So much for a quiet Sunday morning in Paris. There was no sleeping late today. People were up, rushing to get dressed, grabbing a quick bite to eat at the hotel café, and rushing off to see the debut of Demna Gvasalia as creative director for Balenciaga. This has been the most talked about and anticipated show of the entire season. Gvasalia only late last year revealed himself as the head of Vetements, a collaborative collection known for its subversive streetwear and often profane sayings on t-shirts. When he was named as creative director for Balenciaga, following the exit of Alexander Wang, there was no small amount of talk as to whether Gvasalia could adjust to the restrictions that the house would undoubtedly put on him. This morning’s designer notes were almost a warning: This is, “A reimagining of the work of Cristobal Balenciaga … A translation, not a reiteration. A new chapter.” This would not be like any previous Balenciaga collection.
There it was: The white-clad models in sexy lace almost-nothings were completely gone. Instead, we got over-sized suiting with severely exaggerated silhouettes and a tremendous amount of outerwear that showed almost no relation to the Balenciaga aesthetic. Everything was large, away from the body, creating more of a roomy cocoon as though one might want to dwell inside the garments for the whole of winter. Even the chains on sunglasses were huge. Overcoats were worn off the shoulder, perpetuating a consistent line throughout the collection that drew all eyes toward the waist.
Early reaction to this “new chapter” has been predictably mixed and I’ll admit that my own impression probably needs to sit and stew for a few days. There are some who are very excited about the new look, coming mostly from fashion’s perpetual cheerleaders who are hesitant to say anything negative about anyone. There are also plenty, though, who were not so terribly impressed, calling the collection a rehash of last season’s Vetements or calling it a parody of the true Balenciaga. Lines are being drawn. There were more than a few guests who put down their phones or notepads after the third look, crossed their arms defiantly, and looked sickened the rest of the show. That those guests were buyers, not editors, could make it difficult for Balenciaga to convince stores to stock the new look.
Deconstruct the looks away from the rather extreme styling of the runway and what we see may be a bit more palatable. While the silhouette of the opening suits is certainly large, the high-neck blouses and black tights work to soften the looks and bring them back closer to a real world mentality. The forced concave look at the waist actually benefits women who are not size 2 or smaller. While the look may take some getting used to, I think the potential is there for the silhouette to become popular.
Outerwear is the clear early front-runner in the popularity game. Largeness works well with big coats, especially those that are more puffy and exaggerated from the outset. The criticism would be that we’ve already seen exaggerated puffy coats from several designers, and wearing a fleece-collared bomber off the shoulder does not negate the fact that almost everyone has a similar bomber in their collection this season.
Sewing together wispy floral scarves into dresses may be a compromise for those not willing to give in to the new oversized look. While still a full silhouette, the motion of the layers while walking gives a sense of feminine shape and form that is more natural. Okay, so the candy cane stockings are a love them or hate them feature; that’s more a styling choice one can easily dump if so inclined. The dresses themselves are quite wearable.
After some moments of consideration, what may get more attention are the head-to-toe print looks toward the back of the collection. Of particular interest is a silver foil floral design that not only runs the length of the dress but is matched in the boots as well. Again, this is a look we’ve seen elsewhere this season, so calling it original would be mistaken. Still, these last few pieces are the most fitted of the collection, more in line with how we might traditionally view Balenciaga.
We’re going to see a wide variety of opinions regarding this collection, and none are going to be wholly wrong nor completely correct. There are plenty of hits and misses throughout this inaugural collection. What’s important to remember is that this is Gvasalia’s first season. He and the house are still learning how to dance together. If it seems at times that he’s leaning on former Vetements looks, that is understandable. If he doesn’t quite yet grasp the full Balenciaga aesthetic, that, too, can be forgiven. What’s important is that he’s laid a strong claim to the Balenciaga label. We’re not likely to see sexy little things in white lace walk for this house ever again.