Balenciaga Couture sounds the death knell for the culture of influence

Is it too crazy to think that the Balenciaga couture show, presented on Wednesday in Paris, could change the world?

Stay with me for a moment. Back in the days when we still had flip phones, an aesthetically pleasing life – or at least the image of one, presented to your peers – was reserved for a very few. One of the many ideas that emerged following the iPhone’s launch in 2007 was that an aesthetic, photo-worthy product was practically a democratic right – and so we had disruptive bed linens, cheerful Dutch ovens and suitcases (which looked like big iPhones!) peddled quotes from Susan Sontag. Life can be tough or chaotic or traumatic, but these easy-to-buy products, beckoning us between our friends’ vacation photos with their rounded edges and flat surfaces, smoothed it all out. As a result, the past two decades have been among the most visually rich (but deeply numbing) in history. It was a golden age for appearance-oriented life, and in some cases, life only.

In the six years since he took over as head of Balenciaga, designer Demna Gvasalia has staged a frightening counter-revolution. His work suggested that the world is not a smooth, quiet place – everything has in fact been ugly and nauseous and strange and above all funny. The job of a fashion designer, especially in these times of globalized fashion, is to capture the zeitgeist, but perhaps no designer in history has taken this mandate more literally than Gvasalia, whose work touches on attitudes far beyond style (like the encroachment of virtual reality on real life), and yet almost every season innovates wildly through clothing (he told this story with a pair of boots made of rubber). Just as the iPhone seemed to Apple-ize so many consumer products, anything that was ugly, or aesthetically unpleasant, seemed to reflect Balenciaga’s aesthetic. Hence the memes that often flourish around the brand’s products, not to mention the anger the brand inspires when it puts something that people consider outside the realm of high fashion in a runway context, like Crocs. . In his amorous sociology of people, archetypes, and the uniforms of power, Gvasalia’s work can’t even really be called dystopian. It’s just the reality.


So what does this tell us about the state of the world that Gvasalia, master of internet age populism, has now started tailoring, the most rarefied, expensive, and most art part for the world? art of fashion? The first part of the answer lies in the garment itself, which has been sick– impeccable suits but blouses; a shriveled but sublimely thin tuxedo; large dresses and swaggy capes; fluffy, almost cheesy terrycloth robes that were actually microbladed leather; and feathered dresses and jackets which were in fact silk embroidery intended to mimic the movement of the actual fabric (arguably unethical). As I said: sick. And all the Gvasalia classics, from the urinal-is-a-fountain fashion piece, a couture bathrobe?! – with an incredible trompe-l’oeil materiality, like leather dresses. But it also suggested that Gvasalia, whose clothes have always been extremely online, is abandoning the wrecks of digital life for something private, exclusive, and extremely human. And yet, his ambitions to transform the way we all see the world – this populism – remain. It’s a tricky thing to do, and it requires some sort of coup: a total dismantling of how fashion and social media feed off each other.

Courtesy of Balenciaga.
Courtesy of Balenciaga.

It started with the shoulder. Previously, Gvasalia’s silhouettes were tall, tall, tense, and slanted forward – a material embodiment of fashion’s need to move forward no matter what. Here, the shoulders were thrown back: some had the rounded shape of old Balenciaga, like the ones Cristobal himself cherished, while others were portrait necklines pulled up and off the shoulders. It was hindsight: a new confidence, a sense of tranquility rather than threat, and even sensuality.

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