The Superfluous Extra

What’s that hanging from your neck, a dead stingray?

By Ray Zhang

So, another Balenciaga item has outraged the online community: the T-shirt with a bibbed-on shirt. How thrilled Balenciaga’s social media managers must be. I mean, why bother to post when you don’t gun for a reaction, preferably one that borders on extremely strong disapproval. Censure has its advantages. It is what those who think they’re truly fashionable thrive on since wearing something the rest frown upon is deemed uncommon stylishness, or the stuff of fashion-week oomph. Besides, fashion for many—adopters or observers—isn’t quite fashion unless it is something outlandish, something you and I will point at and giggle at and scoff at, but won’t have on our backs.

I don’t know about you, but I feel we’re too easily provoked by these marketing ploys, these haha-I-got-yous. Balenciaga isn’t a greenhorn in the space of the #OOTD; they don’t post inane influencer photos to illicit “you’re so cute” gushiness. They want to provoke; they want to rouse vehement reactions. And you’ve given it to them. In turn, public reaction, even negative—better still, negative, becomes reason-to-buy for those who think nothing of scoring an over a thousand (SG) dollars sweatshirt so that people won’t miss the Balenciaga logo emblazoned in the back like a reclining Buddha.

Having said that, I do feel there’s something here that deserves more than casual observation or Twitter bitchery. The shirt on a T-shirt idea is not terribly new. Fans of Comme des Garçons will remember that the Japanese label has had two-in-ones (and hint of), as well as two-as-one in their collections before. Why, even our own Depression did not resist the temptation to mount one garment on another and sold them as single items.

Of course, in the case of Balenciaga, designer Demna Gvasalia has to have a point of differentiation. He made both of the two pieces—T-shirt and the connected-at-the-neck-shirt—wearable. Unlike Siamese twins, these are meant to be permanently conjoined. For the wearer, this is literally two-as-one (price wise, it is, naturally, two-for-two!): you can wear the tee and let the shirt hang out meaninglessly in the front. Or, wear the shirt and let the tee dangle at the back, like a child’s limp superhero cape. The truly imaginative will, of course, be able to think of the extra clothing’s usefulness: shirt in front can be handy when eating chilli crab; tee at the back perfect for those unfortunate times when the back of kopi tiam chairs are inexplicably dirty.

I am all for the two-in-one (or the idea of a two-in-one, as in a twofer), but I don’t see the creativity in the Balenciaga twinning except the needless contrariness. Nobody needs an extra piece of clothing hanging in the front or at the back. But, I suppose one impotent and ordinary shirt hanging on a T-shirt is less offensive than any of those downright rude messages slapped on tees that people now wear with such head-up pride.

Balenciaga T-Shirt Shirt, SGD1,800 is available at Balenciaga, Paragon. Photo: Balenciaga/Instagram

Big In Balenciaga

Balenciaga AW 2018 P1

How many coats do we need? Not that we, living near the equator, would really know, but if Balenciaga’s latest collection is to be accepted, quite a few. And not just for different days, but for wearing them at one go. Kiasuism (or should that be kiasiism?!) is well and alive, and has found its way to Paris, and is happily expounded by Demna Gvasalia. As it appears, you may not be warm enough until you look warm enough.

Or, perhaps, there aren’t that many. It’s just an illusion, as the Imagination song goes. Maybe they are simply more-than-twofers. It is possible they are fourfers, or maybe fivefers! We couldn’t tell from in front of our Surface Pro. The streaming was too well edited, and we were too amused, borderline entranced: Can outerwear look so delightfully monstrous— malformations that will do Victor Frankenstein proud?

Mr Gvasalia understands the importance of keeping the shapes of Balenciaga intriguing. The house was built on that. In fact, he has always made a statement in body-obscuring outerwear, the way other designers underscore the histrionic possibilities of gowns. Remember the oversized anoraks of his debut women’s collection around this time in 2016, or the weird, boxy, rigid coats of his first men’s wear collection not longer after? Big is key to Mr Gvasalia’s Balenciaga, misrepresenting the size of the body is the idea. Not Fernando Botero-big, but certainly Niki de Saint Phalle-distorted. The outerwear immediately gave the show (and subsequent ones) the imprimatur of youthful, if geeky, hipness.

