Balenciaga Pre-Fall 2020

Fashion people are constantly racking their brains about what makes fashion relevant, but there’s no one like Demna Gvasalia for ushering an audience into a situation where the state of world affairs can bite so viscerally. He set his Balenciaga Spring collection in a political arena—a faux “Balenciaga parliament or assembly,” which he’d convened to investigate the subject of “power dressing and fashion uniforms.”

So there we sat, in an auditorium Gvasalia had pointedly smothered wall-to-wall in a color not far off the blue of the EU flag, to view his socio-design study of the structure of today’s dress codes. Senior delegates—women and men in tailoring, a severe, anonymous, identically suited corporate presence—opened the show. Who were they? On their breast pockets were embroidered badges, two discs bisected with a Balenciaga logo—a construct not dissimilar to the Mastercard design.

Then came what Gvasalia called the campaign dresses. “We looked at pictures of women politicians, of what they wear campaigning. We took this type of tailored daywear dress and tried to make it cool—not an easy challenge, to be honest,” he said. His solution was to “make them more boxy and cocoon-y, which is quite Balenciaga. So many body types can wear it. Democratic and easy-to-wear volumes.”

All the while a bombastic, pounding, semi-militaristic, horror-movie soundtrack insistently filled the space, mixed by Loïk Gomez, Gvasalia’s partner. The cast of characters—they were named in the show notes as doctors, lawyers, gallerists, and engineers as well as professional models—kept on coming. The closer you looked, the more you saw the prosthetically augmented jutting cheekbones, the blown-up lips. It was subtly terrifying.

Relevance, in Gvasalia’s mind, is equal parts sharp observation of what people wear and a focus on creating something that somehow relates back to the heritage of Cristóbal Balenciaga. That takes us to the crinoline dresses right at the end—almost a child’s cartoon fantasy in their bouncy silhouettes. “Ballroom dresses go back to the beginning of Balenciaga, when [Cristóbal] started in Spain. It was mostly this type of silhouette he did, from Spanish painting,” Gvasalia observed. “But we wanted to make sure they were wearable. If you take out the crinoline, you have a sort of goth dress.”

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In the middle, there was a Dynasty-era section, with huge shoulders and the fashion glitz that went with oil-rich couture patrons all those years back. What were their 2020 avatars doing, stalking the corridors of power today? No need to answer that.

We felt the fear, we saw the clothes. Some of it—the jersey sport pants, motocross pants, and tailored jackets—looked as if it will jibe with that young generation of male shoppers who are looking for a style upgrade from hoodies. Gvasalia senses the social shifts there too.

Asked if he considered this collection to be a paring back of shape and a honing in on reality, he came right back with an answer that resonated beyond his pragmatic design issues (easy clothes to feel powerful in) or the diverse personality casting: “Reality? I don’t think it gets more real than this.”

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