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
So that you’ll know she’s pretty wrapped up in herself?
By Mao Shan Wang
Kim Kardashian has so many firsts that I stopped counting. Her debut as host of Saturday Night Life this past weekend is certainly one. But watch I did, not count. As her performance went rather smoothly and on-script, it didn’t have the same impact as the sex tapes (2007) or the Vogue cover (2014), or the time she broke the Internet (also 2014, a vintage year). I think it has to do with the jelak factor. Even when she is totally shrouded in black for an event that one attends to be seen: the Met Gala. Can Ms Kardashian, 41, surprise anymore? Sure, she is a savvy businesswoman and, to her fans, a style icon, but can there be more to her that would cause our jaw to drop? In that confidently handled SNL monologue, she already ruled out the possibility of being an American president. However hard I tried, I could not think of anything else I want to see her do except not to see her. Or, to see less of her.
When she walked down the stairs of the set of SNL, I thought it was a stagehand gone rogue, beating her to it by appearing as Miffy with a remade body in the shape of Kanye West’s still-legal-wife. But it was not so. As she moved towards the camera, one question immediately hit me. Why would anyone who would not hesitate to share naked selfies of herself on social media now want to look like a upholstered love seat, removed from a love hotel? And in lurid pink! I am serious. Or, after the Met Gala, should I say re-upholstered? Ms K loves nudity, but now she preferred covering every part of her body—more completely than a sofa. Yes, even her fingers and her toes. Why the strange modesty? Is this a divorce-in-the-process look? The fIngers covered so that no one can see that she is no longer trapped by a wedding ring?
The pink velvet(?) catsuit is designed by Demna Gvasalia of Balenciaga. We sort of had a preview of Ms K’s total-onesie in the Paris Fashion Week animated short of the Simpsons walking a Balenciaga show. She was seated in the front row, looking vacuum-sealed. Her face for SNL, however, was not covered. But as with the black outfit—also by Balenciaga—that she wore for the Met Gala, there was no mistaking who the silhouette belonged to. A body with such a defined and smooth shape had to be enhanced by some shape wear. It is, of course, expected that she’d wear one to promote her own Skims line (initially called Kimono!), however successful it already is. The Balenciaga second skin needed the Skims for sure. So why let Balenciaga have all the publicity? Now, that to me is a symbiotic relationship. And what better place to show it than on YouTube-bound television, on Saturday night?
Balenciaga’s IRL show is a red carpet event, complete with shouting paparazzi. Be ready to dress like stars next season. Or, one cartoon family
It’s the red carpet of the Met Gala, the Oscars, the Bafta, the Emmys, the Tonys, the Razzies, the Grammys, the BMAs, the VMAs, the BET, all rolled into one. Outside Le Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, Balenciaga staged a fake red carpet arrival, strictly in Balenciaga, of course, and complete with hordes of gawkers and a throng of photographers, shouting for the attention of arriving ‘stars’. Is red carpet fashion a valid category? Apparently, at least to Balenciaga. Designer Demna Gvasalia was, in fact, recently at the Met Gala, making sure Kim Kardashian’s outfit looked right and was ready for the camera. Could the Met Gala experience have been the inspiration behind the presentation for spring/summer 2022? Fashion and celebrity as one, conclusively? This could, of course, be social commentary, but also a reflection of the state of fashion consumption? The red carpet is still the runway (and it is often set up as one) to look to. What goes on on a red carpet does not stay there. Eventually, it will be picked up for the streets and will boost the participating brands’ red carpet and—and not far off—street cred.
Models and celebrities (they’re models too!) arrive as if E! Entertainment is covering this live (which makes the vibe more Hollywood than Paris). A motley group that includes gender non-conformers, hip-hop moguls, screen and music stars, one rapper-couple, one everywhere-he-is photographer, one powerful (still?) editrix, and even a pregnant redhead (or should that be carrot?). They are definitely dressed to the nines, even in street style. They cover the gamut, from couture-worthy gowns to shopping/dating/loafing-ready jeans. What could be different from the average red carpet could be that the guests are carrying handbags. There are even shoulder bags. Who’d think any of them would need one at a gala? Meanwhile, inside the theatre, invited guests were watching the outside proceedings on the big screen, reportedly appreciating what is looking like a “joke”. When the red carpet walkers finally take their seats inside, the audience is treated to a show: The Simpsons! A special screening, as it appears, with Homer and company invited to Paris to walk the Balenciaga runway. Marge Simpson, high on Balenciaga, has never looked so good (not even in that pink Chanel suit), in a gold gown from the spring/summer 2020 collection, with a bow in the rear, the size of a giant Sagami kite!
Marge Simpson trying her first Balenciaga dress
Mrs Simpson on the runway
Demna Gvasalia tells the media that the whole exercise is about having “fun”, something so missing and missed in our COVID-stricken lives that fashion is now placing the seeking of entertainment and mirth as prime. And in Paris, the Simpsons certainly are enjoying themselves. And the whole of Springfield, even if they are fish out of water. Homer, the last fashionista, wears his red Balenciaga jacket like a postman his uniform. Thankfully, outside toon town, the style is more sleek, ever kooky, Balenciaga standard. The charm (and now star quality?) of the brand is its ability—irony still dripping?—to compact both red-carpet elegance and off-kilter street style into a single look with rigour and discipline. Sure, these aren’t dresses a Bond girl would wear on a date with Double-O-Seven (nor are they the stuff of his wardrobe for jet setting and licence to kill), but for those who need to be validated as perversely cool, and directly connected to Mr Gvasalia, such as he who conceives Donda. In Balenciaga, one is not under-dressed or over-dressed, just dressed, statement unequivocally made. How convenient for most fashion-craving rappers and their inner circles.