Balenciaga AW 2018 G1

The distortion, in fact, can be likened to Cristobal Balenciaga’s imagining of silhouettes that broke away from what was considered appealing at that time. Looking back, the cocoon must have been rather shocking for women who were used to what came after Dior, but it was pivotal to the couturier’s exploration of the spaces between body and garment, which in itself can be traced to the east—to Japan, where the kimono, too, embody this complicated, ultimately sensual, relationship.

It is hard to resist the temptation of joining the dots between Mr Gvasalia’s outsized, warped outers and developments in the east. The over-layering seems to challenge the very notion that looking like a country-bumpkin cousin of the Michelin man is not really stylish. In fact, the idea of Uniqlo’s winter-travel must-have Heattech is to allow one to don fewer pieces or to trim down the volume, but that preference for bulk-reducing sleekness is now delightfully barred from Balenciaga’s doors.

In addition, those big jackets, teamed with scarves covering the head, truly remind us of the 1992 Zhang Yimou film The Story of Qiu Ju (秋菊打官司) in which Gong Li, playing the protagonist, goes to the city from her rural home in what, to her, must have been her finest threats, but were, in fact, her version of maternity wear, styled for the sophistication and snobbery of the city. Qiu Ju, as it appears now, was rather ahead of her time! What must costume designer Tong Huamiao, who was also behind Raise the Red Lantern (大红灯笼高高挂), be thinking now?

Balenciaga AW 2018 G2.jpg

The shape shifts/enhancements are also applied to blazers and overcoats—fairly straight forward styles with stiff, almost linear shoulders, but with rounded, unnaturally pronounced hips, a silhouette that debuted in Mr Gvasalia’s first collection for Balenciaga. We admit that, back then, we didn’t take to this strange constriction, as well as the exaggeration with delight. They appeared, at first gawk, like subjects of Velázquez’s painting adopting waist-down bumps for their riding coats. It truly looked odd, as if of another era, Spanish or not. The modestly panniered jackets appeared once more, but this time, they are like selfies—you get used to them.

Even the men’s jackets and coats have exaggerated hips, as if they’re some kind of cardboard cutouts for a new hour-glass ideal of the male species. Designers have been feminising men’s wear for many years, using fabrics and colours usually preferred for clothes with bust darts, and giving guys skirts—in some extreme cases, dresses—to wear. But nothing is perhaps more feminine that according a man prominent hips! A diminishing of conventional musculature, of primal motivations, and a visual leveler of the power between sexes that’s part of Balenciaga’s ‘agender’?

Perhaps, therein lies the newness: the man with child-bearing hips. Stud not! Sometimes, with Mr Gvasalia, you wonder if this is really a gag, or a detail to draw the sexes closer. Unisex designs have, till now, largely been about making clothes that align with men’s aesthetics rather than with women’s: that’s why unisex clothes have largely been shirts, T-shirts, hoodies, and pants, sized to accommodate the girls. It is rarely, if ever, the other way round: there are unisex shirts, but no unisex blouses. Is Mr Gvasalia making a point about gender rather than sex?

Balenciaga AW 2018 G3

For sure, it’s hard to say that Balenciaga is sexy. This season, however, the show opened with six short, body hugging dresses, but when the “Time’s Up”, it’s hard to look at these dresses and think that the wearer wants more than to look good. These are likely more merchandising anomaly than sexual aggression. Mr Gvasalia has made quirky-stylish-norm so much a part of Balenciaga that it is hard to imagine he’s doing an Anthony Vaccarello here. Sure, these clothes are not for clambakes or curry chicken potlucks, but they are far from taking the Tatler Ball by storm.

From the dad look to one that is mom-sy, Balenciaga sometimes appears to be Mr Gvasalia’s private joke. Take those pencil skirts, for example. The primness is underscored by their high-waist and past-the-knee length, yet the front overlap slit reveals an additional panel that looks like exposed, unlined inside, which, if one remembers, were once considered so unsightly that women had to wear petticoats under their skirts to conceal exposed hems and over-lock stitches. It’s now a design feature and it has a rather home-sew feel to it; yes, mom.

Balenciaga, in its new aesthetic form, was, admittedly, hard to digest in the beginning. The turning point for us here at SOTD was the spring/summer 2018 collection, now seen in the stores. We were sold on those seemingly plain work shirts and were even more taken, seeing them up-close, with the collar—button-down in the front (to the disapproval of the office sex pot, we’re sure), but gently scooped in the rear. That’s the beauty of Balenciaga now: it’s not so straightforward black and white, and, certainly, not front and back.

Photos: Balenciaga

Le Sac Plastique Fantastique

After last year’s Fraktar bag hack, is the nondescript and omnipresent plastic supermarket bag the next big thing?

