It’s Balenciaga’s world and we’re all just living in it
From crocs to couture, blow-out shows to bin bags, Kim to Kanye – here’s how the French fashion house became the defining luxury brand of our strange times.
Collage by Douglas Greenwood
Maybe it is the inevitable brain fog that comes with watching fashion shows for weeks on end, or simply a symptom of subliminal advertising, but recently I have been seeing Balenciaga everywhere I turn. Last week, it was while sitting in the cinema watching Robert Pattinson and Zöe Kravitz put their millennial spin on the Batman franchise. With its brooding Tumblr aesthetic, it offered its own distinct take on a vigilante billionaire and a feline sex siren. When not in his Batsuit, the new Bruce Wayne came slick-haired in oversized T-shirts, wraparound sunglasses and heavyweight hoodies, and Zöe’s slinky biker looks could well have easily been crafted from spandex. Indeed, both characters looked like they were wearing Balenciaga. Like, they really looked like they had placed a bulk order on SSENSE before deciding to tackle the corruption of Gotham. Here, Batman — who is supposed to be a billionaire playboy by day — could just as well have been a nocturnal Twitch gamer, a drill producer, a techbro, or a Central Saint Martins fashion student. All thanks to his distinctly Demna-fied wardrobe.
Come to think of it, though, there’s little out there that doesn’t look like Balenciaga these days — and therein lies the genius of its fearless creative leader, Demna, who no longer uses a surname à la pop culture auteurs such as Prince or Madonna. And it’s not even just other clothes – everyday mundanities have started to feel like Balenciaga: the task of taking out the bins; smashing your iPhone; or even putting on a high-vis jacket to cycle at night. It’s all so Balenciaga. Over the last seven years, the Georgian-born, Switzerland-based designer has been reshaping the look of contemporary luxury by turning ostensibly banal items and concepts into provocatively expensive goods. Little has avoided his Midas touch: Crocs, IKEA carrier bags, souvenir-shop trinkets, outdoorsy performance wear. And yes, bin bags and smashed iPhones, the latter of which were sent to guests as invitations to Balenciaga’s AW22 show.
Just like the purposefully distressed interiors of the house’s recently refurbished couture salons at 10 Avenue George V in Paris, and its new Bond Street flagship in London (which opens tomorrow), at times it can be difficult to distinguish between what’s a simulation, and what’s ‘real’. Is that really mud and rust, oil stains and cracks in the concrete floors? Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. Deep in the cracks between confusion and fascination lie the secrets to Balenciaga’s success. It’s become a mirror to our strangely fragmented times, as good fashion always should. It requires an expert eye to decipher between the genuine craftsmanship and the intentional artifice. The proof is in the pudding — what so easily could have resembled the decorative distressedness of a ye olde times Adventureland ride at Disneyland is in fact achieved through a level of craftsmanship that only true luxury houses can display. The so-called ‘Raw Architecture’ of Balenciaga’s stores was a result of Demna partnership with art director Niklas Bildstein Zaar and architect Andrea Faraguna of the Berlin-based studio Sub, which has been years in the making.
Sure, it’s not always for the faint-hearted. In the wrong hands, this blurring of good-bad taste could be deemed as another iteration of Emperor’s New Clothes. A made-in-Italy leather bin bag is ripe for ridicule, after all. What sets Demna apart, though, is the irreverence in the act. Those who know know, and the designer is nonplussed by those who don’t. He once said: “It is for someone who truly loves fashion, not for people who have time to debate Met gala looks for hours.” But that’s not really the point. In Paris, at a souvenir kiosk by the Trocadero, I was struck by how much of what was on display there was echoed in the (albeit elevated) offering in Balenciaga’s boutiques: Eiffel Tower keyrings, inexpensive foulard scarves, “Paris”-emblazoned baseball caps. It’s all there, in broad daylight, for people to see. There is a hint of irony but a lot of sincerity, too, in the way that Demna offers the world his conception of fashion.
