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.

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.