Is it too crazy to think that Balenciaga’s couture show, presented Wednesday in Paris, might change the world?
Stick with me for a moment. Back when we still had flip phones, an aesthetically pleasing life—or at least the image of one, presented to your peers—was for the very few. One of the many ideas that appeared in the wake of the iPhone’s launch in 2007 was that aesthetically-pleasing, photo-worthy product was practically a democratic right—and so we got disruptive bed linens, cheery-colored Dutch ovens, and suitcases (that looked like big iPhones!) peddled with Susan Sontag quotes. Life might be difficult or chaotic or traumatic, but these easy to buy products, beckoning to us between photos of our friends’ vacations with their rounded edges and flat surfaces, smoothed everything over. As a result, the past two decades have been some of the most visually rich (but profoundly numbing) in history. It’s been a golden age for looks-first, and in some cases looks-only, life.
In the six years since he took the helm at Balenciaga, designer Demna Gvasalia has been staging a creepy counterrevolution. His work suggested the world wasn’t a smooth, tranquil place—everything has actually been ugly and queasy and strange and most of all funny. A fashion designer’s job, especially in these globalized, fashion-for-all times, is to capture the zeitgeist, but perhaps no designer in history has taken that mandate more literally than Gvasalia, whose work touches on attitudes far beyond style (like the encroachment of virtual reality on real life), and yet nearly every season innovates wildly through clothes (he told that story with a pair of rubbery suit-of-armor boots). Just as the iPhone seemed to Apple-ize so many consumer products, everything ugly, or aesthetically displeasing, seemed to reflect the Balenciaga aesthetic. Hence the memes that often blossom around the brand’s products—not to mention the anger the brand inspires when it puts something people consider outside the realm of high fashion in a runway context, like Crocs. In its loving sociology of people, archetypes, and the uniforms of power, Gvasalia’s work can’t even really be characterized as dystopian. It’s just reality.
So what does it tell us about the state of the world that Gvasalia, master of internet-era populism, has now launched couture, the most rarefied, most expensive, most art-for-art’s sake part of fashion? The first part of the answer lies in the clothing itself, which was sick—crisp but blousy suits; a dorked-up but sublimely lean tuxedo; big swaggy dresses and capes; plushy, almost corny terry cloth bathrobes that were actually microbladed leather; and feathery frocks and jackets that were actually silk embroidery meant to mimic the motion of the real (arguably unethical) stuff. As I said: sick. And all classic Gvasalia, from the urinal-is-a-fountain fashion play—a couture bathrobe?!—to the mind-bending trompe l’oeil materiality, like the leather robes. But it also suggested that Gvasalia, whose clothes have always been extremely online, is abandoning the flotsam of digital life for something private, exclusive, and extremely human. And yet his ambitions to transform the way we all see the world—that populism—still remains. It’s a tricky thing to pull off, and it requires something of a coup: a total dismantling of the way fashion and social media feed off each other.
It started with the shoulder. It used to be that Gvasalia’s silhouettes were big, tall, tense, and pitched forward—a material incarnation of fashion’s need to charge forward no matter what. Here, the shoulders were thrown back: some had the rounded shape of old Balenciaga, like those beloved by Cristobal himself, while others were portrait necklines tossed up and off the shoulders. It was the lean-back: a new confidence, a sense of tranquility rather than menace, and even sensuality.