Can the little red dot stand shoulder to shoulder with the little black dress? A native islander and friends look at fashion (and such) in Singapore, and, occasionally, among her neighbours, and a little further afield
After Kanye West announced the end of the Yeezy Gap partnership, the three-letter brand has announced the elimination of jobs as margins shrivel
Gap has been stricken with one bad news after another, all in less than three months. In July, reports emerged that the Indian-born Canadian CEO Sonia Syngal was dismissed after a mere two-year tenure, with Bloomberg describing the move as somewhat unceremonious: She was “fired after failing to rescue struggling retailer”. The Gap has not announced a replacement. Then last week, the announcement that “Gap and Kanye West are Ending their Partnership” was made by The Wall Street Journal. Few people were surprised by that news. And now The Gap has said that they would be laying off staff—up to 500 corporate jobs—in offices in San Francisco, New York, and in Asia. Was Mr West’s bowing out timely for The Gap?
It has been speculated that the once-loved San Francisco brand was not terribly thrilled with what Ms Syngal had done, including signing up Mr West to bring about Yeezy Gap, and that what she put in place was taking too long to see real results. Ms Syngal was previously with The Gap’s sister brand Old Navy, having arrived at Gap Inc in 2004 with no background in fashion (before that, she was with Sun Microsystems and Ford Motor Co.). Yet she was considered to be instrumental during the family-centric Old Navy’s admirable height of success, escalating the brand’s revenue to more than double The Gap’s. But just because she was able to realise the potential of one sibling did not indicate that she could bring to fruition the aspirations of another.
For a while, The Gap as a fashion player has been languishing. The world has basically moved on and on, and without The Gap’s washed chinos and straight-legged jeans, and, most definitely, their logo-ed tees. Did the 53-year-old clothier ever consider that their all-American fashion, often described as “laid-back style”, has lost considerable appeal, especially since Donald Trump took office in 2017 and the US is a different place. But critics say that The Gap’s lost its punch even earlier, in 2004, a year before Uniqlo, who does American laid-back better then the Americans themselves, opened their first store in New Jersey. That year, when a chap Mark Zuckerberg launched The Facebook (later shortened to Facebook), The Gap scored Tommy Hilfiger alum Pina Ferlisi to tweak the retailers offerings so that things could look up again after two years of decline. Few remember The Gap from that period and later, and the brand continued to fizzle.
When they had Mr West onboard in 2020, it was thought that The Gap finally took a close look at their merchandise, and realised that a major refresh was desperately needed, and Mr West was their guy even when his own Yeezy clothing line was not the epitome of brand success. So convinced they were that they signed a 10-year deal with him to birth Yeezy Gap. But the first year was not all rosy for the new brand. News emerged that back of house, things were messy. Mr West’s pal Demna Gvasalia was called in to help and very quickly Yeezy Gap was “Engineered by Balenciaga”. Despite the added edge, it is not clear if the collab is making pots for The Gap. But one thing is obvious: many shoppers did not like buying merchandise out of bulk bags. Rapidly, Mr West revealed that he wanted out and had his lawyers make it happen, claiming The Gap did not open Yeezy Gap stores as they agreed to. According to Forbes, “Gap president Mark Breitbart immediately shot off an email to all Gap Inc. employees suggesting it was a mutual decision”. Still, it appears that Kanye West had The Gap in his grasp. We’re not near a cliffhanger yet.
The Kanye West-steered sub-brand of the Gap has its own space in a Gap store at last. But there is no shelf, no table, no rack. Everything is placed in bulk bags. Like merchandise to be discarded, or incinerated
The Gap store in Times Square, New York
Kanye West is paving the way for the Gap, literally with bulk bags. At its inaugural IRL retail run, a “pop-up” inside the Gap in Times Square, the space dedicated to Mr West’s much-hyped partnership with America’s most recognisable mall brand is nothing like what you might expect. Outside, at the corner of Broadway and West 44th Street, the blue façade and its lighter blue box-logo are all unmistakably the Gap. On the roof, above the large three-letter name are two billboards—one of a dove in flight, the other, a still, dark spectre—that stand ominously. Inside, it is just as sinister: In a narrow space the width of a hospital corridor, it is all black and dimly lit (low-light ambience even Abercrombie and Fitch has abandoned), like an entryway to a secret lair. Only this is not an unremarkable passage. This is where the hottest and most anticipated collaboration is sold, shockingly in those typically one-ton (here, they seem more capacious) receptacle of polypropylene for packing and moving goods, all two dozens of them. This could be easily a receiving bay, if not a dump site.
