Can you design a redemption narrative for yourself without dramatically changing your identity?
This was the question at the heart of the Balenciaga fall 2023 show, perhaps the most high-stakes collection of the whole fashion season that began in New York on February 10 and ends, finally, on March 7.
It’s also, of course, a question posed repeatedly in this particular moment, where the behaviour of our sacred cows gets adjudicated in the court of public opinion, and those who rise on virality fall on it, too.
That made the Balenciaga show less of a collection than a cultural test case: essentially the black mirror version of the grand spectacles of social commentary masquerading as shows that helped drive the brand’s stratospheric success and $2 billion in annual revenues, masterminded by the brand’s mononymic creative director Demna; shows about celebrity, war, capitalism and even dirt (in all its iterations). Only this time, it was personal.
A brief recap, for those who don’t remember how we got to here.
About a month after the dirt show in October, which had been opened by Ye, the artist formerly known as Kanye West (a relationship that created its own mini-story of controversy with Ye’s subsequent White Lives Matter show and spate of antisemitic and anti-Black remarks), Balenciaga published two ad campaigns. Of those, one involved young children holding bags that looked like teddy bears in bondage gear; the other depicted an office in which buried in a giant mess of papers were documents about a Supreme Court case on child pornography.
A maelstrom of Internet outrage, chaos and conspiracy theories ensued and took on a life of its own, with Demna and the house’s CEO, Cédric Charbit, at its centre. The brand’s seemingly unstoppable rise was halted in its tracks.
Since then they have been quietly working to put things right, including one-on-one post-mortems with industry insiders and mea culpas about the systemic and judgment failures that allowed the campaigns to happen, but the show on Sunday was the biggest public statement since the furor.
It was held in the old Carrousel du Louvre, a generic convention-like area in the museum that once, briefly, had been used as the centre of fashion week, before designers decided they didn’t want to share the same plain white spaces, no matter how storied the address, and started trying to one-up each other with national monuments.
This time, gone were the theatrics, the grandiose framing of Balenciaga prior. Gone were the celebrity guests.
Instead there was a claustrophobically low ceiling, a hush in the air as if everyone was holding their breath, and a long, long runway, like a road back, lined with cream-colored toile: the base material out of which fashion patterns are cut, and the fashion equivalent of the blank page.
On it, Demna offered up a collection of Just Clothes — which really means, he said in a preview, he offered up himself — set to a piece of music composed by his husband, Loïk Gomez (professional name BFRND). Gomez composed the piece when he was 12, Demna said, and had played it on their first date.
Then Demna dared everyone to judge him on his strength as a designer.
According to Demna, in the depths of the brand’s crisis and his own personal despair, he retreated to his home in Switzerland with a rack of pants and started cutting them up, as he had when he was a child. “Tailoring was my therapy,” he said, so that’s where he began: with tailored daywear all made from reconfigured trousers.
There were trousers-as-jackets, the fly of the pants left open to become the vent and the waistbands turned into hems; trousers-as-trench coats, the rise of the pants turned into the flap at the back; six pairs of trousers (at least) pressed together into a sort of swinging tunic dress reminiscent of Balenciaga’s sack dress from the 1950s. Trousers layered one atop the other, so one flowed from the sides of the other like a train. If it was very Margiela-reminiscent (Margiela being a formative influence and a former employer of Demna’s), it was also newly polished.
Then came a section of leathers, puffers and denim, inflated from the inside into extreme curves and turtle shapes by the technology normally used to protect motorcyclists and skiers from crashes, which may have been a new way to put the focus on silhouette but which also seemed a metaphor too good to resist.
Next a section of haute bourgeois florals in pleated silk and leather, sleeves skimming down almost to the floor, shoulders rounded in a permanent, slightly tense, little shrug. And finally, a set of glimmering, modernist high-neck, long-sleeve evening gowns in silver, lace and beaded fringe, like wearable skyscrapers.
It was elegant. Adult. Contrite. But was it enough to stoke new desire? — NYT