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.

Fake Is Real. Balenciaga SS22

Balenciaga‘s Demna Gvasalia wouldn’t be Demna Gvasalia if he didn’t sprinkle a pinch of irony to his fashion. “It’s a deep fake of a fashion show,” declared the designer ahead of the launch of the ultra-high-tech video for his spring-summer 2022 “Clones” collection. “What we see online is not what it is. What’s real and what’s fake?” Ostensibly, one model – the artist Eliza Douglas, who has opened or closed Balenciaga shows since Gvasalia’s first collection for the house in 2016 – appears wearing both women’s and menswear on a white runway in front of a black-clad audience. But no one was “there” and no one is “real.” “It’s a show that never happened,” Gvasalia laughed. “But the clothes are real; they were made.” Accompanying information came in a deluge of language detailing the techniques the video producer Quentin Deronzier deployed to fake up Douglas’s appearance: photogrammetry, C.G. grafting of her scanned face, planar tracking, rotoscoping, machine learning, and 3D modeling. We’re in a new world now, in large part because all designers have had to grapple with 15 months of the pandemic preventing real-life show gatherings. What’s the alternative onscreen? Gvasalia, for one, has delighted in grabbing the opportunity to shift the medium of brand Balenciaga ever further into the realms of multilevel, conversation-and-meme-generating entertainment. There’s the Hacker Project – this season’s return match with Gucci, in which Balenciaga has “stolen” classic Gucci bag shapes and reprinted them with BBs instead of GGs, just as Alessandro Michele reproduced Demna Balenciaga patterns and diagonal branding in his last collection. There’s a Gucci best seller GG buckle belt redone with BBs too. “Alessandro and I are very different,” Gvaslia remarked. “But we both like to question this whole question around branding and appropriation…because everyone does it, whether they say it or not.” One of the totes comes knowingly scrawled with the graffiti legend “This is not a Gucci bag” – a reference to René Magritte’s 1929 painting The Treachery of Images. Questioning the authenticity of what we’re looking at has been going on in art since Surrealist times. The result here: a perfectly oxymoronic range of “genuine counterfeits” for our mind-twisted times. Other than the Gucci clash, there’s no mistaking Gvasalia’s roster of signatures: the supersized tailoring and coats; the loose printed dresses; the ski jackets, hoodies, and streetwear; the cyber-Gothic denim; the severely elegant eveningwear. With them, a vast range of distinctive Balenciaga accessories, from a reissue of the Crocs collaboration to the diamanté bow jewelry that originated in the house archive. There’s a part of Gvasalia that wanted to illuminate his fake runway with a bit of light and hope, he said. The first look to step out, in black velvet with a heavy veil, refers back to his prophetically apocalyptic show of February 2020. “It’s almost like mourning something, where we’ve all been,” he said. “But I wanted it to go into a bright space. And I ended it with a red ballroom dress.” After the retreat of the Balenciaga clones, he has the exact opposite planned: the showing of his much-anticipated first haute couture show, in real life, in Paris in early July. Handmade, in the works for more than a year, in front of a small audience, it’ll be his next big creative step forward. Can’t wait.

“Live” collage by Edward Kanarecki.