Now that the Balenciaga couture is shown, and the house’s know-how, although never in doubt, is updated and proven, there seems to be a general sense of heightened raffinement. The dresses are less thrift-store, more cocktails-after-a-fashion-show. The hoodies less sportif, but still hoodies. The suit jackets still hunched, and still too big for most body types. The denim jeans still overwashed, but more up-cycled. And, the Crocs less unusual (now), but much harder… clompers! They are all still composed to better position Balenciaga as the unwavering height of subversive-simultaneously-worn-out cool. The look, by now, is no longer outré, but still unconventional enough for covetous eyes. Just one thing: enough of Naomi Campbell. In whatever.
…and hip-hop stars. Is this the collection to change haute couture’s trajectory?
It’s at least two years in the making. This is Demna Gvasalia’s first couture collection ever and Balenciaga’s first after 53 years. And the first featuring menswear. The house closed its doors in 1968, and slammed the door shut on its haute couture division for more than half a decade. Now it’s back with a bang, but hushed by the cream carpeted floors and matching drapery of its restored salon in their haute couture quarters on 10 Avenue Georges V, Paris. Half way across the globe, we were paying close attention to our PC monitor screen for the presentation to start (it was late, and kicked off after the arrival of Bella Hadid!). The opening screen at first showed what appeared to be a label, set (not stitched) against a beige background. Below, it said, “Welcome to the Salon”, not show. When the livestream began, we saw a room (and later a corridor) and people were mingling, waiting for the show to start. For most of the day earlier, social media was heavy with expectation. Balenciaga’s ready to wear is enough to get people talking. This was predicted to break the Internet.
But it didn’t. Balenciaga’s social media pages were restored around the time of the live-streaming of the couture show, or at least Instagram and Twitter were. But was it all the rave it was expected to be? Sure, there would be those for whom Balenciaga couture can do no wrong. But, unlike in the past, there would not be the likes of Mona von Bismarck—who, according to Diana Vreeland, did not leave her room in her villa in Carpri for three days when Cristóbal Balenciaga closed his atelier in 1968—to buy and wear his clothes and visually rave about them. How many influencers can afford couture? Now, it is quite a different clientele, or audience. Men were many—James Harden, Lil Baby, Kanye West (face mysteriously concealed, but everyone knew it was him!), and others. The presence of these men, predominantly hip-hop stars, strengthen the believe that streetwear has arrived at couture houses. Once it was the aesthetics of the couture that trickled down to the pret-a-porter. Now the reverse is true. Haute couture can’t be that high up anymore.
It isn’t quite clear yet if streetwear needs further elevating or if couture needs to be less rarified. Or if streetwear, like Black designers, still needs validation. Should we call it streetwear now that even the T-shirt has a place in Balenciaga couture, although not the least a simple one? But Demna Gvasalia has not entirely distance himself from the DNA of the house known for not creating clothes that follow the lines and shapes of women’s bodies. Mr Gvasalia, adept at using negative spaces in clothes to striking effect, continues Balenciaga’s manipulation and exaggeration of shape. Continuing is key here. He called the show the “50th”. He is reopening the doors that stayed shut, and within the hallowed and hush grounds (the show was sans soundtrack, like in the old days—you could hear the rustling/swishing of the clothes. Silk taffeta!), continued showing where the last great collection was presented. And Mr’s referential and confident nod to the man whose name he now leads is exciting the wealthy young who are unable to yoke themselves to the stubbornly old-school houses such as Chanel.
But is it the great collection we have been waiting for? Or, a refresher course? We have mixed feelings. This does not have the WTF-are-those punch in the gut of Mr Gvasalia’s first outing with the house after Alexander Wang’s totally unsurprising departure in 2015. It certainly has the spirit; it has the shapes, it has the proportions; it has the textures, but does it sing—or rap? We thought we heard a hum, but only what Mr Gvasalia could intone. Is the anorak, with a back of Watteau pleats, the new opera coat? Is the cable sweater, woven with chaîne gourmette by the textile design atelier of Jean Pierre Ollier, the new hoodie? Is the bathrobe, in super-fine micro-knifed leather (actually, ciseaux-ed. Is it heavy?), the new trench? Is the floor-length padded coat, oversized and tented, the new Andre Leon Talley’s beloved “sleeping bag coat”? Is the pieced-together-by-hand leather, made into a flounced skirt, the new embossed leather? Is Demna Gvasalia, hidden away in the atelier while the guests applauded, the new “master” of them all?
