demna gvasalia's menswear debut at balenciaga spring/summer 17
On the first day of spring/summer 17 men’s shows in Paris, Demna Gvasalia challenged the final frontier of menswear — the suit — in his first men’s show for Balenciaga, while Haider Ackermann turned clubwear into daywear.
When it comes to menswear, the label "brave" has become as hard to achieve for a designer as "avant-garde" is in womenswear. Everything has been done before: dresses, skirts, nudity, violence, and so on. So when Demna Gvasalia — fashion's newest and most accurate commentator — put on his first menswear show for Balenciaga on the first day of spring/summer 17 shows in Paris, his bravery didn't lie in shock value or the gender-bending that's such a big part of our moment in time, but in something as banal as suits. "It's quite difficult to make people wear a perfectly tailored jacket unless they work in business," he said after the show, which challenged the proportions of the suit — this, the most sacred of conventional and conservative uniforms, worn by men throughout the world to look authoritative and, paradoxically, at the same time, blend in. "The idea of tailoring for me is interesting when it's out of its frame. And that's what we tried to do with these two extremes that we developed: the shrunk look and the exaggerated boxy shape, which was based on a coat from the archive that Cristobal made for himself," Demna said, referring to Mr. Balenciaga.
It materialized in shoulders that would have made Herman Munster swoon, and tiny little suits that looked as if a teenage boy was growing out of them. For the suit — the holy grail of office-wear — it was practically sacrilege! Here was a collection, which took a uniform employed to fulfill a dress code that basically makes sure men keep in line sartorially and hide any hint of self-expression, and changing it entirely with the opposite as the outcome. And like any real rebel, Demna didn't seem to realize the extent of the message he was sending out. "I think dress codes are important," he said, defiantly. "We had a lot of dress codes in the show. When we did the looks we ended up with either a businessman — someone who wants to be on the Forbes list — or someone quite casual but still in a tailored way, who would wear a bomber jacket, but a bomber jacket done like a tailored jacket so that everything that's in a tailored jacket was in that bomber jacket." Adding to that, he paired long coats with petticoats coming out from under the hem, with chunky high-heeled boots, and enough rings on models' fingers to make Alessandro Michele feel a little under-dressed.
Surely, wearing anything like this in a banker's office on Wall Street or in London's City would be grounds for redundancy? Demna's Balenciaga collection was a reminder that no matter how much fashion's tireless efforts to revolutionize a men's uniform that's been rather dreary since the Industrial Revolution have impacted how the mainstream man dresses, the dress code barrier of the suit is still a force to be reckoned with. No matter how much we talk about "gender-fluidity" or "unisex" or whatever else rocks the menswear boat, the reality is that most men in the world still wake up every morning and put on a suit. In an interview with i-D in 2012, Raf Simons raised just that question. "It's proof of the opposite of innovation and evolution that men still wear suits in the office. And it's very worrying for me that there are men in corporate situations expecting other men from the younger generations to be dressed like that because of their own psychological limitations and because of their own not-freed ideals. There's a constant evolution happening in women's fashion, but not in men's. It's a disaster," he said.
Simons explained that he'd started putting teenage boys in tailoring in his shows because, "I almost find it avant-garde that you're dressed like that when you're 16. I don't know why the evolution is connected to age, because naturally there are no young kids at 16 who are interested in being dressed like that. Nobody. No man in the world is interested in being dressed like that. There must be some very big stubborn psychology going on in men when it comes to dressing." Four years on from Simons' comments, an increasingly Instragram-centric world has zoned in on the gender debate, creating new opportunities for changing the big menswear picture, including the suit. For Demna, his first Balenciaga collection was the right time and place. But in working with the suit, he also nodded to the necessities of dress codes, for instance when it comes to ceremonial dressing or "clothes you wear for a certain event," as he put it. "We got into churchwear because we started working with a manufacturer in Italy, who makes churchwear for the Vatican. That's how we got this religious element in the collection, which we quite enjoyed," he said, referring to looks featuring priest-like jackets, robe-like coats, and churchy scarves.
Because as much as dress codes in the office are due for a revolution, ceremonial dress codes are something linked so much to a social code of conduct of respect and formality that perhaps it shouldn't change that radically. Wearing a bomber jacket to a funeral just wouldn't seem right. This was all part of Demna's conversation with his customer, who now gets to follow his ongoing story on three different fashion platforms: at women's ready-to-wear in Paris with Balenciaga, during the men's shows also with Balenciaga, and for haute couture which will host his Vetements show on July 3. For Demna — and his brother Guram Gvasalia, the CEO of Vetements — it's a rare and virtually untried opportunity to affect the fashion landscape inside and out. And if someone had to have the world's attention in the palm of his hand, thank God it's Demna. Wednesday evening, Haider Ackermann staged a beautiful show at Palais Galliera, which had been covered in picture-perfect rain just moments before, reflecting the light in the glistening neo-classicist courtyard. His collection — "an orgy of colors," he called it — wasn't about dress codes, but he echoed Demna's sentiment in the idea of bringing a uniform associated with a specific event or time of day into another.
"You know, when you're clubbing and sweating. It was about a whole night out, and making it a little more poetic," he said, highlighting garments that looked like you'd been sweating in them from too much dancing. "I have this gang of young kids around me, and they're so full of energy and, you know, I'm getting older and when you see what's happening in the world you sometimes get a little bit," he paused, then stopped. "But they are full on, and I wanted to capture that energy. They're just kids, who want to party and want to be happy. They're this generation, who want to be happy. They don't have the worries that we might have." Haider had cut off his trademark curls in favor of a shorter 'do, explaining it all came from a trip to Bhutan. "It's the most beautiful country in the world. It's so peaceful and quiet and you're high in the clouds because you're up in the mountains, and everything is peaceful. I wanted to be very light." It was a transformation on par with shifting up a suit: making over something classic and expected, and doing the unexpected. On the first day of the spring/summer 17 men's shows in Paris, the message to all men was clear: change is upon us.
Text Anders Christian Madsen
Images Mitchell Sams and courtesy of Haider Ackermann