Many designers feel escapism is the right tone for the moment: think of Tom Ford, that balletic airy Hermès show, or even Celine’s Elysian Fields of TikTok. But escapism can also feel like a copout. Fashion can do so much more than make you feel good, first of all. And there is also just so much emotion, so much heaviness, in the atmosphere, which fashion is more than equipped to interpret. Look back at those tortured McQueen collections, like the “Highland Rape” in 1995, or even further back to the politically blasé Yves Saint Laurent, channeling the protests of 1968 into his now-iconic military-ish trouser suits. Martin Margiela’s spring 2000 treatise on the commercialization of fashion, and Yohji Yamamoto’s similar, though more cynical, message for fall 2007, both wrestled compellingly with the increasing influence of global capitalism on a medium they both treat as an art form. Why aren’t more designers using their clothing to engage with our messed-up world? Is fashion really only capable of fantasy right now?
Demna Gvasalia is our contemporary master of runway discomfort. People are always asking if his Balenciaga is trolling, which is completely missing the point. A lot of people got irate on Twitter a few weeks ago about a $780 Balenciaga soccer jersey, for example, obscuring the long and weird legacy of, say, women who were so enamored of Cristobal Balenciaga’s work that they had him create couture gardening clothes. (Regardless, I would imagine that the regular online dustups delight the digital-genius minds working with Gvasalia.) Last season there were those two sunken front rows, which made everyone very uncomfortable (and very uncomfortable about it!). Before that, there were all those freaky, too-pristine archetypes of global power, from the U.N. security guard to the Disney princess—all the kinds of people who look at you and say, “You’re not supposed to be here.” A lot of people seem to feel about the runway the way they feel about paintings: “Wow, it’s in a painting, what an honor, this painter must love this subject.” But it doesn’t have to be that way, you know. Aspiration, which is what the runway represents now, can be awful. And it should be! It’s really screwy to feel like you want something right now, like you want to spend thousands of dollars on…a shirt, don’t you think? But when a designer suggests as much, the fashion world gets all freaked out or confused or angry. Shouldn’t we be ecstatic when someone makes us grapple with these kinds of questions?
Balenciaga’s latest collection, technically pre-summer 2021, was simply awesome. Gvasalisa enlisted music video legend Walter Stern, who directed The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony,” which I’ve always imagined as a kind of Balenciaga ur-text: a surly guy in an oversized leather charging down a city street, rudely crashing into normies. In a video (no runway show—nice), Stern captured people rushing through Paris streets at night to a cover of Corey Hart’s “Sunglasses At Night,” trying to get home before curfew, or excited to meet up with friends, or late for a date because of my stupid boss, many without a bag but just a phone clutched urgently in their hands. It was dark and dangerous and bizarre. Finally!
Meanwhile, back on their Instagram feed, Balenciaga shared photos of the models posing in their looks in their houses, creating a classic Demna-era Balenciaga mindfuck, though now with the added knowing awkwardness of simply wearing clothes at home. The message was less that fashion has a place in our lives right now (small violin), and more that it’s a freaking jungle out there! Getting dressed is chaos! This past weekend, one friend told me she’s wearing the same few pieces of clothing over and over, while another told me she’s channeling her fear and confusion into wearing more and better outfits than ever before. Gvasalia captured this emotional conundrum by pairing giant tailored pieces with kitten-heel house slippers, say, and just a few looks later showing a big “don’t touch me!” red coat with sneakers. Some of us are in easy suits with sweatshirts worn on our heads like hoods, and some of us are still dressing like Draco Malfoy at Berghain! One totally rad dude look appeared to be a stone-washed denim jacket and jeans but was actually leather—because whoa, man, how the heck are we supposed to see what anyone else has got on nowadays? Yes: isn’t your bathrobe now technically your evening coat now? A white sweatshirt with “Paris Fashion Week” in pixelated type, as if struggling to load, felt like a relief—I’ve been squinting at text and images that look like that for months now, trying to figure out silhouettes and ideas alone in the glitchy darkness.
These are all variants on ideas that Gvasalia has pulled off before. What made this collection even more remarkable was that it was also, in fact, a major sustainability statement. As the press release notes, “93.5% of the plain materials in this collection are either certified sustainable or upcycled. 100% of the print bases have sustainable certifications. Most pieces are unisex, a template that will diminish the environmental impact of a gendered production model.” Is any other billion-dollar luxury brand committing that much to responsible design? And with such creativity: the collection’s big shaggy Status Coat is made out of shoelaces; the sexy going-out dress is made out of a playground’s chain basketball net. Many of the pieces can be worn different ways, which is a nice sustainable idea that is also really very Margiela-y (Gvasalia worked there long ago)—though again, I can’t help but think, too, of Monsieur Balenciaga’s strange, almost abstract volumes and cloaks and gowns. Those crewneck sweatshirts draped over a bunch of models’ heads are just like the strange veil the couturier made for his most famous wedding dress.
But then again…putting stock in those fashion rules about designer legacies and house codes may, like many other things, be broken. This is truly Gvasalia’s house now. He’s writing the source code for Balenciaga—and probably for the rest of the industry, too.