It’s a confusing time for fashion and to add to the confusion, brands that should be rivals, even under the same conglomerate, are featuring each other’s accessories. We don’t know why this has to be so other than for both to sell more bags and such. Call us naïve. But if even a storied house like Balenciaga has to feature saleable Gucci merchandise with additional Balenciaga branding, then perhaps we’ve moved from ugly to crass. This Balenciaga’s spring/summer 20211 and the Gucci part really got to us. We can understand Gucci wanting to share Balenciaga’s winning aesthetics, but for the B to want a sliver of the G is, frankly, bewildering. Do customers of both brands really want a Balenciaga Gucci or Gucci Balenciaga? The two-is-better-than-one-thinking? Don’t be so serious, we hear people say. Oh, is this some mischief we know not of? An inside joke between the two houses? Because, if we look closely, Balenciaga has done the Gucci diamond monogram with a double B! Oh, we forgot. It’s called “hacking”. And who can be mistaken when a monogrammed tote is scrawled with “This is not a Gucci bag”？Don’t let the red-and-green stripe fool you.
From the first outfit, a black number that could have been destined for The Conjuring to the final, a red gown that could have been for Cruella, Demna Gvaslia does not let us forget that he is determined to set Balenciaga on his own course. Or that Balenciaga could be an offshoot of the brand he first founded: Vetements. From the oversized—now supersized—jackets to those loose, long-sleeved, printed modest dresses, to the deviant tops and bottoms inspired by retro track wear, these shall continue to be Balenciaga signatures. And, oddly for spring, those bubble coats too, with their gravity-defying collars, worn standing up—like what Mr Gvasalia had done for shirts, framing the face (rather than as some pulled-back screen as there were once before) and with the elegance of a more traditional quilted coat. But are we really seeing Balenciaga that is refreshing? Or one offering clothes that a diehard fan wouldn’t already have lusted after and own? Perhaps such familiarity, such tropes, are to ensure that followers do not forget Mr Gvasalia’s design past and the kinship he still shares with the family-namesake who still helms the house they both created.
Exaggeration is still the name of the game, whether in the silhouettes or the geekiness. And the off-beat is now so standard here that even the over-washed, carpenter-style denim cargos with the surfeit of low-brow utilitarian D-rings as decoration (rather evocative of White Mountaineering and their use of fancier carabiners) and the Crocs, again ‘elevated’—now in the form of heels, pumps, wellies, and platform slides can no longer be seen as demystifying the traditionally-not-attractive. These are destined for TikTok just as the printed dresses will have a place, again, on Instagram, so too those outers with extended, droopy shoulders. But are they really taking us anywhere? Or is entering the world of the young, weaned indiscriminately on luxury streetwear good enough (more Billie Eilish, of course, than Olivia Rodrigo)? Or sustaining on a diet of the likes of the sweatshirt on which Homer and Marge Simpson and brood are depicted wearing last season’s Balenciaga—another suitably LOLzy satire? Sure, our eyes have adjusted, as The Washington Post predicted in 2018, but have they also not seen quite enough?
But everything could be an illusion. Balenciaga broadcasted a show that never actually took place. They admitted to producing a “deep fake”. We were happy to see an IRL show, even on a PC screen, but we were duped! It was all digital trickery, all produced with software magic (listed on the media advisory, which we don’t care to repeat here), and, like the Vetements poser, “Are we becoming wires ourselves?”, is a thesis on the effects of the our online existence on our very selves. The media quoted Mr Gvaslia saying and asking, “What we see online is not what it is. What’s real and what’s fake?” Being a partner-in-crime with Gucci also questions the state of fashion today, as observed by social media watchdogs, such as Diet Prada: What is authentic? Who’s copying who? And does it really matter? The spring/summer 2022 show is called Clones, which has a rather mid-’90s ring to it (remember Dolly the sheep?). But in cloning the show’s model (one person throughout for both the men’s and women’s outfits) and itself (or repeating their classic shapes), is Balenciaga also telling us to put our consumption on a loop, as it’s so easily done on a music streaming service? The more of the same you see, you want in, not out.
In a collaboration that no one saw coming, Gucci seems to finally be shifting gears
Did the Gucci show really happen? Is Gucci really 100? Why was Balenciaga the elder (104!) roped in to celebrate? Is this a tap-thy-stablemate’s-mind Gucci for the next century? Did your head not spin? Does Gucci need Balenciaga to—finally—look this interesting? Are they not able to reinvent themselves on their own? Is this Balenciaga doing Gucci? A sort of guest editor? Or Gucci in homage mode? Or an expression of Alessandro Michele’s desire to do Balenciaga? Do we need a Balenciaga ‘Hourglass’ bag with Gucci monogram? Or Gucci jackets with Balenciaga shoulders? Or Gucci-Balenciaga suits with the logotype of both brands littered on them, like department store gift wrappers? Or the familiar printed leggings-cum-boots chez Balenciaga? What’s a coat fastened to the extreme left a la Balenciaga doing in a Gucci collection? Or an asymmetric dress with a draped hemline so evocative of the B appearing in a show (still) typical of the G?
Is the world we are living in now not confusing enough?
The action takes place in supposedly London’s Savoy Hotel, imagined as a club with a catwalk and a secret garden. The music is not house (as has been the choice of the season at other houses), but a mish-mash that is a narcissistic bang at Gucci as narcotic, from Lil Pump’s yo-bro chorus of “Gucci gang” to Tita von Tesse’s tease on Die Antwood’s “Gucci coochie”. And there is a lot to analyse and unpack. But we may risk misreading everything. Mr Michele is, of course, no stranger to collaboration (the allegedly sold-out collab with The North Face, the most recent). He is also quite the plunderer of the past and cultures not his own. This collection, conversely called “Aria” (essentially an operatic solo), although a “pop” version, looks to the past, to self, and to contemporaries in a show that seems to salute whatever deserves to be hailed. A greatest hits of Gucci’s own legacy, the now fashion culture that the house is largely part of, and the design contributions of another equally iconoclastic, if not more, label. As Mr Michele said, post-show, to the media, “I have been an excellent thief, a robber.”
