Otherwordly. Balenciaga AW22 Couture

To be honest with you, this haute couture season didn’t really start for me until Balenciaga happened. The 51st Balenciaga haute couture collection. And the second coming from Demna. Nobody knew what to expect, the anticipation had the fashion insiders on an ecstatic high on a mid-week morning, and in the end, he didn’t dissapoint. To the sound of a love poem voiced by AI, a breed of haute couture humanoids encased in black neoprene, their faces uniformly erased in high-tech reflective face shields, stalked the Balenciaga haute couture salon. It looked like an invasion by a sinister breed marching on their spiked, chiseled space boots, ready to take over the earth once humanity has wiped itself out. This was Demna’s dystopian introduction to his latest couture collection for the house, which he shows annually. “This year I decided that I needed to put more of myself into it, and kind of find a new future, you know?” he said afterwards. “This is why the lineup started with very otherworldly, almost futuristic neoprene looks, which was my idea of interpreting gazar in 2022.” Invention, and taking time over it, is central to moving the art of couture forward. Famously, gazar was the sculptural silk which Cristobal Balenciaga invented with the fabric manufacturer Abrahams in 1958, in order to create the magnificently voluminous gowns he became known for. Demna’s equivalent – shaped into these wickedly kinky hyper-molded second-skin scuba dresses and tailored jackets – was engineered with a new kind of neoprene, made in collaboration with a sustainably-oriented Japanese manufacturer.

In the second half of the show, where faces were revealed, Demna’s friends, muses, and brand ambassadors walked. Kim Kardashian in a deep-plunge corset and draped skirt. Demna’s musician husband BFRND in opera gloves and a couture tank-top. Nicole Kidman in a silver gown. Dua Lipa and Bella Hadid in draped pops of colour. Eliza Douglas in the most perfect hourglass coat. Renata Litvinova in an all-black feather-mad cocktail dress. Naomi Campbell was the ultimate Balenciaga Maleficent. But back to his motivation for a minute. Last season, Demna caused a sensation by dealing with the stark, tailored elegance of the Balenciaga couture aesthetic. Now, he was putting himself first – owning an haute couture version of the streetwear that he has been responsible for elevating to designer fashion status. Hoodies, sweatshirts, worn-out denim, and parkas – some made of upcycled originals, others shot with aluminium to create crinkled couture-like volumes – followed the dystopian Balenciaga neoprene tribe. The commercial conundrum he faces is finding a way to connect couture with the following that is his main, democratically-based youth constituency – represented by all the outside spectators whose cheers poured in through the salon windows as the sidewalk turned into a celebrity-spotting event.

To square that circle, a new Balenciaga couture shop had opened on the Avenue Georges V, where certain limited edition items, like the upcycled pieces, Balenciaga souvenir porcelain figurines, and the ‘Speaker’ bag toted in the show can be bought. “There are items that will be ready to buy already. After the last show, people started to ask me, ‘how do we buy it?’ People, especially from the younger generation of maybe up-and-coming couture customers, don’t know, and we want to establish the dialogue. Create some kind of an entry to the salon.” But in a sense, Demna was also meeting Cristobal coming back. The arc of the show, he said, “was going from future into the past.” Thus the hyper-extravagance and drama of the vast crinolines and slinky, draped, train-trailing of his celebrity-walked finale. It’s still a debate whether the bride who couldn’t walk through the doors and struggled a lot to move in her heavily embellished dress was an art performance or an actual runway casualty. I’m fine with both versions of the story.

If it was more personal this season, there was a touching reason behind it. Explaining the AI-voiced poem at the opening of the show, Demna said they were the words of a love poem he’d written to his husband. “Because je t’aime is the most beautiful word in the language to me. I realized that couture, what I do, is the only thing I love doing and I want to be doing. And somehow this was a love letter to the person I love most in my life, and to the work, the art that I do. Both.

Collages by Edward Kanarecki.