Elevation. Balenciaga AW21 Couture

18 months were worth the wait. Demna Gvasalia‘s first (and the maison‘s 50th) haute couture collection for Balenciaga is one of the best things I’ve seen in fashion… in years. Yesterday, a fierce and noble elegance for our new age stalked through the couture salons of Balenciaga at 10 Avenue Georges V. The sound of the gasps of fashion journalists and clients was heard again for the first time in the 53 years since Cristóbal Balenciaga closed his couture house. Monsieur Balenciaga showed in silence to focus the audience on the line, cut, and presence of his clothes. So did Gvasalia. Facing the biggest test of his career, the designer brought a heightened dignity to his own revolutionary vision of 21st-century people while simultaneously honoring the greatest couturier of the 20th century. “It was my minute of silence to the heritage of Cristóbal Balenciaga but also a moment of silence to just shut up for a minute,” he said. “The pandemic made me take that minute of silence – or few months of silence – and really understand what I like in this ‘metier,’ as Cristóbal used to call it,” he said. “And I realized it’s not about fashion – actually, I love clothes. I’ve been talking about clothes, clothes, clothes rather than fashion.”

His couture debut had rigorous black tailoring, sober and austere; expansively extravagant gestures of taffeta; swathed stoles; gorgeous flowered embroideries; and the offhand drama of set-back collars. And haute couture jeans – hand-made on original American looms bought by Japanese manufacturers and commissioned there. To the point: the feat he managed with this ultra-aspirational collection was not to turn his back on the aesthetics of the street and underground but to give the inclusive values of a generation a sensational elevation. Confidence, grandeur, ease: His focus was on how to imbue these clothes with “couture allure, posture, and attitude,” he said. How to give equal value to a black turtleneck, pair of jeans, utility jacket, or T-shirt as to a grand ball gown or skirt suit? “People put me in the box of someone who designs hoodies and sneakers – and that’s not really who I am. I really wanted to show who I am as a designer, considering the legacy [of the house] that I’m lucky enough to have here,” he explained. “It was a challenge to find a balance between the fusion of the architectural legacy, the history, and what I stand for.” We witnessed Gvasalia resolving all that, upgrading everything that he’s liked and tried out and established as his language at speed at Balenciaga over the past few years. All his giant tailoring, oversized shirts, bathrobes, jeans, T-shirts, and utility jackets, perfected and carried off by his diverse (though still mainly mono-size) cast of models. “I don’t like standardized beauty. I don’t know why it’s supposed to be beauty if someone told you that,” he said. Cristóbal Balenciaga was the original couturier who had no time for designing for anyone other than the individual client. His house models were routinely described as monstrously ugly by the press. In his own way, in all kinds of different contexts, across a ridiculously long time gap, Gvasalia found a connection in that.

In his return to the physical, real-time, human, hand-stitched present of the presentation, there was something here that felt more radical than anything. “We cannot only look into the future. We have to look into the past to see where we’re going,” he said. “Clothes have a psychological impact on me. I realized they make me happy- and I realized that’s the purpose of fashion. It’s not about the frenzy and buzz – and the white noise, I call it, of the digital mayhem we’re living through. The essence of it is my passion and the tools. I realized that couture is the best way to manifest it. And this is what really turns me on.”

Collage by Edward Kanarecki.

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