This is not the Gucci we are used to. It’s less geeky (except some of the models), less foolish (except, maybe the accessories), and even less irreverent (except, again, the accessories). Could this be Mr Michele’s tame side; he on the periphery of reasonableness? The clothes do not look too vintage-y (the retro vibe cannot, of course, be totally rid of) nor do they deliberately look as though sourced from the Salvation Army. We keep seeking out Balenciaga, but the partnership is not so much the two designers coming together to design the collection as one expressing love for the work of another. This is not the same as, say, Dries van Noten and Christian Lacroix in 2019. Or, contemporaneously, Valentino and Undercover. And definitely not Miuccia Prada with Raf Simons (no way!). Rather, Mr Michele “quoted” Demna Gvasalia, according to the show notes, not copied. Euphemistic talk no doubt, but it makes the results very much Mr Michele’s singular doing. Apparently, he was granted permission by his Georgian Kering associate to create hacks of Balenciaga’s distinctive silhouettes for both the ready-to-wear and the leather goods. This truly speaks of the creative culture of today, when Balenciaga can be treated like Ikea. Replete with rhinestones and marabou!
The references make for absorbing viewing. For so long (it has been more than half a decade of Alessandro Michele’s tenure!), Gucci has been frustratingly predictable that we wanted to really not dislike this collection. Sure, we do not expect Gucci to suddenly become unprovocative. We want their fans to go on being enamoured. It is inevitable there is enough camp to keep both Harry Styles and Jared Leto delighted and sufficient logos and indeterminate forms to keep Billie Eillish coming back for more. And adequate 70s disco glam (glittered cowl-neck top for men!) to get night owls ready for the day when bars and club can open. At the same time, it is refreshing to see that some of the tailoring is ‘classic’ and that the clothes sit well; the oversized is not actually ill-fitting. And the return of equestrian details, even if they are harnesses for chests or saddles for shoulders—not so barefaced since Dawn Mello was hired to revive the brand in 1989. But we are not sure if we are used to seeing Balenciaga’s extraordinary (less so now), offbeat (that, too) shapes within the kooky universe—including a near-obsession with body parts held in the hand, such as this season’s glittery minaudières of anatomically-correct heart—that is the only Gucci that fashionistas know.
But Mr Michele did not only pay homage to Balenciaga, he also saluted fashion’s patriarch of sexy who changed Gucci forever, Tom Ford (totally snubbing John Ray, Alessandra Facchinetti, and, unsurprisingly, Frida Giannini). The first suit that appeared will always be associated with Mr Ford: in red velvet, and worn with a baby blue shirt, with two buttons deliberately undone. Thankfully, none of the pre-wokeness “porno chic” was revived. That Mr Ford’s designs could be easily riffed—er, hacked—is understandable: Mr Michele and the Texan designer/film maker have a maximal love of the ’70s, even when both dance on opposite ends—one with a deep reverence for the elegance of Halston, the other with the ardour for the hipness of the hippies. The Tom Ford-era suits, now with reshaped shoulders, have the sexed-up dapper cool associated with the oddball individuality of Balenciaga, rather than something akin to those in forgotten wardrobes of Haight-Ashbury. Mr Ford is relevant again.
In most cities, dance clubs are closed, but luxury fashion seems eager for them to open or to be looking forward to the mirrored ball spinning again. The just-concluded Dior pre-fall 2021 show in Shanghai is illustrative. At Gucci, the models, flanked by flash lights, finish their catwalk routine and move to a holding area (gosh, we are thinking of Prada. Again!). But rather than ending their job there, they are led by one of them, who opens a massive door, into a garden. There, they danced among white horses—interestingly, without saddlery—and albino peacocks. Very soon, as the frolicking suggests, the world can parallel Peter Pan’s. Perhaps, Alessandro Michele, in his mind, is singing I will Survive.
Two brands, totally unrecognisable from the original, are said to be teaming up. Yikes!
The pairing of Gucci and Balenciaga as we imagine it. Illustration: Just So
Alessandro Michele is on a collaboration roll. According to WWD, he and Demna Gvasalia are rumoured to be bringing Gucci and Balenciaga together. Not unimaginable since both brands are luxury conglomerate Kering’s cash cows. They are destined to make more money together. Gucci will be showing its new collection Aria on Thursday and that’s when the said collab will be unveiled. Both designers have kept mum about their partnership.
A brand that was once a couture house now joins with another that was started as a leather goods shop: that’s an interesting alignment. Would this be fashion’s ultimate high-low pairing? The coupling of royalty and Hollywood (and a spill-all to follow)? Mr Michele has said that “seasonalities” are “worn-out ritual(s)”. Collaborations, apparently not. Will this show that Michele Alessandro is better at sussing out hot collabs than Kim Jones?