After two years of considerable hype, inconsistent drops, and online-only availability, the Yeezy Gap, presently “Engineered by Balenciaga”, retail space opened last Thursday to long queues. To avoid the possible crush, we visited the store on a Monday afternoon. It was not busy. But it was not the lack of a crowd that hit us immediately, like a slap (such as this one); it was the strange grimness. This is the highlight of summer shopping? This is the Gap? There is more cheer in a Yohji Yamamoto store. We knew there would be a predominance of black, but this drabness and gloominess? And what’s worse, those waist-high, black sacks on the floor! Walk into the store and they are on the right, placed in two rows, like oil drums, in the middle of the passage. It’s like visiting a wholesale market for secondhand clothes. You walk around the bags and look inside them to find what you want. And you have to rummage to find your size. This is worse than excavating a sales wagon at the OG Orchard closing down clearance.
Two rows of bulk bags in which you are encouraged to diginto
We were not the only ones shocked by the refuse point. One Black guy was heard saying to his buddy, who looked like he stepped out of the rooftop billboard: “Are they kidding? Trash bags?” Our photographer, who visited the store earlier said, “it was very unnerving for me to see the black bags in the black surroundings. Can you imagine what it would be like for the tourists?” The containers already looked a mess when we approached, even when there were six staffers folding the clothes and arranging, and returning them to the rightful vessel, tagged with images of the garment that reside in it and the price, after customers have finished with one and moved to the next. There was an unmistakable lack of allure, but since we were there, we thought we should just join the unconventional way of shopping for clothes and just dig, like everyone else. But, we kept thinking of meigancai (梅干菜, dried pickled Chinese mustard) in Albert Centre Wholesale Market. There is something menial about going through the clothes in this manner, too. No pleasure.
We looked at a mock turtleneck T-shirt with a surprisingly tiny white Gap logotype right in the centre, about 5 cm below the neckline. For some reason, the tees are made of very thick cotton jersey (and it was 28°C outside). A pile of, say, five of them is heavy to lift. A woman, frustrated by the hard work she had to do, muttered, “why is everything so fucking heavy?”. To see what what we were digging, we had to bend over the bags’ massive opening. After three minutes, it was too much. One of us decided to try a T-shirt, for the heck of it. At US$140 a piece (or more for other styles), they were rather hard to swallow. We picked the simplest: the mock turtleneck. The fabric was disturbingly thick. No one around us, we noticed, wore anything that heavy, except the staff. When we pulled the top down over our head, it was stuck; when we yanked harder, we thought we popped the stitching on the neckline! Why was it this tight?
Each bag is tagged with illustrations of the style of the garment as well as a number—the price
When we managed to remove the T-shirt, we noted that the neck was ribbed, but why was there the poor “stretch and recovery”, to borrow from production speak? The problem, it appeared to us, was technical: Somehow, Mr West and his team decided on this heavy fabric, and the rib on the neck had no Spandex in it. With possibly mis-calibrated knitting tension, the rib is limp and won’t stretch sufficiently. When we brought this up with a former Gap merchandiser, he was surprised that that could happen. “Is this the Gap we’re talking about here? They do the neck stretch test there (they invented it!), even for children’s clothes!” As for the heavy jersey, one designer told us that this has been the fabric choice—the dry-touch compact jersey that is rather ’70s—for many brands wanting to appear “luxe”, but “luxe,” he added, “does not need to be heavy.”
We did not want to look into the other bags—they were all equally uninviting. There is so much you’d wish to do if the Gap made you feel like you’re at a quartermaster’s retrieving uniforms. It is possible that Mr West wanted to create uniforms for his tribe of eager followers and, in due course, improve the sagging fortunes of the Gap. But these clothes are not the one-time uniforms of teens craving the Gap’s ubiquitous jeans and graphic tees. A far cry from what the Times Square website describes on it pages: “clean, classic and comfortable clothing”. When we first saw the pieces on the Yeezy Gap website, it is clear the line is aesthetically apart from the 52-year-old American brand to which it owes half its name. The Gap has lost its mojo for so long that even fans do not remember when they last brought anything from them (all Gap stores here closed in 2018). The brand needed a life buoy and it was tossed one. Kanye West could, apparently, be to the Gap what Alessandro Michele is to Gucci. So he got the job.
