Balenciaga Couture Fall 2021 Milan cover

Balenciaga Couture Fall 2021 Milan

This gripping show established Demna Gvasalia as a couture maverick — and a tailor and dressmaker as meticulous as the late founder.

In a couture salon on the Avenue George V, a show got underway with no music, allowing the guests to hear the rustle of fabrics — on low-slung track pants, on hand-loomed jeans dragging on the beige carpet and on parkas with a waterfall of volume trailing from the shoulders.

Demna Gvasalia had transported high fashion into the contemporary world, zhuzhing up garments familiar to a younger audience — and such cultural lightning rods as Kanye West, who arrived at the Balenciaga couture show wearing a bulbous black puffer from his Gap project, but who may wish to upgrade to one of Gvasalia’s elegant and imposing padded opera coats and stoles.

“How can we be sure it’s you?” luxury titan François-Henri Pinault, chairman and chief executive officer of Kering, said with a chuckle as he greeted West, whose face was obscured with a printed sack punched with a few holes for breathing. Lewis Hamilton, James Harden, Bella Hadid, Lil Baby and Salma Hayek were among the other bold-faced names in the room, meticulously restored to what it looked like in the late 1960s, when Cristóbal Balenciaga abruptly hung up his scissors.

One of the hottest tickets of Paris Couture Week, marking the return of Balenciaga to the couture arena after a 53-year absence, the show had an electric atmosphere and immediately established Gvasalia as a couture maverick — and a tailor and dressmaker as meticulous about silhouette as the late founder.

He opened the display with about a dozen dark suits and tuxedos modeled by men and women in high-heeled boots that pitched their frames forward, putting the focus on the broad, sculpted shoulders, the voluptuous trousers and the occasional nipped waist.

Shapes became more architectural as the show progressed, with collars that jutted upward and outward, or dipped elegantly in the back. Gvasalia was agnostic about this dramatic technique, employing it on denim jackets, tailored day dresses or fancy evening gowns in faille satin.

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There was wry humor, and painstaking technique, in his padded black T-shirt and swing-back gray hoodie; hidden luxury in his tracksuit, lined with cashmere, and showy embroideries, up to two months’ worth, on some of the gowns, inspired directly by the archive.

While absorbing the essence of Balenciaga’s heritage, Gvasalia stayed true to his oversize shapes and dystopian-tinged edginess, buffed and fitted to perfection in exceptional fabrics and with help from some of the best specialty ateliers in Europe.

“It’s the beginning of something different in my career,” the designer said after the show, wearing a long, severe black coat — no ball cap, and no nail polish. “People always put me in a box of somebody who designs hoodies and sneakers. And that’s really not who I am. It was important to use this opportunity to show who I really am as a designer, and this collection was the manifestation of that.”

Walter Van Beirendonck, one of Gvasalia’s teachers at Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts, who hired him right out of school to work on his men’s collection, gave the show an enthusiastic thumbs up.

“I really found it incredible — such a beautiful mix between Balenciaga and also modernity,” he said. “Most of the couture is about decoration. And here it was about tailoring, and about a new way of working with volumes.”

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