Balenciaga’s video-game-in-place-of-fashion-show is, for now, gimmicky
Fashion shows—are they not pre-autumn/winter 2020 season? That seemed such a distance away. Since the last shows of that time (in Paris, to us), things have changed drastically for fashion, both for businesses and the people who consume them. The runway, while still important for many luxury brands, is less the ideal platform to deliver and to watch when you know that, for now, models are waking as if for a dress rehearsal, since no audience is present (at Chanel’s Métiers D’art, there was one—never lonelier Kristen Stewart). Brands are looking at other ways to present their seasonal collections. Film is the platform of choice, especially at Gucci, with their pretentious seven-parter that is now mostly forgotten (who remembers what Harry Styles wore?).
Balenciaga, the first to present the autumn/winter 2021 season, has opted to show the new collection as a video game, The Age of Tomorrow (that would be, according to their press material, the year 2031). Now, this is not targeted at those whose closest companion is their Razor hardware, since it has barely the thrill and force of an actioner. Fashion has always been a game (there are always winners, aren’t there?), but this time it’s really one. Being a Pokemom Go deserter, we need an actual gamer to tell us how good the Balenciaga game is. Okay, this is no Grand Theft Auto, but we didn’t think it’d be this slumberous. As with role-playing games, you can choose your own avatar to move through the five “zones”. There are 50 of them avatars, as there are 50 looks (and each exactly like the character models), but for some reason we are not able to pick any. There is no selector button, or key.
The opening scene is a Balenciaga boutique “in the future”, sparsely stocked, designed as if for a dystopian world (it’s rather evocative of the brand’s Rue St. Honoré store in Paris). There are no sales people to welcome or help you. Just unspeaking (it’s all soundless here), unreacting models that turn to give you a 360-degree view of what they wear. We navigate this space on our own, with the guide of illuminated arrows on the floor. When we encounter a rack of clothes, we could not tap on it to see what items are hung on it. In fact, practically everything in this game is unresponsive. We enter a cold world, and we’re left cold. It is odd that a video game has such impassivity. Hoping for more excitement, we leave the boutique (after some hard navigation) and are brought to a backstreet that is worthy of Batman’s Gotham. All the while, we pass Balenciaga-clad people. Many get in our way. Then we are shown a bus stop. A bus arrives, and we’re whisk away. By now, we feel we have been taken for a ride.
You probably guess that we didn’t finish the game. Truth be told, as much as we were, at first, excited to play it, we lost interest barely minutes into into the first zone. The thing is, it’s kind of mindless. We don’t know what the purpose is, what the target is, or what to look out for. We’re just walking. To make matters worse, navigating it is not so simple (or instinctive). On the smartphone, there are two buttons for you to move forward and to look around. Both did not work smoothly. If you play the game on your PC, there are designated keys—W, A, S, D—for you to move in the rather dark world of the game. And your mouse will be temporarily disabled (you’d be told to press the ‘ESC’ button to bring back the cursor). Once you try to use the mouse during gameplay, the screen goes bonkers, or the action moves at warped speed. The game really feels like a test run.
Curious, and for us to be able to post this report, we decided to go back to the game to finish playing it. But we were greeted with a screen that seems to depict a galaxy. There is a digital timer in the middle that appears to be counting down. At the bottom, a discreet message reads: “You ended the game prematurely. If you’d like to start again, please come back later.” Returning to the game means an hour later. If you played to the end, a different message appears: “Congratulations, you have reached the highest level of digital enlightenment. If you’d like to start another game, please come later.” Despite the puffery, it all seems very dour to us. Balenciaga shows under Demna Gvasalia have never been chirpy and buoyant affairs. This game is even less so—in fact, somewhat downcast. We’re surprised Balenciaga did not do something along the lines of the #crabdance challenge, presently with 56 million views on TickTok.
It is too much work to just make out what is fashion. Is there such a thing as too immersive? The irony (it’s Balenciaga!) is, we didn’t really get to see the clothes. Unlike select editors and clients (reportedly 200 around the world), we were not privy to a virtual-reality runway show, viewed through a set of Oculus. We had to click on the lookbook link on the Balenciaga website to have a clearer view of the clothes. And these displayed what Mr Gvasalia has been doing for the house: loose silhouettes, low-brow-high-brow pairings, sportif shapes, fitted turtles necks and loose skirts or wide pants, jeans of ripped knees (and, now, torn posterior), more exaggerated puffer coats (floral too), and more Balenciaga-branded T-shirts (and some with the PS5 logo). We sense that because the clothes are meant to be in the context of a video game, with the somewhat futuristic description The Age of Tomorrow, the clothes have to be at least moderately sci-fi, which may explain some of the metallic guards for limps, as well as armour, and armour parts. Afterworld or afterthought, we don’t know.
In an already complicated, weather-changing existence, Demna Gvasalia continues to make clothes that boggle the mind. They are not easy to grasp or immediately likable, and therein lies his strength. And appeal
It isn’t clear what the flooded runway means. Or the submerged front row. Is it a suggestion that fashion is now too inundated with the murky-good, or is it just Demna Gvasalia’s commentary on global warming and that cities, such as much-noticed Venice and overlooked Jakarta, are sinking? Perhaps he has more time to think of such things, now that he’s not designing Vetements. If so, he is showing, not telling, which seems wonted at other houses. Maybe, it’s best not to read too much into it and concentrate, instead, on the clothes. The staging at Balenciaga is always a conversation starter, but the clothes, more than that, encourage thinking, inspiring wonder and WTFs in equal measure. Last season’s parliamentary delegates seem to have given way to mourners and celebrants of the end of the world.