Feel Good. Balenciaga Pre-Fall 2021

There’s always irony to what Demna Gvasalia does. You can tune into the pre-fall 2021 “Feel Good” Balenciaga video and not see any fashion at all – just a stock compilation of heart-warming running horses, kittens, children, and dreamy landscapes. But the most radical content in this Balenciaga outing is actually invisible to the eye. “When I started this collection,” Gvasalia told Vogue, “I said only show me sustainable fabrics. I don’t want to look at anything else.” So everything here, beginning with the pink hoodie to the black dramatic puffed-sleeve gownlike silhouette at the end, is made from recycled and otherwise certifiably okay materials. That’s big from a brand as powerful and as influential as Balenciaga, one of the major fashion actors of the universe which calls on suppliers who do significant volumes business with them. “As creative directors, asking for this causes a chain reaction, and we have to use it,” Gvasalia continued. Taking action on absolving shoppers’ anxieties about the damaging consequences of how their clothes are made ought to be the norm. Gvasalia promises that what’s gone into this collection isn’t a one-off gesture – because who isn’t suspicious of the greenwashing promo tricks of fashion these days? He started asking for better, more sustainable alternatives a while back, he attests, and began putting some of them into the collection in September. Now to the clothes: a photoshopped lookbook, posed against a wish-we-were-there travelogue of the famous backdrops of the world. Design-wise, there are just as many familiar Balenciaga-universe destinations here: the oversize hoodies, sweatshirts, tailoring; tweaked takes on signature floral-print dresses; recycled leather and denim things; magnified utility-worker jackets. A lot of the garments, Gvasalia said, are constructed as joined-together all-in-one pieces “trompe l’oeil, so what you see isn’t what you get. A lot of dresses which are actually coats.” So, too his lookalike ‘furs,’ which aren’t either animal pelts or petrochemical fakes. A brown chubby jacket and a coat are the results of hundreds of hours of chopping up and embroidering recycled cotton. They’re lavishly time-consuming hand-made pieces. Obviously, Gvasalia is keeping his creative powder dry for the long-deferred launch of the Balenciaga haute couture collection that he’ll show sometime this summer, pandemic willing. Meantime, predictive minds might leap to the elegant silhouette in black – full length, balloon sleeved, quilted and lace-trimmed drama that Gvasalia swears was inspired by the shape of Princess Diana’s wedding dress. It’s actually a coat. “ She’s wearing a t-shirt and jeans under that.” The Gay Pride hoodie worn with the padded stole (consciously a Demna-for-Balenciaga adaptation from Cristobal’s matching ensembles for couture customers) is another highlight of the collection. “I’m gay. I grew up in a society where I couldn’t have worn that, and there are places in the world that you cannot today,” the designer said. “It’s important to push through against homophobia. I’m not someone who goes out in the street and shouts. But this is the political fashion activism I can do.

“Live” collage by Edward Kanarecki.

Aria. Gucci AW21

Gucci turns 100 this year, and Alessandro Michele’s new collection is a very bold and sexy celebration of that milestone. Not unexpectedly it reexamines the house’s history. Michele picked up on Gucci’s equestrian codes, giving them a fetishistic spin – one model cracked their whip as they made their way down the runway. He also reprised one of Tom Ford’s greatest hits, the red velvet tuxedo from autumn-winter 1996, with tweaks including new, more pronounced shoulders, a leather harness, and versions for both men and women. More surprising were the pieces that Michele “quoted” from Demna Gvasalia’s Balenciaga, another brand in the Kering stable. As the show began and social media started pinging with chatter about the collaboration, a press representative clarified that this was not in fact one of fashion’s familiar hookups but rather the first output from Michele’s so-called hacking lab. With Gvasalia’s permission, Michele used some of the Balenciaga designer’s iconic shapes and symbols, including the padded hip jacket from 2016 and spring 2017’s spandex peplum top and leggings. All these things mixed and mingled with his own symbols (glitter for day, copious amounts of marabou, and anatomical heart minaudières encrusted with rhinestones) alongside a vital new emphasis on classic tailoring. In that hacking, Michele has something in common with the sample-loving musicians on his soundtrack (from Lil Pump’s “Gucci Gang” to Die Antwoord and Dita Von Teese’s “Gucci Coochie). But it’s a rarer occurrence in fashion, a point made clear by a written statement from François-Henri Pinault, Kering’s chairman and CEO: “I have seen how [Alessandro and Demna’s] innovative, inclusive, and iconoclastic visions are aligned with the expectations and desires of people today,” he said. “Those visions are reflected not only in their creative offerings but also in their ability to raise questions about our times and its conventions.” The industry will be watching how, with whom, and where this concept goes next. Gucci is as pop as fashion brands can be. Michele gets that on a fundamental level, and he understandably relishes that he’s a culture maker as much as a designer of clothes and accessories. “Young people look at the brand as a platform, a place. They visualize Gucci a million different ways, a million different times,” he told Vogue. Hence the music video he made with his friend, the filmmaker Floria Sigismondi. After walking the gauntlet of old-fashioned cameras that lined the runway, like superstars working a red carpet, the models paused in a darkened anteroom before pouring out into an imaginary forest where they cavorted with white horses, peacocks, and cockatoos. The film closes with one of those crystalized heart minaudières lifting into the air. It’s a post-pandemic dreamscape. And finally, a great example of a fashion (show) film.

“Live” collage by Edward Kanarecki.

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.