Quite a sea of clothes dumped in those bulk bags
But in the first 18 months of the collab, just two products—one puffer and one hoodie—were made available and only online. Compounding that, the e-retail model was troubled by missed datelines, low stocks, and late deliveries. Mr West seemed to need a life buoy too. So pal Demna Gvasalia came to the rescue and became co-conspirator, an unsurprising turn as the two desire to dominate the fashion world with their oversized, body/face-obscuring clothes. Additionally, Mr West announced on social media not too long ago that he had already spent US$4 million at Balenciaga so far this year (how much more before this is unknown. The former wife’s and daughter’s bill were not tallied either). Why not allow Balenciaga to make more by getting them to “engineer” Yeezy Gap? Speaking to The New York Times recently, Mr Gvasalia revealed that he wanted “to create a solid foundation for Ye’s aesthetic on which they can now build”. The paper also reported that Mr Gvasalia was “engineering the prototypes in the Balenciaga studios in Paris and Zurich”. Most of us already knew the clothes were based on Balenciaga blocks.
Kanye West might have been too busy to see Yeezy Gap through. After the partnership was announced, he ran for the US presidency, saved his marriage (tried to), insulted his ex’s boyfriend, and put out the album Donda, whose overall visual was co-conceived with Demna Gvasalia. Was he too busy to handle Yeezy Gap on his own unaided? Or was he, as the rumours flew, really unschooled in fashion design for a mass brand? According to the photographer Nick Knight, who also spoke to NYT, “if he wants to spend a year looking into the colour blue, we’ll spend a year looking into the colour blue, which is extremely inspiring when so often schedules take priority over creativity. He doesn’t see himself in any way constrained by deadlines or seasons. I don’t think he would even use the word ‘collection’ for what he is doing.” Mr West, in other words, marches to his very own Roland drum beat.
Digital screens to welcome you: The Yeezy Gap metaverse that apparently is taken from a related computer game
Moving to the back of the dedicated space for Yeezy Gap Engineered by Balenciaga, we saw that provision was made for the line that was expected to form at the cashier’s counter, which was just as black as the rest of the store. The rear wall, where a video screen was installed, was dark this afternoon (another two screens to the left of the entrance were aglow with some sky-like background, in front of which two avatars were dancing/spinning in mid-air). We stood comfortably in the quieter rear and sized up the near-monochromatic tableau before us. The shoppers were mostly male, dressed unmistakably in what Mr West desires them to: oversized tops and bottoms. Many gravitated to the T-shirts, with which they could probably at last enter the expensive world of Balenciaga, whose very temple of cool is about 1.5 kilometres away on Madison Avenue. This was far more accessible, and the clothes could be binned when desire, for some reason, was not aroused.
As we were leaving the store, more people dashed in excitedly, like they were approaching some concert merchandise. Would they leave as disappointed as we did? Stepping out into the afternoon warmth, we thought of that thick jersey T-shirt again. For the higher-than-the-Gap prices that Yeezy Gap charges, what incredible experience did the store offer or was it just the letdown that was indelible? It was hard to imagine that this would be how the Gap intends to move forward or ensnare the unconverted. One Singaporean working in New York later told us that he was “completely turned off by the experience” and that he could see a “stark disconnect with mainstream Gap”. When we asked him if it could be just some high concept that escaped him, he replied, with palpable disdain, “high concept, my pantat!”
Yeezy Gap is at the Gap, 1514 Broadway, New York City. Photos: HL See for SOTD
Bound like this, walking is difficult, never mind about using the toilet, but it does not matter to these women. Fashion counts
Who wore it better? Or, should that be, who was more comfortable? Both are women who have an intense love of their own bodies, often wearing little to show off their well-tended skin and admirable curves, yet both have chosen to be mummified from the neck down, not with some linen strips, but by rolls of caution—actually, packing—tape. This is Balenciaga’s doing and it is all done under the auspices of the maison’s couture studio. The wrapping is completed by hand (!), fans of bandage-as-catsuit would remind us. Getting fitted for a dress can be a joy, but can the same be said of being bound by sticky, non-porous tape? Yet, Kim Kardashian and, now, Lisso is showing us that it’s okay to endure for fashion’s sake. Just as we thought that the latest cover of Vogue, with Emma Corrin lifting her right arm to show armpit hair, is the final visual frontier magazines will cross, Elle UK, not to be outdone, shows Lisso all wrapped up like the proverbial bak chang (rice dumpling). About Damn Time?
Fashion has to be inclusive. Every woman can be taped if she chooses to, if she is willing to put up with the discomfort, the restriction, the debilitation. To Balenciaga, this may be the art of ligature, but it isn’t known if the two women feel the same. Do they, in fact, consider this severe severe swaddling as sartorial emancipation? Although looking very much the antithesis of fashion (3M-Core?), Kim Kardashian was the first to allow herself to be this wrapped-up last March for the Balenciaga autumn/winter show in Paris. She could not walk properly to her seat and was afraid the supposedly low-tack tapes might rip after her posterior kissed the chair. Perhaps Ms Kardashian did not share her experience with Lisso.