The show opened with dark, dark clothes that are a tad on the eerie side (some of the models wear red contact lenses, like Vin Diesel in Bloodshot!), so much so that some even called it “apocalyptic”, all fourteen (a number here in Asia considered inauspicious) are black until a brief shot of colour and then it’s mournful again and then hopeful, and the alternating rhythm continues. The solid blackness forces one to look at the clothes: the shapes, the silhouettes, or the fall (and the raised). Mr Gvasalia is a master of the silhouette. He goes from what in China was once proletarian to what in France is now the nostalgic-bourgeoisie. Between them, global left/right whatever. It can be hard, it can be soft, it can be punk, it can be pretty, there’s a dark edge to them all. This might have been Yohji Yamamoto if the designer stops coasting along.
Mr Gvasalia’s designs not only make you consider the metaphors, they also urge you to look at them a little closer, like you would with art not rendered in the usual strokes, with the usual pigments. And like any work of emotional power, there are details that perhaps only you see and are delighted by. He’s also a tamperer, which means that what we expect to be at their usual places or placements are not: shoulders swoop, sleeves droop, neckline gape, plackets askew, cuffs hang. All within the silhouettes that are seriously clerical (monastic sounds too drab and abstemious), obliterating the wearers’ natural outlines and curves, like the robes of those who dedicate their lives to religion prefer to wear. Yet, one can discern a swash of couture: the collar that is also a hood and part of a cape, the generous gathers that forge the tented volumes, the oversized bows in the rear that do not tell if they hold the outfit or are there for effect.
But just as you thought this is going to be homage to the cassock and the like—contorted, they may be, Mr Gvasalia takes his usual off, off-centre route. The earlier shrouding in blockish shapes slowly gives way to the near-fantastical, an exaggeration that not only accentuates the body, but also, in the case of shoulders, forms acuminate shrugs. How they can stay up there, even on cable-knit sweaters, is a feat of cunning construction (not to mention the need for padding that won’t be found in your usual haberdashery). Pagoda shoulders have become veritable bargeboards akin to lamyongs at the end of Thai gables (especially true of the dresses). And just as there are those who want their bodies cloaked or who enjoy feeling undistinguished (when, in fact, they do), there are those who have no objection to the body-accentuating and the slinky—body stockings of perverse modesty.
It is, in fact, in the tailoring that we find Mr Gvasalia express himself to a high degree. Is this a prelude to the proposed haute couture he will present in July? It is already known that he has a way with tailoring, especially in bending it—quite literally—to his will, often testing the limits of the lapels, its nape, and the shoulders this time: how far they could go. Or to what previously unexplored proportion, or to what extent of stress he can inflict on, say, the fulcrum of a jacket, traditionally positioned at the top button, below where the ends of the lapels meet. His pant or skirt suit, with the upturn of the lapel—even peaked—that can turn the jacket into a Nehru, with their pocket flaps affixed like Band Aid, with their rounded shoulders and judiciously padded hips make Maria Grazia Chiuri’s Bar suits decidedly child’s play.
For the guys, it’s a collection that will make Billie Eilish one happy customer. If you like looking hunched over, there are overcoats that afford such an effect with no effort. If you like mimicking the spines of the porcupine/hedgehog, there is a jacket with similar to protect you against predators. If you like satin shorts over track pants a la Superman’s undies over tights, there are those that will amuse your mates to no end. If you still like the logotype of Balenciaga, there is an abbreviated version minus all the vowels to make you still a collector. And if you like looking no more than your favourite football star, there are enough jerseys and shorts to make you appear like you perpetually camp out at Wembley, always close to footballers, only now, you carry clutches that look like jewellery boxes for your mother’s heirloom pieces or bento boxes for nori-whiskered Hello Kitty onigiri rice balls.
A commentary on Britain and Europe or just alluding to political theatre, Demna Gvasalia’s Balenciaga is probably winning at the polls as he disports with bold shapes and runs with it
Whether fashion should have a blatant political voice is debatable, and whether Demna Gvasalia’s “Balenciaga parliament or assembly,” is shrewd or spoofy needs further examination. Yet, with so many components to both clothes and show that hint at politics and personalities, it is possible that Mr Gvasalia has affairs of state(s) in mind. We’re told he is exploring “power dressing and fashion uniforms”, both not necessarily related, but can pair up, which may explain those models kitted out as delegates of forgotten EU states. But, at first look, they appear to us parliamentary ushers, security personnel, Mdm Goh from accounts, the janitor on the way to work, even the Grab Food delivery person!
Mr Gvasalia, of course, has been partial to archetype, one rooted in the mundane and even nothingness. Under the guise of what the rest of us wear and consume, he modifies and refines familiar wardrobe pieces and gives them his spin on what Balenciaga means and constructs them in shapes not necessarily Balenciaga-eque, but shapes nonetheless. That they can be independent of the lines and curves of the body, with shoulders extending to there, add to their appeal. (Those old enough may recall a certain French designer called Claude Montana.) That, mostly, a small number of women consider these clothes attractive or enhancer of their femininity make them even more desirable.
