by ALEXANDER FURY
Demna Gvasalia has spent much time poring through the Balenciaga archives since he joined the house last October. Under his direction, the Pre-Fall lookbook was apparently shot there, while his first womenswear collection reinterpreted the attitudes found in Cristóbal Balenciaga’s haute couture for everyday clothes of today. While pawing through the shrouded racks of gazar, cocoon-backs, and three-quarter sleeves for her, Gvasalia found a coat. It was Cristóbal’s own, made by his own hands. He never finished it. So his latest heir decided it was his job to complete it—and it opened this show.That coat was not only the basis for the tailoring of the unfitted jackets that made up half of this show; it was also a fitting metaphor for its entirety. No pun on fitting, although fit was what the collection was all about. In every breast pocket sat a small piece of card you’d be forgiven for thinking was a pocket square. Gvasalia asserted they were the fitting cards used to record the measurements of clients in bespoke tailoring. That’s the closest menswear ever gets to haute couture, and Gvasalia chose to use it as his jumping-off point for this, the house of Balenciaga’s first-ever men’s runway show.
What Gvasalia tailored, forcefully, was a pair of silhouettes, either expanded to gargantuan, David Byrne’s Talking Heads proportions, or shrunken so close to the body that each jacket rever appeared to cross under the arm. Trousers were voluminous and necessarily cinched with belts, or tourniquet-tight. Essentially, nothing looked like it fit in the true sense of the word, which was absolutely intentional.
Like Cristóbal himself, Gvasalia is fascinated with the architecture of clothes. His garments this season were all about shoulders—either expanded a foot sideways to dwarf the models’ own or tugged so tight the swell of the human shoulder distorted the sleeve head. Hench versus wench. If the henchmen had the most immediate impact, pairs of models shoulder-barging each other as their American football–size pads clashed like Claude Montana models of old, the latter was quietly ingenious. Look at the back of any of those bandage-tight Balenciaga coats and they’re perfectly fitted to the body, a tailoring master class. “I wanted to push it,” said Gvasalia.
He certainly did. It wasn’t just the extremity of the garments, but the entire proposition of a highly fashioned, emphatically different silhouette for menswear and tailoring, to boot. In a few short minutes, Gvasalia managed to elucidate an erstwhile elusive men’s identity for the house. Granted, all those coats were unusual to see for an ostensibly Spring show—especially as Gvasalia returned to traditional tailoring techniques of canvased interlinings. It gave the collection a weight—not only intellectual, but physical. He felt it was important to lend the fabrics a new hand. “I wanted a feel of formality, of perfection, to everything,” he said. Hence, the sharp shoulder was translated into a casual wardrobe, jutting out of Harrington and MA-1 bomber jackets. They looked fantastic.
That formality, naturally, brings you to ceremony. Instead of the closing bride of haute couture tradition, Balenciaga got the Pope—or, at least, some silks that are close to him. The richly figured ecclesiastical damasks, in Velázquez’s Inquisition shades of liturgical red and purple, came from a supplier to the Holy See; a few Vatican lace aprons peeped from under coats, reminiscent of confirmation robes. Gvasalia said religion wasn’t the intended reference, but for a Balenciaga-phile like him (or me), it’s inevitable to connect that to Cristóbal’s devout Catholicism. He left his atelier each day only to pray, in a church on the Avenue George V; the atelier itself was deemed a “chapel” by Karl Lagerfeld; and Balenciaga clients were devoted defenders of the faith. Catholicism, Velázquez. All roads lead back to Cristóbal.
Would Cristóbal Balenciaga understand what has become of the house he founded in 1919? Probably not—but it’s likely he wouldn’t understand what’s become of the contemporary fashion world, full stop. Fashion shows for men? Who could have imagined that? What he would appreciate is Gvasalia’s interest in construction, in fashioning something new, different, and exciting. The notion of pushing boundaries, of relentless invention. And in Gvasalia’s absolute, bloody-minded conviction in what he’s doing, even when that stands resolutely outside of the fashion of his time.
That’s enough about the ghost of Cristóbal, though. At the finale, the original archive coat that Gvasalia had finished was the only look that didn’t reemerge. The implication? That Balenciaga had moved on to something new. This may have been a debut, but in its assurance, it felt like anything but.