To be sure, the Grammy winner did not look uncomfortable in that cover shot. But, in a video posted on Instagram, she tried dancing to About Damn Time, but could barely. She was as agile as C-3PO doing the Macarena. As she moved, it is clear that the Balenciaga wrapping specialists could not conceal her crotch (or was it mean to be crotchless?) And as she moved to her sides, you could see that her buttocks could not be properly covered (or was it mean to be peek-a-boo down there in the rear?). Even Balenciaga couture could not produce the perfectly taped backside. Polyethylene has more limitations than cloth, but to Balenciaga and their compliant friends, making a statement is infinitely more important. Or, as Lizzo sang in Truth Hurts, they simply “needed something more exciting”.
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.
If Madonna is doing it, there is a possibility that women, even not a celebrity, would be adopting the full face mask, too. In a recent outing with her son David Banda in New York City, the pop star showed her much changed face covered with a full-lace headgear that exposed only her eyes and mouth. Although not quite as severe as Kim Kardashian’s take on the look that Demna Gvasalia conceived for Balenciaga, it is face fashion that is expected to take off massively, even if the look is thought to be intimidating. The balaclava’s popularity is of such great potential since Ms Kardashian made a statement with it at the Met Gala last year that even Gap has allowed Kanye West to introduced it for Yeezy Gap under the guise of a further collaboration with Balenciaga—the brand that appears to be ruling the world.
That Madonna, after making sure everyone is familiar with her new young face, is willing to have it nearly completely covered is indication of the power of the extreme end that fashion endears itself to these days. But while Madonna’s whole head is covered, she is not that unrecognisable, just as Ms Kardashian is not indistinguishable when completely suited up. The balaclava may obscure the face, but it does not blank out the personality under it. We know it is Madonna (although, to be certain, her face mask was not that hardcore since it was made of openwork fabric). What surprised us was not the encased head, but the extremely baggy tracksuit that the author of Sex wore—Balenciaga X Adidas, no less. Was it to better co-ordinate with her son David in a Gucci X Adidas T-shirt dress?
The drastically different ends that women stand in terms of fashion are thought to be the opposing reactions against the pandemic that has deprived many the opportunity to dress up, to express, especially publicly. So either go nearly nude or totally covered. Clothes are now mere shreds of fabric or a complete bale. Anything in-between is too old normal, too ancien, too dull. Our avatar is no longer an online proxy. It is here among us, tangible and tantalising. We really do not need the metaverse to reshape fashion. It is already happening in this protoverse.
Yeezy Gap is putting out versions of the Balenciaga cover-alls, affordably. Fans can rejoice!
Kim Kardashian is no longer required to serve as walking preview of Balenciaga (and has stayed away from looking all wrapped up), now that she has discovered the Jean-Louis dress that Marilyn Monroe wore. Or, re-loved the Dolce & Gabanna sexed-up, body-con one-pieces that she donned to her sister Khourtney’s flashy wedding to Travis Barker. She has moved away, but that does not mean that the strange path she has paved would not be trodden. Probably certain that Ms Kardashian is a trend setter (even if one held by the hand), Yeezy Gap—conceived by her former husband Kanye West, and now “engineered” by Balenciaga (namely Demna Gvasalia)—has put, in the second release of the limited-edition capsule, two items that could have been part of the line sheet of the recent Balenciaga cruise collection.
The full facemask and the bodysuit that covers hands and feet would encourage copywriters to call them “Kim Kardashian-approved”. The three-name brand does not say what fabrics are used for the two items, but it is safe to assume that a synthetic stretch textile, such as spandex, is employed. Like what was seen at the Balenciaga show last week, the facemask is designed to obscure the whole head (including the neck), except, unsurprisingly, the eyes. At less than SGD100 a piece, it could be a good Balenciaga substitute should you wish to look like Spiderman Noir (or Spider-Girl). The bodysuit—for women only—comes with attached socks and gloves for neck-to-toe obscuring, but, this version, not entirely. At the back is a large circular opening that seems larger than that at the neck. Could this be for getting into the garment since there is no fastening detected on any other part of the one-piece?