As usual, there is a lot to unpack, and what you get may not be immediately understood. By now, we know Mr Gvasalia does not make things easy for us (that could be his gift as a designer). Apart from the said archetypal styles, he seems enamoured with the clearly less haute, bent on re-expressing what should have been the ordinary. The puffer jacket (its current popularity in winter months can be attributed to the first he introduced for Balenciaga back in the long ago of 2016), for example, appears again. That it is for spring, no one really wonders why. That it looks like something a Shenyang road sweeper might wear to mimic the condition similar to Quasimodo’s, no eyebrows are raised, when they should be.
Irony is still the hallmark of Mr Gvasalia’s work and he does not hold back. While there are none similar to the DHL T-shirts he sent out for Vetements as its former designer, there are those that allow the wearer to declare that they’re “X-Rated”, “18+”, or a “Top Model”. Taking after familiar commercial logos, he fashions a new Balenciaga framed by two circles similar to Mastercard, which appears on clothes as well as credit-card-like earrings. An assurance that even after no longer designing Vetements, which he co-founded with his brother, Mr Gvasalia can still infuse Balenciaga with quirky banality.
However, does parodying logos that identify products and such also include fabric treatments we have come to associate with a particular brand? There are those Issey Miyake/Pleats Please/Homme Plisse-looking dusters and blazers and shirts, slipped on as if the wearer has just picked one of them up from a suitcase of equally unpressed clothes (and ironing is not today’s habit!), that we aren’t sure are trenchancy or homage. More certain to us are the fluid dresses (by now a staple) of not-quite-simple prints: they have the potential of becoming the house signature the way the blazers (and the puffers) are so aligned with Mr Gvasalia’s vision for Balenciaga, nostalgic romaticism included.
For many influencer-attendees of the show, the last five dresses “stun”. These are ballgowns, quite literally, or almost half-balls, crinoline-supported skirts, moving with the rigidity of umbrellas designed to withstand the typhoon. In solid colours and devoid of decorations, they are nothing like their Victorian versions, which this quintet is possibly modelled after. The modernity is clear, even men can wear them, which would probably delight Billy Porter to no end. Somehow, the final three remind us of Grace Jones’s gown in the Jean-Paul Goude-directed music video for Slave to the Rhythm. Ms Jones emerged from the top of a black rotunda of a skirt with large coloured dots that seem to take after those on rainbow globe lights. Then and now share one common feature: simple, long-sleeved, upper halves. Could this be Demna Gvasalia returning to classics?
In fashion today, being ‘inspired’ by the work of others is quite a regular occurrence. Sometimes, designers slap the descriptor ‘irony’ to their ‘inspired’ work as aesthetic validity of nothing better to do than to embrace the banal. Reviving—or reliving—the past, an unceasing designer obsession, can be considered a stab at irony too since, oftentimes it is deliberate rehash. The ironic has become, sadly, as tired as the eclectic.
Demna Gvasalia, in recent memory, brought irony to the attention of a new generation of fashion consumers when he introduced the DHL T-shirt that can be had for at least half the salary of the courier man. That was in 2016. Irony has since become a bit tired, and rather meaningless, we dare say. Yet, Mr Gvasalia continued marching with irony, introducing, one after another, it’s-cool-because-it’s-not-cool items, the recent one being the above Balenciaga key ring with a pendant in the shape of a Christmas tree-shaped air freshener usually hung in cars.
At first, Balenciaga was getting a lot of social-media buzz for the key ring. Then, it was reported by TMZ that Balenciaga is being sued by The Car Freshener Company—maker of air fresheners that looked like shaped cardboard coasters—for using the company’s Little Trees shape without official consent. This is not an Ikea Fraktar moment for Balenciaga.
Not long after that, it came to our attention the existence of Little Trees-like, die-cut air freshener in the form of Balenciaga Triple S sneakers that included the brand’s logo. Can a cardboard cutout be considered a copy? These are marketed as a “collectible” by Indonesian company Hey La. Sold proudly as a home-grown product in such made-in-Indonesia-only stores as Localstrunk in Jakarta, the air freshener could be considered a product of the age of irony.
To be sure, the Triple S, in ‘Strawberry Bliss’ (not quite a scent you’d associate with expensive designer kicks), is not the only shoe silhouette air freshener manufacturer Hey La offers. There is the Adidas NMD and Stan Smith, as well as the Yeezy. So this could be a serious business that peddles irony. Not sure about the rest, but was Balenciaga’s permission sought? If not, will Kering sue? Or, will irony triumph in the end?
Demna Gvasalia did not let up as he pushed forth with the old-world and dramatic shapes once associated with Balenciaga, but he appeared to be repeating himself. Or, were we seeing too many all-over-agains to tell the difference?
What is it about passageways that designers love? (One more would later appear in Louis Vuitton’s presentation in the grounds of the already stunning Louvre.) It would seem that the catwalk, like the clothes, can also be trend-generating. And this season, a long, meandering passageway, first brought to our attention at the Gucci 2017 autumn/winter show, is the way to go. Video software-aided designs projected on walls appear to be on-trend too. Must fashion presentations these days be so immersive an experience that clothes by themselves wouldn’t be enough to engage the viewer? Sure, fashion has always been theatre, but there’s a nagging suspicion that stylistic content is so lacking that we now need visual aids (or distractions?) to augment the clothes. Sounds like the National Day Parade, does it not?
