Since Demna Gvasalia took the helm of storied Spanish brand Balenciaga, the style set has been in a bit of a tizz. Also Creative Director of provocative Parisian brand Vetements, Gvasalia is responsible for those DHL tshirts and those £1,000 vintage jeans. At Balenciaga, he has created some equally divisive pieces which stray very, very far from Balenciaga’s beginnings in San Sebastian, Spain.
Cristobal Balenciaga started his couture house in 1918 and he became known for his dramatic, sculptural silhouettes. Respected among his contemporaries, he was referred to as “the master of us all” by Christian Dior. His signatures included bubble skirts and ultra-modern, directional yet feminine pieces. During WWII, he was noted for his “square coat”, with sleeves cut in a single piece with the yoke as well as using black lace over hot pink fabric. He went onto design the spherical balloon jacket, the cocoon coat and the balloon skirt among many other design innovations.
The likes of Oscar de la Renta, Emanuel Ungaro and Hubert de Givenchy learned their craft while working for Balenciaga before going on to open their own houses, but sadly the house lay dormant for nearly 30 years before being resurrected in a very different world. Nicolas Ghesquiere took the helm in 1997, producing ready-to-wear in the minimalism-obsessed 90s, a stark contrast to Balenciaga’s couture beginnings. During his 15-year tenure, Ghesquiere breathed new life into Balenciaga, making it one of the most sought after Parisian brands.
I was obsessed with Balenciaga, as was the rest of the fashion industry. Ghesquiere’s science fiction-inspired collections influenced every strata of the industry from his contemporaries through to fast-fashion retailers, keen to offer their own iteration of his robot leggings, ikat prints and sci-fi inspired silhouettes. Everyone from Kylie to Anna Wintour wore Balenciaga. It came as a shock when Balenciaga announced they were parting ways with Nicolas Ghesquiere, who was being succeeded by Alexander Wang. Just a couple of years later, Demna Gvasalia was announced as Creative Director.
Gvasalia’s appointment at the storied house in 2015 was met with mixed reactions. On the surface, his irreverent take on fashion is at odds with Balenciaga’s couture heritage. But both designers are unconventional mavericks who are making waves. Gvasalia is disrupting the fashion system by showing two in-season collections off-schedule, resulting in a leaner, more concise collection shown in a timely manner cutting down on the need for pre-collections and to minimise overproduction. In 1957, Balenciaga resigned from the Chambre Syndicate de la Haute Couture and refused to show his collection to press for nearly a month after it was unveiled to manufacturers, clients and buyers. Not to mention casting “unconvential” models – the models in Balenciaga’s day were referred to as “monsters” while Gvaslia casts friends over models. A widely publicised and notable absence to Gvasalia's model line up is any model of colour. His shows are completely whitewashed, which in this day and age is unbelievable.
I get Gvaslia’s appointment at Balenciaga but I also can’t help but feel like he’s having a massive LOL as he trolls us with tongue-in-cheek pieces which would be right at home on a Vetements runway but don’t quite sit well with the Balenciaga brand. His first collection saw the birth of the Bazar bag, aka the $2 Thai market bag, which has a hefty £975+ price tag. It seems like it’s selling though, with buyers at both Net-a-Porter and Matches surprised at how quickly certain sizes have sold out.
For his second trick, Gvasalia created a luxury Ikea tote and this season sees his interpretation of the blanket bag – traditionally a hideous cheap floral blanket carried in a clear plastic bag, a familiar sight for most people of colour. Gsavalia’s version has the familiar floral pattern and shape, but it comes in leather with a £2,325 price tag. LOL.
Despite the irreverent pieces making the headlines, they are certainly selling and the RTW collections themselves are extremely covetable. Gvasalia takes elements of Balenciaga sculptural signatures and translates them into extreme shouldered blazers reinforced with whalebone rods or bold spandex pointy-toe-to-hip boots, already seen on the likes of Rihanna and Kylie Jenner.
In an age where Gucci is harnessing memes for their campaigns, Gvasalia’s appointment at Balenciaga seems very right. The role of the Creative Director is evolving; they no longer sit in an ivory tower sketching dresses, they’re on the street and fully immersed with what is current. And no one is more current or adept at creating buzz and demand than Gvasalia, much like Cristobal Balenciaga. Personally, I can see the appeal and forgive the tongue-in-cheek, heading grabbing accessories but I cannot forgive the ignorant show casting.