Actually plastic bagStylish, extra-large and extra-thick plastic bag offered by Actually @ Orchard Gateway

By Ray Zhang

Ten years ago, a dear friend of mine gave me a birthday gift that came bundled in a pink plastic bag, typically used by vegetable sellers—yes, the wet market staple. To be sure, he wasn’t a fashion forward type although he worked in fashion his whole life. And he definitely did not have a crystal ball to see a decade into the future, when anti-fashion fashion has taken root in fashion, and spawned fashionable bags with a provenance that can be traced to sellers of fresh comestible.

That the lowly plastic market (and supermarket) carrier can now have fashion cred may be attributed to our predilection for choosing low to yield high. Does the T-shirt not come to mind? Let’s, for convenience, put the blame on Demna Gvasalia, that provocateur-in-chief at the house of Balenciaga. He had picked common bags—for example, those usually associated with mainland Chinese moving vast quantities of city goods back to their rural homes during festive seasons such as the Lunar New Year—to make them into high-end, covetable carriers. It culminated in the re-make of Ikea’s Fraktar tote—in leather, of course—that could be seen as Mr Gvasalia doing a DHL for the equally humble shopping bag.

Muji shopping bagMuji’s nylon shopping bag can be folded flat and fitted into an attached slip case that comes with a loop at the top in case you’d want to add a carabiner to it

But that wasn’t the last of the common bags that Mr Gvasalia has given a luxury spin. Last month, his Balenciaga launched the “supermarket shopper”, an undisguised shopping bag not normally associated with fashion once steeped in the tradition of couture. The thing is, it isn’t yet clear if a leather “supermarket shopper” will have the same impact on popular fashion the way Celine’s leather shopper did back in 2009 (which predates Balenciaga’s own leather ‘Shopping Tote’ by eight years).

Brands are following Balenciaga’s lead. But rather than leather, plastic is presently king. Phoebe Philo, as a parting shot perhaps, created plastic supermarket bags to be sold as merch rather than for you take your in-store purchases home in one. Just a month ago, Raf Simons, too, got into the act, and released a see-through version (called, what else, RS Shopping Bag!) with Voo Store, one of Berlin’s most progressive multi-label fashion retailers. Mr Simons’s version is clearly pitched as a collectible, not to be used when you next go shopping and you want to play eco-warrior. The plastic supermarket bag has achieved It bag status, which, admittedly, now sounds rather quaint.

MMM cotton shopping bagThe nondescript store bags given to shoppers at what was once Maison Martin Margiela. Their version is not tubular, with stitched hems on both sides of the folded gusset

The nondescript store bags given to shoppers at what was once Maison Martin Margiela. Their version is not tubular, with stitched hems on both sides of the folded gusset
Like many fixations of fashion designers, this one isn’t terribly new. For the longest time, Maison Martin Margiela, pre-John Galliano, packed your purchases into supermarket-style shopping bags in white cotton that was akin to calico. (A leather, for-sale version was also released under the sub-line MM6.) I can’t tell you convincingly enough (now that such bags are a fashion item) how surprised I was many, many moons ago when I was presented with that bag after buying an MMM leather jacket at its Rue de Richelieu store in Paris. Surely they could do better, I had thought. But there was something decidedly appealing about the idea of a luxury item housed in a non-luxury bag that I found myself traipsing the City of Lights for the rest of the day in this plain and un-labelled sac with some satisfaction that I can’t quite describe now. A wink-wink moment perhaps. Was this how Mr Gvasalia had felt when he thought of the shopping bag for Balenciaga? Or was he being nostalgic of his days at the influential house?

The supermarket shopping bag—not as article of fashion—has a rather long history. According to popular telling, the grocery bag that we know so well was invented by Swedish engineer Sten Gustaf Thulin in the early 1960s. What Mr Thulin had in mind was a one-piece bad that can be formed by folding, welding and die-cutting a flat tubular plastic. This he did for Celloplast, a Swedish company known for producing cellulose film and for processing plastics. Celloplast was quick to patent the making of the plastic shopping bag and the rest, I think you’d agree, really requires no detailed recounting.

Bag in TokyoShoppers in Tokyo are often seen with shopping bags attached to a carabiner that’s hooked to a belt loop. Here, a velvety plastic bag from retailer Bayflow that’s printed with a message: “Respect nature, respect fashion. Stay healthy and simple, comfortable and beautiful.”

