Stimulating. Balenciaga AW21

The global pandemic pushed the fashion industry into abrupt reflection of how to show clothes, but most brands decide on a safe look-book or a film (and even episodes directed by renowned artists). And then, we’ve got Balenciaga‘s autumn-winter 2021 collection. I can’t recall a more stimulating fashion show presentation in a while. It’s not even a presentation, but a game. Yes, that’s what fashion can be in contemporary times. And Demna Gvasalia is a genius for acknowledging and embracing that. Afterworld: The Age of Tomorrow is an allegorical adventure, simultaneously a collection, and a break into the lived world of millions of players. “I hate the idea of fashion film. I find it very dated,” the designer tells Vogue. “We started working on this in April, since we knew that fashion shows would be out of the question.”  There are levels and levels to explore in what Gvasalia is engaging with now, and only one of them is the fact that on the tech side he teamed up with Unreal Engine, the games engine of Epic Games. He says it took a hundred people to pull off what is boasted of as a record-breaking “volumetric” video project escapade—meaning the hours of expertise and advanced technology that it took to digitally scan the Balenciaga models and their movements in a studio in Paris, and then transform them into avatars. “I asked them to imitate couture poses, which actually turned out to look like how gaming characters stand at the beginning of a game.” So that’s the start – and how the basic look book content was shot IRL. The “hero’s journey” narrative should be experienced first hand. I played the game, and I must say it’s brilliant. Maybe you’re not really doing anything, but the whole thing is immersing. Pandemic-wise, with everyone locked up in their homes, it’s a realm of escape; and connecting with others – that’s only mushroomed in emotional significance. Which is where Afterworld: The Age of Tomorrow comes in, constructed as Gvasalia’s projection into 2031 – 10 years hence, a gamified future where people will have battled through the anxieties of our present dark age to reach a better place, armored with some Balenciaga medieval boots as they go. “It’s about the comeback of youth – where nature and youth coexist,” he says. “Kind of hallucinogenic. It starts in a Balenciaga store in a city center, which could be anywhere. People go to meet in different suburbs, an arty underground area. Then you go to a black forest, led by a white rabbit to an illegal rave. Like you see people have been having this year.” The future of clothing aesthetics, Gvasalia imagines, is the logical extension of what’s already happening among the climate-emergency-aware generation. “People will keep wearing clothes they love until they fall apart. I do myself. So things look quite destroyed, worn in, pre-crinkled.” For outdoor dancing in the cold, there’s the signature Balenciaga red puffer (a look he made his name with in his first season), adapted to skew off one shoulder. Or the option of a shaggy gray padded coat. “It’s made of shredded deadstock. We cannot do fur today – and thank God. This gives that drama, instead. And it’s really light and warm.” It’s down into a cave next. Gvasalia swears this is not the same place of apocalyptic darkness he immersively evoked at his last Balenciaga show in March, where sinister black-clad people walked on black water under a burning sky. It was days before the world went into pandemic lockdown. “Some people called me prophetic after that. But fashion is a reflection of life,” he reasons. “We have been through dark times, but I don’t feel this darkness anymore. I feel hope. More positivity than despair.” There’s a hoodie, printed varsity-style with the word free on it. “People want to get to the other side of this.” In the gloom of the Afterworld cave, fashion-gamers will meet artist Eliza Douglas, Gvasalia’s emblematic Balenciaga model, dressed in armor as a modern-day Joan of Arc. “She takes a sword out of a stone, like in the myth of King Arthur. But she’s a modern-day pacifist warrior.” The high-heel armored boots she wears are the opposite of virtual. Gvasalia had them made by a man in the South of France who forges medieval armor. “It reminded me of how they make robots today,” he adds. “We’ve made some of them in softer leather. They’re going to be expensive. Limited.” Finally, the tribe of Balenciaga avatars – some dressed in old-style NASA space jackets, others in T-shirts printed with game-convention logos – will reach a mountaintop and see the sun rising. “The game ends with breathing in, and exhaling. It leads to a breathing app. A horizon where you can breathe,” says Gvasalia. “It’s making a reconnection, a balance with nature.” It’s drawing those parallels between ancient, mystical powers and modern consciousness that he’s really interested in. “I believe in a future that is spiritual. Loading a forgotten past.” He’s divined that right. Living through these times is absolute hell, but talk to many young people now, and spirituality, magic, and beliefs centered on the search for something greater soon rises through conversation. End of day, it’s an alternative to the “experiential” destination travel the insider fashion world got so extravagantly involved with in the past few years—just going to a far more democratically open-to-all realm, minus the mass expenditure of flight carbon emissions. Is there a future in more Balenciaga video games – maybe a shoppable one? “I would like to further explore it. I see a lot of potential in merging fashion with games, and in-game shopping is certainly the tool to be considered in the near future.” For now, though, he’s also spending his time reveling in the novelty of designing at completely the opposite end of the spectrum – the first haute couture Balenciaga collection that he’ll be presenting, when the time is right, in a physical show next summer. I can’t wait for this to finally happen. As Demna concluded, “I love it so much. We have time to do it, and with the craftsmanship we can use—it can be with Lesage embroidery or high-tech people from California. The sky’s the limit. Every time I go into that studio, it’s like Christmas every day.

Collage by Edward Kanarecki.

