Radical Carte Blanche. Balenciaga AW23

After THE controversy – which became an unprecedented case study that polarized the fashion industry – that escalated in the second half of December and continued to be dynamically scrutinized in the beginning of 2023, Balenciaga and Demna are back. Cautiously. The autumn-winter 2023 fashion show was provocation-free: just a white-cube venue and models in clothes, with no sociopolitical context playing in the background or a performative, highly-viral shock value. Stripping back to the fundamentals of design has been a thrust of this latest round of shows, but nowhere was the extreme tension between those two poles felt more sharply than at this show. Demna’s explanation and apology, with information about the brand’s plans for internal reform and its offer of reparation through a three-year partnership with the National Children’s Alliance was published by Vogue in early February. “I needed to have a show because I need to move on. I need to liberate myself – through my work, and what I do, and put it out there,” he’d said in a one-on-one conversation held at Balenciaga headquarters in the days before the show. “Because it has been a hell three months, and I really don’t know how I had the strength in me, mentally, to go through it.

The choice he made was to ditch his mega-set methodology and showcase his personal bid for reputational integrity as a designer. “It had overshadowed the collections – most people didn’t see the clothes even when it was packed with great clothes. You know, I just felt almost like [I was] betraying that by doing those kinds of set designs, because the most important thing for me in my work was being overshadowed by 15 minutes of buzzy concept. I was like, I was like, ‘Okay, I need to change that anyway,’” he said. “And this whole situation really just confirmed to me that it cannot be about that anymore. I love doing that. But I don’t love doing that more than making clothes and I felt like I needed to put this in focus. It came together with something that truly represents me as a designer. I feel like this is the message I want to give: This is who I am.” Who he is, and where he is now: it was hard not to read the imagery of a world turned upside down in the makings of the long, somber sequence of 17 black oversized tailoring looks that opened the show. Black is a Balenciaga core non-shade; it syncs with the mood of fashion at large, and it was a reminder that Demna was, after all, the progenitor of the super-sizing that’s swept fashion in the last decade. Nothing new there. What was different: all these pieces were constructed from reverse-tailored trousers. There were coats and jackets with pant-loops and pockets in the hems. And below them hung doubled pairs of trousers, giving, from the side, the surreal illusion that the people were walking on four legs. In the next part of the collection, Demna refocused on Cristóbal Balenciaga’s legacy. “Evolving it is the number one reason why I am here,” as he’d commented to Vogue earlier. Shorn of distractions, critically, the collection could be seen as a hybrid of Demna-isms – cyber-avatar menswear, his familiar flower-printed knife-pleated dresses – segueing into more of a distinct homage to the founder’s archival evening gowns. These were long, slim, covered-up dresses, minutely embellished, and with a new signature rounded-bump of a shoulderline. Aside from the styling, there is one far more radical change on the way for Balenciaga. It was heralded only by its absence – the fact that the clothes and accessories were wiped clean of logos. The attraction of highly visible branding has been part and parcel of the cult of Balenciaga that Demna has brought to popular street culture everywhere. “It’s a big thing,” he admitted. “But I think we’re going to enter the stage in my work where it doesn’t need to be justified by the brand on it. To be honest, it’s necessary, and I use this opportunity now to convince that this is the right thing to do. And of course, you know, doing that means not doing it only once. You have to persist to be able to change.

Collage by Edward Kanarecki.
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