Kanye West and Demna Gvasalia appear determined to conquer the world with their bleak aesthetic. And Yeezy Gap has been selling well (or sold out, as we understand it) since the debut of the first piece, the ‘Round Jacket’. Mr West told Vogue early this year that it was a “a vision come true to work for Gap and Demna… to make incredible products available to everyone at all times.” While it is understandable why both men wish to cover both ends of the fashion market, it is not so clear why anyone would desire the two above pieces “at all times”. But it is hard to say. We live in a present that is at its most diametrical: dress nearly nakedly or totally covered. Forget the in-between.
Yeezy Gap Engineered by Balenciaga facemask, SGD60, and bodysuit, SGD450, are available online at Yeezy Gap. Product photos: Yeezy Gap. Photo illustration: Just So
Kim Kardashian is a fan of Balenciaga and a friend of Demna Gvasalia. Since August last year, she has been helping the brand and its créateur preview what would become the key look of the current Balenciaga cruise collection
All covered. (Clockwise from top left): Kim Kardashian at the Met Gala in September 2021, three days earlier, a possible sneak peak at what she was to wear, the earliest head-to-toe body suit in August 2021, and in Prada, February this year. Photos: kimkardashian/Instagram
The recent Balenciaga cruise 2023 showed how “terrifying” the world that we currently inhabit is when Demna Gvasalia sent out models with latex head/face coverings that were once associated with luchadors (Spanish for masked pro-wrestlers). Every one of them on the runway in the New York Stock Exchange had their faces completely covered (some even their eyes when sunglasses were worn) as if they were performing in a wrestling ring. While this obscuring of the face became the talking point (more than the clothes, except those from the collab with Adidas), it was not without precedence in the shifting shape of pandemic-era fashion. In fact, Kim Kardashian has been ahead of the curve. With the help of Mr Gvasalia and—no less—her ex-husband Kanye West, Ms Kardashian availed herself as model experiment to push Mr Gvasalia’s ideas of representing the world’s multi-form terror, including, possibly in fashion.
Ms Kardashian made the most news when she showed up like an apparition, all black and ghostly and faceless, at last year’s Met Gala in a Balenciaga get-up. She stole the show. No omelette dress could come close to the stark spectral showiness. Despite its news-making outcome, Ms Kardashian told Vogue in February this year that she “fought against it”. It is understandable that she would. “Why would I want to cover my face?” The reality star is known primarily for her leave-nothing-to-the-imagination outfits. This total cover-up was more extreme than what the Taliban would have expected. According to her, “Demna and the team were like, ‘This is a costume gala. This is not a Vanity Fair party where everyone looks beautiful‘.“
Her reluctance, while comprehensible, is puzzling too. In August last year, a month before the Met Gala, she shared on Instagram a photo of her in a Balenciaga all-covered look, seen at a Donda event (she even had her kids with her). Three days before her appearance on the stairs of the Met, she was out in an outfit that would turn out to be very similar to those revealed at the Balenciaga cruise show. Was she already wearing the sample pieces then? After she debuted as host on Saturday Night Live, looking upholstered, Ms Kardashian was photographed in a set of hot pink coveralls, with her face again obscured (even the heels attached to the legging are by now familiar), suggesting that breathing, for her, seemed increasingly secondary. Close to half a dozen (or more) similar outfits were noted. In the business of digital gadgets, what she did would be considered “leaks”.
Even the Balenciaga autumn/winter show, despite its visual commentary on the Russo-Ukrainian war, did not give a clue of the reflection of terror to come, or total face covering. While Mr Gvasalia is not known for the bare-skin sexiness associated with, say, LaQuan Smith, his latest proposal for Balenciaga is the total opposite of sartorial emancipation, the antithesis of free-the-nipple enthusiasm, and contradiction to the believe that women really want to show more skin and exaggerated makeup, a la Julia Fox. Or, is this a sign that Mr Gvasalia never left the sphere of irony that he built, one that could be traced to the halcyon days of Vetements? Now that covering half the face is commonly seen, is the total concealment of the head the next new normal? Balenciaga would be truly prescient then.
Demna Gvasalia showed his Balenciaga cruise show at the New York Stock Exchange to the suggestion that the brand’s strength is still on the rise. More face/body obscuring looks, anyone?
On Friday, the day before the New York Stock Exchange closed for the weekend, during which Balenciaga could prep for their show on Sunday morning (New York time), Wall Street teetered disconcertingly to the rim of a bear market. The S&P 500 and the Nasdaq both showed figures that were their seventh straight week of losses—their most protracted defeating streak since the end of the dotcom bubble in 2001. But inside the NYSE two days later, the mood was rather different, bullish even. The Balenciaga cruise show was staged here, on the trading floor, with their attendant screens ominously flashing what appeared to be trading numbers, as if hackers had struck. Some screens showed the logos of enterprises as diverse as The Disney Company and Pfizer. Whether this was a commentary on wealth or greed, it is hard to say. Or a vote of confidence in the US market? The music pulsing through the space was not the usual clatter of a trading day. Rather, it was urgent techno thrust (there was the opening bell, of course) sandwiched between what sounded like Carey Mulligan’s rendition of New York New York on the 2012 film Shame.
