Photography Mitchell Sams

how demna’s balenciaga took over the world and defined the aesthetic of a generation

2017 belonged to Balenciaga.

by Felix Petty
18 December 2017, 9:39am

Photography Mitchell Sams

The last looks of Alexander Wang’s tenure at Balenciaga swanned by in a floaty all white flutter down a Paris catwalk. They were floppy and frilly, tender in lace and relaxed in slippers. It was soft and natural, sexless and refined. Alexander Wang’s Balenciaga feels like a lifetime ago, a three year interlude damned by the era-defining designers the American found himself planted between.

It feels so long ago partly due to the horrific head-spin of Fashion Time, which operates like a goldfish stuck in a hamster wheel. Constantly going round and round and unable to remember, with any specificity, anything that happened longer than five minutes ago. But mainly it feels so long ago because since Demna’s debut collection for autumn/winter 16, he’s obliterated Balenciaga’s immediate past. Following Nicolas Ghesquiere isn’t easy, but so completely has Balenciaga been Demnafied, it feels like Wang never inhabited the house.

Demna and Balenciaga feel in sync. He and the brand are the perfect complement for each other at the moment, which shows in how commercially and critically successful he’s been. Not that Alexander Wang was ever not selling, or doing commercially badly or was slated by critics, which only shows how much Demna has pushed the brand on, how his fashion language has become universally accepted and frames the aesthetic of the times. So much so that it’s hard to imagine anyone “raising eyebrows” at his appointment now, as they did when he took over.

The reason for those raised eyebrows at the time of his joining was, as Vogue’s Lauren Milligan wrote (slightly missing the mood of the age), because “he was a very avant-garde designer in the mould of Martin Margiela”. Vanessa Friedman, with a little more prescience and closer to foreseeing the attitude that’s defined late-00s fashion, wrote in the New York Times that “Though Mr. Gvasalia’s appointment was widely rumored during fashion week, many had dismissed the gossip as unbelievable [because] the extreme, almost antifashion streetwear aesthetic of Vetements might seem the opposite of the historically elitist Balenciaga.” From such humble and sceptical beginnings, here we are, Demna at Balenciaga sitting astride the world, challenged maybe only for contemporary relevance by Alessandro Michele’s Gucci.

The twist is of course that the antifashion streetwear aesthetic is the new elitism. We live in a world of very rare, super limited edition egalitarianism.

He clambered up there by expertly mixing together all those elements that all those journalists were a little cynical about. He took the avant-garde attitudes of Margiela, the antifashion streetwear aesthetic he’d pioneered at Vetements, and the historical elitism of Balenciaga, and put it in one place. The twist is of course that the antifashion streetwear aesthetic is the new elitism. We live in a world of very rare, super limited edition egalitarianism. That is our generation’s whole fashion MO; the teasing and redefining of the spaces between new and old elitism. And in the space between the two we can find the defining aesthetic of our times. An elaborate parlour game of insider jokes, nods and homages; a brazen brattish attitude to flaunt in the face of an acceptable bourgeois fashion snobbery.

It’s easy enough to sneer and scowl at certain elements of what Demna’s done. The opinion-splitting up-front fuck-you ugliness. The tabloid-baiting shock recontextualisation of the quotidian into luxury. The dramatic unseemly plays with proportion. The desire to take logomania into absurd territory. The way it threads in, throughout all that, bright bursts of conventional beauty and pure lux covetability. Between this, and Vetements’ unstoppable flood of collaborative deconstruction, Demna’s created a patchwork that’s set the agenda for a new age of street-focussed creative directors working at historic houses. His success has made a whole generation’s attitude towards the fashion industry and clothing relevant, serious and respected. They can mix together logos of Kering, the multinational business conglomerate who own Balenciaga, and Bernie Sanders, America’s Favourite Socialist, into one collection, without fracturing the thematic bonds between them. It’s a clash of juxtapositions held around a fractured web, that made little of the distinctions between the high/low and underground/mainstream and corporate/cool and authentic/fake and kitsch/chic.

Paris became the epicentre of this collision. The only place where hypebeast and haute couture could live side-by-side in perfect harmony. "It's a kind of movement, but it's an air in fashion in general," Demna told i-D in 2016, reflecting on the new mood, aesthetic and silhouette of the era. Hypebeast and haute couture are two very different worlds, but they function as mirrors of each other. Secluded fashion Vaticans, full of secrets and codes and never-explained rules.

"There are a lot of questions to be answered now in terms of what luxury means, what underground means," Demna continued. "It happened in the right place and the right time. Everybody got on this wave… this new generation thing, which was inevitable whether Vetements had been there or not. Vetements just escalated and happened faster, which is great. Paris was stagnant for so long. Now you have this energy where Anna Wintour goes to the Vetements and Jacquemus shows. That's amazing! It's a shift."

The shift Vetements encapsulated was the rising up of what’s usually considered low to the highest of high fashion. At Balenciaga Demna is giving expression to a movement in the other direction, grounding luxury in reality. Demna has spawned imitators in both spheres but didn’t stand still; the copycats found themselves rushing into the space Demna and co had opened up only to find they’d already vacated it. They cycled through post-soviet-isms and collaboration mania. They fucked with the schedule and moved their shows, presented their exactitudes, moved from Paris to Zurich, and then disappeared off the schedule entirely, showing instead a collection of photographs, and hosting pop-ups in Asia.

It’s in the spaces around Vetements and Balenciaga that the zeitgeist has formed; landfill lux streetwear as a second hand salute to a copy of an original.

As Vetements got bigger, Demna seemed to buck the trend for the celebrity designer and drifted away from the limelight, with his brother Guram taking the role as the usual mouthpiece for the brand. It returns the brand to their roots, shrouded in mystery and with an emphasis on the brand as a design collective, rather than the work of one collective genius. It’s ridden its hype to arrive back at the beginning.

It’s in the spaces around Vetements and Balenciaga that the zeitgeist has formed; ugly big trainers; critics in love with the easy potential of sportswear, as if comfort were some bold new trend; band T-shirts that cost £500 as a kind of ironically sincere detachment statement; the meme-ification of fashion into grammable content. In the hands of everyone else, these elements seem to fall a little flat and feel empty. Landfill lux streetwear as a second hand salute to a copy of an original.

Streetwear feels revolutionary because it is democratising and open. In an age where the old cultural establishments are crumbling, the interconnected creativity of the streetwear scene takes in music, parties, zines, lifestyle, as much as it does actual fashion; but Demna represents the highest of achievements of that democratising new mood, because it has totally changed the whole language of fashion, and now fashion finds itself speaking Demna’s language.