Balenciaga’s tunnel of dizzying, moving graphics designed by Jon Rafman, the Canadian digital artist known for using random Google Street View images for his somewhat bleak online exhibition of photo essays 9-Eyes, maybe awe-inspiring at first, but would, three minutes into the show, proved to be unnecessarily distracting. Did the invitees come to watch a fashion or video show? If the first five identical jacket-dresses were any indication, perhaps Demna Gvasalia was using the clothes as canvas for his personal message/visual noise, rather than the runway as the setting for the clothes. Could the flicking, changing, and disorienting images (including what appeared to be sea water, bringing to mind Calvin Klein at New York Fashion Week) be telling us that in confusing times, we need uncomplicated clothes?
Those suits-dresses (that could possibly double as a topcoat and worn unbuttoned to look less stuffy) shared a similar silhouette to the skirt suits that Mr Gvasalia introduced in his debut for Balenciaga in 2016. Now, however, the models were a lot less hunched forward in them, and the shoulders were a lot wider—being straighter, and a lot stronger—being squarer—literally. This tinkering with traditional tailoring has always been Mr Gvasalia’s strength, especially the skillful silhouette-shifting of at-first-look conservative, even old-fashioned, clothing into shapes that hint at couture, but minus the potential stuffiness.
To be sure, this was not the country-club tailoring for women who adore Ralph Lauren or tai-tai who admire Eleanor Young’s love of Giorgio Armani. It is in this fear-not of angular shoulders, rounded hips (but not constricted), and past-the-knee length that gives Balenciaga jackets, suits, and coats their immense, although man-repelling, pull. This may be be subversive to what constitutes tasteful and feminine tailoring, but it proposes that the tailleur need not be stuck in time or taste. This is not a conscious reaction against street style; this is not even merely re-writing the house codes. This is design, pure and simple.
In addition to strong shoulders, there are the Balenciaga labels that you can have, perched on them. Labels, for a long time, are not obligated to remain on the inside of the centre-back of a garment. Mr Gvasalia has give them a pride of place where pirates of the past would have placed a faithful parrot. The logo has been a crucial part of Balenciaga’s current success, and the house will not forgo the opportunity to appeal to the post-adolescents who have been instrumental in making it a bastion of cool. So the name repeated all over a fabric seemed like an obvious option, but if you prefer something more fun and knowingly kitsch, there’s always the repeated pattern of the Eiffel Tower. You don’t get more French than that.
What could be touristy motifs aside, the complex cuts and draping ensured that there is nothing quiet about MrGvaslia’s collection. Some people consider these only moderately expressive clothes. And it is understandable when elsewhere, other designers prefer to holler than to hum. But even if the volume wasn’t turned up, it didn’t mean the collection was mute. The shirt-dresses, for example, had the smartness of what some might call office wear, but, with a drape of a sarong on one side, offered another possibility: resort ease. Diane Von Furstenburg could have been cursing that she didn’t think of that.
Photos: (main) Balenciaga live stream/(runway) indigital.tv
The triangle may not be the most obvious shape for a bag, but in the case of Balenciaga, that’s probably the point. So far, the brand that Demna Gvasalia has remade releases bags that seem to take a dig at regular carriers such as shopping bags. Their latest triangular handbag, conversely, appears to be inspired by something a lot more playful.
Such as a kid’s satchel? I remember seeing a rather similar shape at a housing estate trade fair, one that usually appears during in the weeks that lead up to a holiday, such as Christmas or Hari Raya. The bag that I now recall is in pink vinyl, with a scene from Frozen printed in the front. It hanged next to a ponderous-looking backpack in the same colour and of the same theme. Surely the stall-keeper must have thought that a girl who desires a backpack for school would like a matching handbag for after-school hours with her friends.
I can’t be sure that Mr Gvasalia saw the bag I did and was inspired, but I wouldn’t put it past him to single out something so kitschy or banal for ideas. Ikea’s Frakta carrier, I am sure, is still fresh in your mind. In fact, people are still carrying it as their regular tote, as if a season’s trendy irony never went away. Perhaps it did not, for the latest Balenciaga bag, known as the Triangle Medium Duffle, is in the same Ikea blue!
The bag feels a little strange in the hand, not because it is shaped like a photo corner and not because it is surprisingly rather light, but because it is stiff and small. In volume, it is probably as capacious as the 25-cm Hermès Kelly. In looks, however, it shares the same seriousness as a pair of platform Crocs that Balenciaga issued for the spring/summer 2018 season. Both are to be worn with humour and as counterpoint to the street style excess that’s getting a little too serious for its own good.
As it is a triangle with one point for the base, your prized possessions such as smartphone, battery bank, wallet, compact and such won’t lay flat at the bottom. They would have to be organised diagonally, which may cause some orientation problem when retrieving them. Ill organisation really means you have even less space to carry your life along with you. Do also note, the bag does not sit upright.
This bag reminds me of another bag: the almost-rectangular-but-quadrilateral Comme des Garçons X Beatles ‘Boat Bag’. The Balenciaga version is, of course, symmetrical, but both share something in common: they come from createurs who do not make fashion easy for their fans and users. Not that I mind.
Balenciaga Triangle Medium Duffle, SGD3,070, is available at Dover Street Market Singapore amd Belenciaga, Paragon. Photo: Jim Sim