But it was not guilt or humiliation that emanated from the models’ totally obscured faces, via full-cover masks or bodysuits. It was a show of terror. Or, as Demna Gvasalia said to the media, “We live in a terrifying world, and I think fashion is a reflection of that.” On a regular trading day, we doubt anyone so extremely covered would be allowed into the NYSE building, let alone the trading floor. But there they were, in full-face/head masks, not mere balaclavas, strutting to the pulsating beat, like a bunch of rookie robbers filing into a bank to execute a heist. Or, walking mannequins. Has fashion become so visibly accessible and democratic that we must now obscure the wearer’s very being in order to stand out, and be apart from every pretty face on social media? Or do we now have to look macabre and menacing (even pussy bows could not soften the looks) to forge an elegance that’s so terrifying that fashion can be really reckoned?
By now, what Mr Gvasalia proposes for Balenciaga is, of course, not frightening. Or even threatening. His severe aesthetics have, after all, survived the red carpet. At the Met Gala last year, Kim Kardashian, you’ll remember, “rewrote the red carpet’s rules” (were there any?), according to Vogue, when she appeared in a Balenciaga-conceived, (literally) head-to-toe outfit that covered every centimetre of her unmistakable body. Three days earlier, she, too, was just-as-encased in a leather bodysuit with attached face/head cover under a matching trench coat. If Ms Kardiashian, who has no qualms about baring her body publicly, would be willing to be so tightly sheathed, it is possible that many women would just as gladly be so utterly covered. So Balenciaga, anticipating its influence, put out similarly wrapped looks for its latest collection. The clothes really require no description or introduction. All the Balenciaga tropes that Mr Gvasalia have introduced, from shoulders to shoes, that you are familiar with are there. They continue with the designer’s conviction to anti-fashion, ant-fit, anti-genteel, anti-subtle, anti-girly, anti-sexy.
And then there was the more real and less intimidating Balenciaga X Adidas. It is not known what deal Adidas has struck with Kering, but this would be the second of the conglomerate’s brands to collaborate with the sports name, after Gucci. While Mr Gvasalia remained true to his preference for the oversized and the baggy, and the less retro, the pieces do share something common with Gucci: the look-at-me sportiness, now considered the true achievement of performance wear. Even sports clothes need to be elevated. And just in case interests in these wane too quickly (and they just might), some 34 pieces from the collaboration are available for pre-order, from now to 29 May, with the lowest asking price of SGD275 for a pair of socks (the cheapest T-shirt, you may wish to know, is USD995). These days the ‘entry-level’ is shown alongside the main. Marketing cleverness has a legitimate space next to design excess. That is seriously bullish. In a money pit, no less.
Screen shot (top): Balenciaga/YouTube and photos: Balenciaga
You can pay Balenciaga to wear out your shoes before even wearing them. Is pre-mature ageing the new cool?
Why wait till your sneakers get dirty and beaten up to wear them vis-à-vis current trends? With the rotations we give to our kicks, few— if ever—get really worn beyond fixable or recognisable. If you want your shoes to look like that have barely survived everything thrown at them, Balenciaga has just the pair for you. Their latest iteration of their Paris high-cuts are deliberately dirtied and ripped in the manner similar to how some new jeans looked severely soiled, like they were retailed after first allowing mechanics to wear them in their grimy workshops. Or, in the case of the Paris kicks, a chance with contestants in a dirt bike race! That Balenciaga would do this to its otherwise unblemished sneakers is understandable: They have a recent history of making ugly cool.
To be sure, Balenciaga is not the first to offer new dirty shoes. Back in 2016, Raf Simons released a pair of Stan Smith in collaboration with Adidas that was intentionally unclean. But they were not this soiled and tattered. Balenciaga’s remake of the cotton canvas, made-in-China Paris trainers are self-touted to be “fully destroyed”. For certain, the actual shoes do not look as down-at-the-heels as those seen in the publicity images now doing their obligatory online rounds. The worn-out pairs for sale are actually more descent and in a wearable state, although we do find the destruction a tad too calculated, even meticulous. That the Balenciaga name had to be inscribed on the mid-sole like a graffiti by a novice, and then smeared is really rather studied.
