PARIS -- Can you create a redemption story for yourself, without drastically changing your identity?
This was the central question of the Balenciaga Fall 2023 Show, possibly the most important collection of the entire fashion season, which began in New York on February 10th and ended in March 7.
It is also a question that is being asked repeatedly at this moment. The bad behavior of sacred cows gets adjudged in the court of public opinion and those who thrive on virality are also dealt with.
Balenciaga's show was less of a collection and more of a cultural test case. It was essentially the black mirror of the grand spectacles that social commentary disguised as shows that drove the brand's staggering success and $2B in annual revenue. Demna, the brand's mononymic creative Director, managed to create shows about celebrities, war and even dirt. It was personal, only this time.
For those who aren't sure how we got here, here is a brief summary.
Balenciaga released two ads campaigns about a month after October's dirt show, which was opened by Ye, the artist formerly called Kanye West. This relationship created its own mini-story with Ye’s subsequent White Lives Matter show, spate of anti-Semitic, and anti-Black comments, and it also caused some controversy. One featured young children in bags resembling teddy bears wearing bondage gear, while the other showed an office where documents from the Supreme Court on child pornography were buried under a mountain of papers.
The internet exploded with outrage, chaos, and conspiracy theories. Demna and Cedric Charbit were at the center of this madness. The brand's seemingly unstoppable growth was stopped.
They have been quietly trying to make things right since then, including one-on-1 post-mortems of industry insiders, and mea culpas on the systemic and judgement failures that allowed these campaigns to occur. Sunday's show was their biggest public statement since the furor.
The event was held in the Carrousel du Louvre. This area, which used to be the center of fashion week for a brief time, was now used by designers to create their own spaces.
The giddy framing of Balenciaga's prior was gone, as were the theatricals. The celebrity guests were gone.
Instead, there was a low, dark ceiling that seemed to be claustrophobic, a silence in the air like everyone was holding their breath and a long, straight runway. It was lined with cream-colored tiles, which is the base material from which fashion patterns are made, and also the fashion equivalent of a blank page.
Demna presented a collection called Just Clothes, which he explained in a preview as he had offered his own clothing. This was set to music by Loik Gomez (professionally known as BFRND). Demna stated that Mr. Gomez wrote the piece at 12 years old and had already played it on their first date.
Demna says that he took a rack of trousers and began cutting them as he did when he was younger, and that he did this during the brand's crisis. He said that tailoring was his therapy. So he started with tailored daywear made entirely from reconfigured trousers.
Trousers-asjackets had the fly of the pants open to become the vent, and the waistbands were turned into hems. There were also trousers-astrench coats where the rise of the trousers became the flap at the back. Six pairs of trousers were pressed together into a kind of swinging tunic dress, reminiscent of Balenciaga’s 1950s sack dress. Trousers were layered on top of each other so that one flowed like a train. It was Margiela-like, as Demna was a former employer and an influence on Demna.
Next came a section made of leathers, puffers, and denim. These were inflated from their insides into extreme curves or turtle shapes using the same technology that protects skiers and motorcyclists from crashes.
The next section features haute bourgeois florals made in leather and pleated silk, with sleeves that reach almost to the ground, and shoulders that are slightly rounded in a slight, slightly tense shrug. Finally, a collection of modernist, high-necked, long-sleeve evening dresses in silver, beaded fringe and lace, with a beaded edge, that look like wearable skyscrapers.
It was a resounding success.
Demna pointed out that he had started designing the collection six month ago, meaning before the scandal exploded. He had planned to take the collection back down to its original principles. Imagine how the show would have been received had the controversy never occurred; if it was revealed from his position as a high soothsayer in the industry.
Most people would rent their clothes in ecstasy over its purity and have praised the radical nature of refusing (honestly I might have done that). It seemed more like the marching of the penitents, considering all that had happened.
The clothes were not revolutionary, aside from the little shoulders and the absence of a latex sneaker or mask (and no branding), As Demna has shown in the past, he is capable of great conceptual insight. This was how he transformed Balenciaga. He ripped down the boundaries between streetwear (the stuff that people actually wear) & couture, forever changing the hierarchy of value. But this didn't really advance these ideas but merely reiterated them.
We don't know the origin of our clothes. We see them on our shelves or in our feeds and we love them. If we can afford them we will buy them. When you get into the world of fashion and become a celebrity designer, even if you go to the Met Gala wearing a full-body mask, you have to be authentic about who you are and what your values are. It's about being invited to join a community. It is about identity. It's all about desire. Perhaps it's about forgiveness.