Oversized shopping bags—carried over the shoulder like a tote—are often spotted in Bangkok where shoppers carry them to house large purchases

While the bag of our current interest has been mostly associated with the wet market and the supermarket, versions in more durable nylon and with attractive prints started to appear when retailers discourage shoppers from using the plastic versions as they are not biodegradable and will add to the woes of inadequate landfills. Some cities such as Hong Kong and Taipei started charging customers when a plastic bag is required for their purchase. With demand for bring-your-own-bags rising, many bag manufacturers started producing reusable, washable, and long-lasting nylon shopping bags that can be folded neatly into a little package no bigger than a wallet.

In Japan, Tokyo especially, not only are these attractive bags available in supermarkets, they are sold in stores such as Muji and Uniqlo and trendy shops such as Beams and Urban Research. The basic shape is the same no matter where you find them, but there’s where the similarity ends. Patterns are almost always the eye-catching part, but, for me, it is how the Japanese carry them that I find so fascinating. Many guys have them secured to their waist with a carabiner. Some would tie them to their bag straps in a way that can only be described as fetching. Once, in Tomorrowland, the multi-label store, I saw a woman with a black nylon shopping bag. Nothing terribly interesting in that except that she had one handle looped over the other, which was slipped on to her wrist. There was something terribly artful in the bag-and-wrist composition. It reminded me of the Japanese azuma bukuro, a traditional cloth bag that—at least in Japan—is anything but ordinary.

Aland bagsThe myriad colours and patterns cheerfully offered at Seoul retailer Åland, as seen in their Bangkok flagship store

Today, fancier shops call them “marché (which is really French for market) bags”. At Muji, their version is labelled as “tote bag”, which adds to the mild confusion. The thing is, these fancy takes on the supermarket bag are not likely going to be seen in the likes of Fairprice. But where would you carry them to, then? Except at Ikea, home of the Fraktar, few retailers in Singapore discourage you from expecting a store-issued shopping bag, for free. In fact, at many supermarkets, shoppers are known to ask for more than they require. When will this habit be shaken off? When will the use of our own unique shopping bags be a common sight?

Or perhaps the structured, hardware-festooned bag of unambiguous designer standing is over. Who even remembers the Baguette now? Isn’t 1997 a long time ago? This is the era of Vetements, the time of looking at seemingly commonplace, unremarkable things to make them objects of desire. This is, after all, the age of the sweatshirt made good.

Photos: Chin Boh Kay and Jagkrit Suwanmethanon

Beautiful Balance At Balenciaga

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.

Balenciaga SS 2018 G1Balenciaga SS 2018 G2

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.

Balenciaga SS 2018 G3Balenciaga SS 2018 G4

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.

Photos: Balenciaga

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)

If It Does Not Suit You, Drop It

Balenciaga Men SS 2017 Pic 1

It’s a confounding time to be a fashion consumer; confounding is the time indeed. Just as you thought that the autumn/winter collections are in the stores, informed as you were by those heavier fabrics and too-covered-up styles, a salesperson throws you off by announcing that it’s “pre-season”. And if you show surprise because, just next door, a sprightly seller was showing you the “latest autumn winter” threads, she comes back with “we have many seasons and now is pre-season.”

Just like that, you feel you’re not with the times. The vis-à-vis encounter has rendered your idea of weather-appropriate, as opposed to seasonal, clothing kaput. Fashion, more than climate, has succumbed to the vageries of the four seasons. Those simply dry and wet that characterise this part of the world mean nothing. If AccuWeather is to be believed, it’s 32°C out there, where the RealFeal® is 41. Yet, inside a mall, where the temperature, if you’re lucky, may be 26 degrees, a salesperson will try to sell you a heat trap otherwise known as a fully-lined jacket.

Fashion has, since the ’80s—when imported European fashion began to appear in large numbers—induced us to consume in seasons. Local retailers too have been eager to tout autumn/winter as a valid retail term, except that consumers aren’t really keeping track of the seasons. It’s so damned hot out there, goes the common complain.  But it’s been like that since January! Does autumn/winter in June makes sense, however important keeping abreast of the trends is?

Balenciaga Men SS 2017 Pic 2The oversized suit jacket of Balenciaga Men spring/summer 2017

Fashion seasons nowadays come in and out more regularly than rain. In June alone, we’re inundated with news on the Cruise Collections, which regaled us with clothes shown in far-away locales or dark religious arcades. Then, in the stores, the autumn/winter 2016 collections arrive, and in others, the pre-season. This excitement at retail level bubbles while reports of the men’s spring/summer 2017 shows break incessantly.