It is interesting, though, that Balenciaga has chosen the Paris sneakers to soil. The French capital was, from the 17th to 19th century, a filthy city, by many accounts of the time. According to Holly Tucker, author of City of Lights, City of Poison, “The filth of Paris was inescapable. It attached itself ruthlessly to clothes, the sides of buildings, and the insides of nostrils.” Why was this so? “Slosh from chamber pots thrown from windows mixed with dirt in the city’s unpaved streets to form a sulfurous-smelling stew”! The rues of the city were such an indiscriminate brown that even fashion was inspired by it, as well as the bugs that lived happily in the nasty grime. As one story went, a chestnut brown was popular in the summer of 1775. When King Louis XVI saw it, he exclaimed, “That is puce!” Or, (the colour of) fleas. Puce became the veritable fashion. And, now, Balenciaga’s Paris too.
Balenciaga ‘Paris’ sneakers, SGD895 are available in stores and online. Product photo*: Balenciaga. Photo Illustration: Just So
Kim Kardashian was all wrapped up, in Balenciaga tape no less
Which is a crime scene? Left: Kim Kardashian. Photo: Backgrid, Right: tree. Photo: Getty Images
Why would anyone want to look like a walking crime scene or a strutting barricaded site? Sure, we are seeing less of these yellow and black strips now, especially those used as barrier tapes, since massing and mingling are allowed and, if you are masked, social distancing is not required(!). Could this be why desperate-to-be-single-again Kim Kardashian wished to make a fashion statement—no matter how uncomfortable the binding would be—since the polyethylene tape is now not often used in public? Or did she, being pandemic smart, want to catch the attention of onlookers so that her outfit could be impediment to anyone going near her, and, therefore, had the added effect of enhancing the general safety of the front row?
She may have smiled, but the body covering looks to us uncomfortable, like a kind of modern mummification. Except that this mummified being kept her face and hair—and hands—unwrapped. And from the waist down, the wrapping was thoughtfully bifurcated! Even her shoes and handbag were mummified (is that the right word to use when the process is applied to things you can’t call dead, or alive?). According to eager media reports, it was not tear-proof plastic tape (believed to be Balenciaga packing tape) on bare skin. Ms Kardashian wore something underneath that Vogue described as “an athletic top and leggings”, not underwear. We assume they were Skims. It reportedly took thirty minutes to get Ms Kardashian bandaged—all by hand, according to Balenciaga. Would that actually be faster than sewing a bodysuit and letting her wear it herself?
All photographs of her in the shiny, stuck-on, second-skin getup showed no opening on the chest or the crotch, in the rear, or on the sides. How does she relieve herself when answering nature’s inevitable call? NYT’s Vanessa Freedman helpfully informed us on Twitter that a squeaky—or “sticky tape-y”—sound was heard when she walked. Where was Kanye West? She was also heard saying, “I’m scared it’s going to rip when I sit down. Should I just let it rip?” And this is emancipation, with International Women’s Day round the corner?
Models are still fashionably togged, but can they escape artillery shelling in spiked heels?
As the Balenciaga show goes on in Paris, news reports comes forth that Russian artillery attacks continue to rain on Ukraine’s residential areas throughout the country. Agreements with Russia earlier on a humanitarian corridor have largely fallen through, and residents are evacuating in droves. Reflecting this grim reality is the Balenciaga presentation, staged in Halle d’Expositions in Le Bourget, the northeastern suburb of Paris. Models brave machine-created snowstorm and gust, trudging, even in heels and above-knee boots (who has time to put them on under the threat of approaching attack?), through a scene originally created to be a warning about climate change. But with the war, the set becomes a timely discourse and, to a considerable extent, memoir of treacherous escape from military conflict. As Demna Gvasalia (now preferred to be known mononymously by his first name), told the press, “But it turned into something else, which often happens with my shows, somehow.”
The audience sees the presentation behind a see-through panel/shield. Looking on, what stands before could be a massive snow globe, but there is no fairy-tale or festive cuteness within. Instead, a diorama of people in peril, with a soundtrack of Slavonic piano to augment its bleakness. It is tempting to say that fashion is inclined to make light the gravity of things, but we do not sense that here. Demna himself said, “To me, fashion somehow doesn’t matter right now.” But fashion, like any show, must go on. The designer was a victim of war—at ten years of age, a refugee fleeing Abkhazia, Georgia in 1993, and was sheltered in Ukraine, where he went to school and learned to speak the language. At the beginning of the show, in total darkness, he reads a poem in Ukrainian. It roughly translates as “your sons will save you”. Although the words are intended for those who understands the language, Demna does intone, “the message is love, always. And fashion has to assume that, at least in terms of taking a position on it.”