Time For Reset. Balenciaga SS21

I expected to see something truly uncomfortably intriguing from Demna Gvasalia, but his latest, spring Balenciaga collection is radical in a different way. First thing you notice: it’s all about Gvasalia’s Balenciaga classics, stripped-back and simplified. And then you get it: it’s a line-up that to the bone reflects what most of us (if not all) really feel now. We need comfort. We feel secure when invisible. We don’t want to be bothered by others. And it’s great if our turtleneck can act as a mask. You can love a gorgeous, fairy-tale dress, but deep inside, under the pressure of the cracking world, a good hoodie, a big coat, and a pair of undemanding pants make us feel safe and relaxed. So, as a sort of middle finger to the industry where some still do business as usual, trying to sell a dream, Gvasalia lets us stay in the comfort zone. But then, the collection isn’t as grey and dull as it might sound. “Hope is the last thing to die. That’s the Russian saying. You know, I couldn’t wait not to do a show. It didn’t feel right with the way things are. So we’ve made a music video,” he told Vogue in a phone call from Switzerland, where he lives. “My husband recorded that ’80s track by Corey Hart, ‘I wear my sunglasses at night’—because you know, is there anything more absurdly fashion than that? It’s also allegorical. You know, where is fashion going? It’s out there, searching in the dark at the moment, not seeing…” But wait – there is nothing dystopian about this video. Gvasalia’s tribe of Balenciaga nighttime people are each captured as if heading somewhere with a purposeful step. We see them as they walk along the Rue de Rivoli, past the Tuileries gardens, embodying exactly the inimitable cool of the type of people who turn heads after dark on the streets of Paris. We clock them, we check out their clothes, how they’ve put them together, each to their own. They feel real. They are real. Demna confesses that something has change inside of him, in midst of the lockdown. The very man who plunged his fashion show audience into a terrifyingly apocalyptic show experience last season has come back with his head in a far more optimistic place. “Because some day we will be out of this.” He imagined a man who leaves the house near the site of Cristóbal’s maison – a guy, setting out in an oversized navy suit, wraparound shades, and what looks to be a sweater draped over his head (but is a ready-made Balenciaga accessory). “So,” Gvasalia related, “he walks through the night, going through lots of changes, morphing into her, him, them. And they end up meeting as friends, going to a party or a club maybe—and everyone is without masks. That’s the hope!” Pandemic-end pending, however, the film credits meticulously set out every detail of the COVID-secure measures taken to safeguard models and crew. Moreover, the impetus of the collection was “imagining how fashion will be in 2030. When thinking of the future, it’s not a Stanley Kubrick space-age vision for me. Mine is very much down to earth. Ten years from now, everything in fashion will be sustainable. No discussion, right? I think we will be reusing the clothes we have. Time makes things beautiful. I heard a quote from Martin Margiela when I was working there, about the value of ‘the trace of time’ in clothes. That touched me deeply. We keep clothes like that to death. I mean, I have a hoodie that’s 15 years old. It’s bleached out and has holes in it. But I cannot throw that away. So, I thought: In the year 2030, how will your favorite things look, aged and destroyed?” A press release specified: “93.5% of the plain materials in this collection are either certified sustainable or upcycled. 100% of the print bases have sustainable certifications.” This speaks for itself. With the resources of the Kering Group at hand, Gvasalia said, “we discovered we could do it quite easily, with the exception of the fibers that are in some of the existing fabrics. There are solutions if you look for them. There’s a need to revise things. To start a new chapter.” So, in the end, it’s not that depressing. A reset-slash-detox brings space and lets fresh air in. Gvasalia keeps on provoking the mind, even with the simplest gestures.

Collage by Edward Kanarecki.

The Look – Balenciaga AW19 (Almodóvar Special!)

Pedro Almodóvar’s favourite colour is red. Colour in an Almodóvar film establishes mood and emotion, or a dramatic change in both. His most recurrent combination is red and blue, used to most striking effect in All About My Mother or Julieta. Red seems to be an important element in his upcoming The Human Voice, starring the one and only Tilda Swinton (!!!!) – set for Venice Film Festival that’s happening in a month. Also, I’m quite sure that the red knitted look worn by Swinton in the first released visual from the film is Balenciaga autumn-winter 2019 by Demna Gvasalia. Noting the production time and all, it makes sense. Now, I’m double-thrilled.

Collage by Edward Kanarecki.

Dress for Yourself. Balenciaga Resort 2021

The latest Balenciaga show by Demna Gvasalia was unforgettably apocalyptic (and ironically realistic), with the first two rows of seats in the amphitheater submerged underwater and scenes of climate apocalypse on the screens above. All eyes will be on him in October – I really, really can’t wait to see how will the designer recycle all that happened in 2020 so far. In the meantime, for resort 2021, Gvasalia and his team came up with a clever, low-concept way to showcase the collection, playing up the lack of IRL appointments by including in these photos all of the line sheet information an e-commerce buyer might glean in a showroom, virtual, or otherwise – all the way down to the garments’ and accessories’ material compositions and product IDs. Gvasalia admits that Balenciaga’s pre-collections aren’t really about newness. The pre-seasons are chances to elaborate on what he calls the house’s “archetypes,” pieces like oversized car coats and parkas, the tea-dress, logo denim, all kinds of tracksuits, hoodies and t-shirts, and cult accessories (think the “Knife” panta-shoes). This time around, the styling was done completely on-screen. “It was an experiment in showing you don’t always need the new,” Gvasalia told the press. “Fashion has become a race, running after novelty, and more and more. And here we did the opposite. We looked at what we have and asked what we can do with it so it looks different for the customer.” And how did the confinement affect – or inspired – Gvasalia? “The theme,” he continues, “was dress for yourself. In this lockdown we understood what’s important for people who like fashion and like to dress up: You do it for yourself first and foremost. Working from home started with me wearing boxer shorts and pajama pants: very lazy. I thought, I don’t have to make an effort to make my look every morning, but then I started getting depressed. When I started to dress up every morning, it changed my whole mood, I started to feel good about myself. This is the task that fashion has,” Gvasalia concludes, “to bring this excitement or goodness to the person wearing it. That’s the least we can do.

Collage by Edward Kanarecki.