Confounding, too, it would be for men who consume fashion. Before they can digest what’s key in the upcoming season or recall what fashion trends have been given the top ten positions, they’re now told to keep in mind the key looks for spring/summer next year. Sure, chances of seeing these clothes as early as December are high, but who’s really even thinking of Christmas when the financial year is nowhere near close? Will we one day need an IMDB-style app to help us recall which designer did what, when?

Now that Balenciaga’s first men’s wear show in its 99-year history was staged, so many media outlets are hailing the return of the suit as if it had gone to war, captured as POW, and now released. Sure, the suits in one collection are so plentiful (19 of 34 looks) that, in a season that witnessed the blouson and its ilk reign supreme, they appear to be having a Giorgio Armani-in-the-Eighties moment. But these are not the suits many have been weaned on; these are not those worn with the ease of a cardigan. Unconventional has been the general description of Demna Gvasalia’s first men’s collection for the house of Balenciaga, but that does not cover weird.

Balenciaga Men SS 2017 Pic 3Even the coats are cut room, just the like the jackets

What are conspicuously strange are those boxy, shoulders-extended suit jackets. A scale that can be described as zoot suit on steroids. Perhaps Mr Gvasalia has taken into account the changing shapes of men’s gym-produced bodies, or maybe he’s re-shaping because shape and form are integral to the Balenciaga legacy. The silhouettes, however, seemed to be based on cardboard boxes than flat paper patterns. Could they be homage to Professor Utonium (Powerpuff Girls) or, to go a little further back, Professor Nut-Meg (Felix the Cat)? Or to cater to Silicon Valley, where a geek may need a suit to attend his first tech award?

It should be noted that in the casting for the show, Balenciaga has picked mainly young white men of perhaps Eastern European stock. The operative words are young and white. The suits seem to be conceived for a populace in the European continent where kids can make even the strangest garb look oddly attractive. For us Asians, a jacket of such roominess and lapels that have grandfather written all over them is evocative of those that are made in Chinese factories still unshackled from their proletarian roots, and are worn by former military men now installed as head of commercial enterprises, building business empires, blissfully unaware of a sartorially changed world.

There is, of course, a whiff of the aesthetic of the Eastern Bloc’s winsome years that is pervasive in the designs of two dominant forces in men’s wear today: one a Georgian and the other Russian. Nothing inherently wrong in that itself, but can such culture-specific references cross borders, even if we’re supposed to believe that fashion is a borderless world?

Balenciaga Men SS 2017 Pic 4The other extreme: ultra-fitted suits

Change is good, we’ve been told, but not all changes are palatable or even digestible. Balenciaga has no real DNA for its men’s wear. Each designer since Nicolas Ghesquière has tried creating its own lasting codes only to be shattered by the next. Mr Gvasalia is not obligated to continue from the last, now-forgotten look. The aim, it seems, is to create seismic change, as seen at other fashion houses. Heritage is immaterial. Who’s talking about Tom Ford’s legacy at Gucci when Alessandro Michele is making (tidal) waves? Even Balenciaga is emancipated from Nicolas Ghesquière’s significant contributions to the revival of the brand. It’s now really about what Demna Gvasalia can bring to the table, and what he can do to capture the attention of an easily sidetracked and loyalty-uncommon world. Likeability is not as important as newsworthy.

Offering two extremes is the way Balenciaga could hit the headlines, or sent social media agog with wild excitement. The severity of jackets with strong shoulders and roomy body has to have a counterpoint in the form of constricted ultra-slim suits. These slender numbers should appeal to those with a penchant for everything skinny. It caters to an existing market, but does it really? On the models, the strange fit of the jacket—the sleeve kisses the shoulder bumpily and also oddly and the foldover of the double-breasted bodice nearly reaches the side of the torso—could be something new or something borrowed from the always too-tight jackets worn by lead actors of K-drama. That is two-pronged too!

Yes, fashion changes, so do shapes of clothes, but knock in vain we shall not on a wardrobe that won’t spill the content to make us look good. However confounding the times, well turn out is key, not looking foolish too, even if, regrettably, they are radical idea these days.

Photos: Balenciaga

First Look: A New Balenciaga

Balenciaga AW 2016 G1

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.

Balenciaga AW 2016 G2The 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.

Balenciaga AW 2016 G3Sometimes, 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