But the allusion to war is not an equivocal one. It it can be seen and felt. And many do see and are touched, such as Bryan Boy, who quickly Twittered, “I don’t think I’ve ever bawled in a fashion show until now”. The show may be about evacuation, but it was about defiance too. Demna wrote in the show notes that cancelling the show to say no to the war would have been “surrendering to the evil that has already hurt me so much for almost 30 years”. The authenticity—a less-hackneyed word may be preferred aside—of putting together a show by someone who had been through what is happening concurrently perhaps adds to the poignancy of the production, and to the clothes that are not entirely visible in the precipitative blurriness. Still, there is a tad of incongruity, when freshly-single, always-visible Kim Kardashian, “friend” of the house, sat in the front row, all bound up—in caution tape, labelled Balenciaga no less!
It is not a show that’s easy to watch, not only because of what it evokes, but also because what is seen are mostly the teetering, and the mere silhouettes. These are identifiably Balenciaga silhouettes: beautiful but, at times, ghostly. In the fog of war and inclement weather, bagged-up shapes and floating trains could be either the bourgeoisie in escape or the peasantry in flight, or both. The models, with wet hair, appear to have just taken their last shower. There are the half-naked, covered by a blanket (or is that a towel?), plodding through the snow. Some of the outerwear look like there are taken off a neighbour’s clothesline. But others—the dresses—could be a refugee’s finest because even in fleeing, you’d want to look your best. Many of them carry bags that look like black versions of those used by hotels for laundry. Perhaps better to contain everything you wish to bring along at the last minute. As Demna told the press, he “made everything less madame, less bourgeois, less upper-class”. It is not hard to second that.
Balenciaga defaced by Gucci. Welcome to the new wonderful
On both corners of the Orchard Road-facing side of Paragon, Kering brands occupy the spaces: Balenciaga and Gucci. Although both are in mutually hacking mode, it is Balenciaga, replacing Gucci as the most searched brand on Lyst, that is drawing attention. On its second-level glass façade, Gucci is scribbled in what looks like spray paint across the width of the window. As nothing blocks this side of the shopping centre, it is hard to miss the defacement art (‘graffiti’ would be too low for Balenciaga), especially when you are walking on the opposite side of the road, right in front of Ngee Ann City. It does look like the work of a vandal, determined to let Gucci overwhelm Balenciaga, even when the name of the latter, appearing twice on the front of the store, is in the recognisable full caps.
Inside the mall, as we stood at the entrance, blocked by a pair of stanchions with a black tape stretched between, waiting to catch the attention of the staff to let us in, a guy, dressed totally in black, who sat at the entrance earlier to ensure that visitors were scanned in, approached. Without going beyond the barrier, he waved at a male staff inside, who was similarly dressed, but had his shirt untucked. The first fellow lifted his smartphone and showed the other something on it. “Is it supposed to be like that?” The reply was swift. “Ah, yes. It’s like that. We’re doing an event here.” And to be sure he was not really the kaypoh one, the inquirer added, “Oh, customers were asking if something was wrong.” Unsmiling, the Balenciaga staff informed him, “It’s a collaboration with Gucci“.
The wait for us was at least 10 minutes long. There was no one else in the line. Paying attention to the Gucci monogram with the double B plastered on the windows flanking the entrance was a way to pass the time. Inside, there were three customers, none in any obvious transaction. Finally a guy let us in. He apologised for keeping us waiting. We were tempted to say that he didn’t have to make us stand there and not tell us how long more before we would be let into an empty store. But, we did not. A tote with the scribble, “This is not a Gucci bag”, caught our attention, but it was not speaking to us. There was really nothing to it.
The Hacker Project, as this “collaboration“ is dubbed, was presented hushly. Before us, the breadth of the merchandise available was not quite on the same scale as the desecration somewhere up there above us. We looked around for clear signs, but they were mostly hidden in drawers: SLGs and socks. Is this all there is to The Hacker Project? The same guy who showed us in was now showing us out. “Some item (sic), we keep,“ he said. Why is that so? “We don’t display everything. Is there anything you want?“ He was beginning to sound impatient. “If you want, I can take it out to show you”. He was now sounding irritable. “The launch already four days.” Should we apologise for not being enough of a fan to rush here on the first day? “We sold out many things.” Was he trying to convince us or tell us not to bother looking? And how much was sold? “About 60/70 percent sold out,” he intoned conclusively. He was not planning to bring out what was kept. We weren’t hoping.