More than half a century after Cristóbal Balenciaga closed the doors of 10 Avenue Georges V, Demna Gvasalia relaunched the maison’s couture, bringing fashion’s highest expression to the 21st century. But can couture really be for all?
In the history of fashion, there are happenings that will always stay unforgettable. Usually, they are flashy and bright, with a powerful energy that attracts us like a moth to light. Think of the gilded Egyptian-inspired John Galliano show for Dior in the spring of 2004, or Lady Gaga’s visceral meat dress. Then, there are the quiet moments when less really is more, and which take our breath away with their silent yet outstanding beauty. It is in this second category that falls the event that took place at the historic address 10 Avenue Georges V during Paris couture week – the first one post-pandemic – where Demna Gvasalia presented his debut couture collection for Balenciaga, exactly 53 years since Cristóbal Balenciaga closed his couture house.
Many lines have been written asking if haute couture still makes sense today. In a time when our lives move at a fast pace, where clothes are more available than ever, critics wonder if the artisanal, pricey, and formal world of fashion’s highest expression still has a place when sneakers and big logos rule. The conclusion to this was half answered as I received the coveted invitation to the show of the season in my hotel room: Balenciaga’s 50th couture collection, and Gvasalia’s first venture into this universe. Accompanying the usual calligraphy envelope was a small black box with a replica of the thimble used by Cristóbal Balenciaga himself to create his handmade sculptural silhouettes. The hint was clear.
“It’s exactly after this pandemic and sweatpants moment that the idea of unique garments, the idea of fashion making you feel special, is more relevant to me,” Gvasalia tells me the day before the show. He is sitting in an empty room in the Kering headquarters, wearing all black, a loose cut blazer, and heeled boots. “Like everyone else, I went through the pajama period during lockdown. But then I realized that I needed clothes to make myself happy, to feel human. Even in isolation, I started to dress up every day, even in a more extravagant way than what I usually do. I realized the impact clothes can have on the human psyche. It can transform you from being a lazy couch potato, watching Netflix all day, into feeling fabulous. And couture does that more than ready-to-wear, as it transports you. It is experimental fashion to me.”
Although this post-pandemic moment seems like the obvious timing to start this new chapter, Gvasalia also shares that there was much more to it, and that he was considering venturing into couture even before the world was put on hold. “Some people only know me as the sneakers guy,” he says with a smile. “That is far away from who I am as a designer and being in this house, with the immense and unique heritage of the founder, it almost felt like I could never finish that vision, the pyramid of my vision, without doing couture. So I actually started to think about it before the pandemic.”
The house of Balenciaga was founded by Cristóbal Balenciaga in San Sebastian in 1919. After the Spanish civil war, the founder moved to Paris and relaunched his label in 1937, to instant success. The son of a seamstress, Cristóbal Balenciaga was known for his unmatchable perfectionism, searching for beauty in architectural shapes, and often using black. He was named the king of fashion, and many of his designs are still part of fashion’s current vocabulary. The mantle coat, the double-balloon evening dress, the cape wedding dress, and the unforgettable black rose dress, photographed by Irving Penn for Vogue US in 1967, are some of his most iconic pieces.
After Cristóbal Balenciaga passed away in 1972, the house lost its authority, regaining visibility only in 1997, when Nicolas Ghesquière took over as creative director. In the never-ending musical chairs game, Ghesquière moved to Louis Vuitton in 2013, being substituted by New York-based Alexander Wang. Three years later, the relatively unknown Georgian Gvasalia took over the creative reins. Trained at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp in Belgium, Gvasalia became noticed as part of the design collective Vetements (“clothes” in French). While he was not the blockbuster name expected to take one of fashion’s most high profile jobs, he certainly had the skills to create impactful yet provoking collections.
As part of the group of seven creatives leading Vetements he was credited with reimagining streetwear with his deconstructionist style, gaining a legion of powerful fans, such as Kanye West, Rihanna, and Kim Kardashian, while also connecting with a younger generation of clients. It is exactly this freshness and this spirit of deconstructing to rebuild that Gvasalia brings to Balenciaga. But that doesn’t mean the original codes of couture are not being preserved, even if Gvasalia’s couture is anything but traditional. “Fashion is going downwards, and I think we need to educate the consumer,” he confides with frustration. “We need to open a conversation with our audience, so they understand why and what it takes to make a good product. Fashion has been completely cannibalized by this digital mayhem that goes on in our phones. It’s dangerous because in 20 years, Gen Z, or whoever drives most of the fashion luxury brands, is not going to know anything about a tailored jacket or real dressmaking.”
For Gvasalia, the result of this educational process should be a new way of consumption, where sustainability takes center stage. “That’s another conversation that we need to have, and I’m not even referring to the way clothes are made, in which sustainability should not even be a debate anymore,” he interjects. “Couture costs a lot of money, and naturally not everyone can afford it. But everyone can maybe put aside money and buy less crap, but something unique that you will love forever. Even personally, couture gives me the desire to not buy five pairs of sneakers, three bags, and 20 T-shirts, but maybe to buy one couture denim jacket. Not that I want my clients to stop buying ready-to-wear – that will never happen – but maybe they can think twice, even though a piece can cost US $20 000. I might save for a year and sacrifice certain choices, but I’m going to feel amazing in it.”
And amazing is one of the many adjectives you could use to describe Gvasalia’s couture debut. Add moving, inspiring, and highly desirable. In the original salons of the famed maison, a cast of diverse models of different ages and looks (a staple of any Balenciaga show) walked down the runway in total silence – no music was played – wearing only seriously beautiful clothes, tailored to perfection. While there were some nods to the traditional codes of the house’s founder, felt especially in the most voluminous silhouettes, the minimalism, and the use of black, Gvasalia’s vision rose in dramatic oversized trench coat dresses, looks made from recycled denim, and sports jackets revisited as luxurious cocoons. “One of my biggest worries was for this collection to look like a tribute,” he comments. “There’s the pressure of relaunching couture at such a heritage house, but the most stressful part for me was making sure that I was delivering my type of couture.”
To obtain the desired result, Gvasalia tells me that he also avoided the traditional couture atelier set-up, where experienced and older artisans lean for hours over delicate embroideries and puffy balls gowns. Instead, he took young people from his already existing ready-to-wear team, who can hopefully give continuation to the endangered craft of couture. But his disruptive approach didn’t stop at the runway or the production line. His aim is also to make couture more accessible in a more welcoming environment, which contradicts the layer of exclusivity associated with this universe of old ways.
“The plan is not to make couture a massive, global thing. We have our Salon de Couture in which we’ll have appointments. But it will be different from what it was in the Fifties and Sixties,” the designer explains. “Balenciaga was notorious for not letting people into its couture salons. For me, one of the most important things is also to say, we must open that, we cannot be exclusive. If I have ready-to-wear clients who spend a lot of money on the store collection, maybe they want one couture piece too. Maybe they will buy the second one in two years, but I want to create the conversation also with clients who are not just the usual suspects who buy from other heritage houses and arrive on their private jets. I want to open more to the general public, for them to learn about what couture is, and maybe to have a chance to experience it, too.”
Originally published in the September 2021 issue of Vogue Arabia
Style: Amine Jreissati
Makeup: Marion Robine
Photography assistants: Pete Hawk, Antoine Bernard
Style assistant: Elise Testot
Creative production: Laura Prior
Production: Frenzy Production
Casting director: Troy Westwood
Model: Shanelle Siase at Select Models