With its artful blend of Y2K nostalgia, futuristic branding, and elevation of quotidian symbols, there is ostensibly little that Demna won’t touch, transforming whatever he does into a facet of his all-encompassing vision of what fashion can mean today — and to whom it can speak to. Most importantly, it doesn’t mock the humble source material from a haughty pedestal. You can wear the €5 souvenir-baseball cap or the IKEA carrier bag and still get the Balenciaga look. It’s what makes it truly democratic, and rooted within the actual act of simply getting dressed — something that fashion has all too often forgotten as a way to engage with new audiences.
In doing so, Demna has redefined the parameters of what a fashion house can be — placing it within the centre of a Venn diagram of luxury, celebrity, satire, retail, and reality itself. You don’t have to buy a two-thousand-euro handbag to enjoy the episode of The Simpsons that Demna created with creator Matt Groening, which poked fun at the cult of Balenciaga and premiered to an opera hall full of celebrities whose red carpet arrivals were a part of the overall Warholian performance. Neither do you have to in order to navigate the Balenciverse in the brand’s video game, developed with the digital firm behind Fortnite. Hell, you don’t even have to buy Balenciaga at Balenciaga — you can buy it at Gucci, where Demna’s rigidly hourglass blazers, City bags and trouser-boots come in Franekenstenian mashup-ups of GG-BB branding, like a megawatt musical duet.
Demna’s oeuvre is now pop culture itself. He is perhaps the only person to really broker peace between the world’s most famous couple, Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, both of whom count him as a collaborator. He attended last year’s Met Gala with the former, cloaking her in a black-out silhouette that riffed on the very idea of Kim Kardashian rather than the woman herself, and only a few weeks ago he wrapped her up in Balenciaga duct tape as a sort of Balenciaga package going through customs. With Kanye, Demna has elevated the theatrics of live music with a high-concept staging of Donda and democratised his own universe by partnering Balenciaga with YZY Gap. He is perhaps the only shared asset that can’t be divvied up by a messy court ruling.
It all comes back to that perplexing word when used in a fashion context: reality. Last month, things got really real at Balenciaga. Demna staged a Balenciaga show that will go down in history as one of the most powerful — and political — statements ever seen on the runway. The kind of show that will be talked about in decades to come, in the same way we reflect upon the pivotal McQueen, Galliano and Margiela shows today. He went where no other designer would — or could — go: he staged a show that reflected the realities of refugees of war, just six months after appearing yellow-bodied in Springfield. No irony in sight, it was a sincere display of the horrors of having your life uprooted and being forced to flee home, just as Demna and his family did when they trekked across the Caucasus mountains as some of the 250,000 Georgians forced from their homes by Abkhazian separatists during his country’s civil war. He was 10 at the time. “I actually blocked it in myself for 30 years until I started to read the news last week, and it brought all this pain back.” When asked what he wanted the message of the show to be, Demna simply replied: “The message is love, always.”
It cemented his position as fashion’s most far-reaching designer, someone who can reflect the world and all its absurdities with both irony and sincerity — which in and of itself is a reflection of how we all move through the world today, laughing at memes one second and witnessing the atrocities of war another. It brings to mind what Chris Kraus wrote in Where Art Belongs about the defunct art collective Bernadette Corporation, that it “stated the obvious in all its complexity” — refused to offer a transcendent answer to, or critique, of what they observed. Similarly, Balenciaga offers a high-concept foil for understanding the rudimentary appeal of clothes and sartorial symbols — but it relies on you to make of it what you will.
Suffice to say, it’s Balenciaga’s world and we’re all just living in it. Whether you’re Kim Kardashian, a traffic steward in a high-vis vest, a grande dame of couture or just someone in your favourite pair of jeans and a regular old T-shirt — you’re a part of the tapestry of Balenciaga’s universe, whether you love it or hate it. The question is: What’s not to love?