the imagination is fed, the need is found.
The show started with some very stark looks—eight of them, all black—that second-skinned the body. The sculpted tailoring was almost extreme, made possible by a new form of neoprene (itself a very mouldable fabric), very smooth, based on limestone and created by the Japanese to be Mr Gvasalia’s own Gazar, the silk once exclusively made for Balenciaga in 1958. The shoulders of the pieces were beautifully rounded and the waist just nipped-in—effecting a silhouette that was almost traditional, but looked futuristic in its imperturbable sleekness, and especially when worn with those face-visors, developed with engineers of the Mercedes-Benz racing team that would not be out of place in the game Cyberpunk 2077. A suitable oddity (that, too, has been missing in couture) to pair with those face wear were the Bang & Olufsen X Balenciaga Couture “speaker bag”, petite boom box that plays music, we suspect, wirelessly from your smartphone, stashed away on the opposite side of the speaker that opened like a conventional handbag!
With Mr Gvasalia, couture was not just about techniques, embellishment, or man hours, it was about precision too. The exactness of form is compelling. One red dress, with a T-shaped dart in the centre to yield a beautifully fitted bodice (it was repeated for a few of the dresses), flared in the rear with cuneate extensions, like wings, but they barely budged, which made them appear more like vertical airplane flaps. Elsewhere, a hot pink gown, with a striking symmetry in the front, was fashioned with a top of the back that opened like a half-cone, but looked like a hoodie—the slanting dorsal line ending just above the hollow behind the knee. It was triangular-angular of immense mathematical flair. Even the outerwear were not the obligatory trench coats: mackintosh-looking with spread collars turned-up to frame the cyborg face. To align with the existent call for environmental-friendly dressmaking practices, upcycled denim were used to express Mr Gvasalia’s on-going preoccupation with the upsized silhouette, but within which, all the painful couture handwork could be circumscribed. And in case you were too delighted by the street leaning, he pulled you back with massive crinoline skirts, so huge that even one model nearly tripped navigating the by-then treacherous runway. Perhaps the beauty of Balenciaga couture is that you teeter in the clothes. And when you do need them, you, too, require a certain posture, a certain élégance, a way with carrying the veritable sculptures. Such is the joy, even from mere watching.
Screen shot (top): balenciagacouture.com. Photos: Balenciaga Couture