PARIS – The ivory carpet was back. It was the same for the ivory walls, with scrolled bas-reliefs framing each curtain door; the marble staircase; the strict, the anticipation, the silence in the air. Hush. Take your seats. Respect the artist.
Fifty-three years after Cristóbal Balenciaga last closed the doors of his couture salon, Demna Gvasalia reopened them, recreating the pieces as precisely as possible, picking up where the man generally known as the greatest couturier of all. had stopped. . Mr Gvasalia didn’t even call what he was showing “One” – although it wasn’t just his first couture, but the first under the house’s current owner, Kering. He called it “50”.
Sitting on one of the golden chairs in the ballroom, where a single crimson carnation had been placed precisely on the diagonal of each seat, it was hard not to think: the walls are probably panicking.
Because it wasn’t a journey through a strange wormhole in the middle of the 20th century. It was a master class on how to learn from the past to get to the middle of the 21st most effectively. How to question everything you thought you knew and reassess.
Isn’t that what we’re all supposed to be doing right now anyway? History is one of the trending topics of the moment, in all its problematic dimensions: who defines it, how you teach it, how you talk about it. Creators are not spared.
Viktor & Rolf, the masters of the couture meme, built an entire spectacle as a meditation not only on brocade and jeweled adornments, but on the meaning of royalty – and the various uses of the word ‘queen’. Chitose Abe of Sacai has taken over the heritage of Jean Paul Gaultier as the first “guest” designer of his house, by associating the signatures of the Gaultier canon (fine stripes, corsets, striped sailor shirt, tartan, fisherman’s knit, boiler suit) in his trademark hybrid constructions, projecting the familiar in a new light and recalling how influential Mr. Gaultier’s work has been.
And in the Balenciaga salons at 10 avenue George V, everything was a little the same, it was completely different.
Instead of the old front row – Mona von Bismarck, Bunny Mellon, Babe Paley, Gloria Guinness – there was Kanye West (or at least someone who appeared to be Kanye West; he had a scarf covering his entire head, he was so hard to tell), Lewis Hamilton, James Harden, Bella Hadid (just back after a Cannes red carpet appearance) and Lil Baby.
Instead of having only women on the podium, there were also men; people of all ages, shapes and types of beauty plus a near-celebrity: Ella Emhoff, Vice President Kamala Harris’ daughter-in-law.
Instead of crocodile skin, there were hand-patched leather “tiles” in an intricate trompe-l’oeil; instead of real feathers, plumes of shantung silk floated in the breeze; and instead of terry cloth, “micro-knife leather”. Who even knows what it is?
Expectations have been turned upside down – not just on who has access to the seam or who is included, but what constitutes a seam garment; everyday and street totems have been transformed into elite objects of desire.
Mr. Gvasalia played with the sack dress, of course, that almost Balenciaga cliché, but it became a sack jacket: pinched at the waist, with a portrait collar torn off at the collarbone to form peaks around the neck and poo to the shoulder blades, as if he had been caught in the act of shrugging. They came in neon orange gabardine and shaggy, silver faux fur, but also denim which itself had been treated as a valuable fiber, sourced from the original American machines, now in Japan, with silver plated hardware.
He crafted a flared back t-shirt in quilted black satin with flared sleeves and a slightly raised collar, paired with loose jeans and a gorgeous opera stole that sweeps the floor. “I suffered for three months for this T-shirt,” he said after the show. “It’s much easier to make a ball gown.”
To be fair, he also made them (most often in reference to the archives), in muslin wrapped around the body or in elaborate embroidery rendered somewhat degraded by time. He transformed parkas, anoraks and bathrobes into opera capes in ruby, shocking rose and chrysoprase; offered tuxedo suits with protruding shoulders and a molded hourglass line.
Many were worn with black mushroom hats by Philip Treacy that looked a lot like the plastic Artemide Nesso table lamp created in the mid-1960s, around the same time Balenciaga was shutting down. Coincidence? Yes indeed.
Everything had the consideration, the monastic purity of form and rigor that defined Balenciaga in the first place, fueled by the forward momentum that marked Mr. Gvasalia’s work and that first propelled his breakthrough, back in the days when he made everyone salivate over hoodies, sneakers and Ikea bags. The result broke through the torpor and discontent of the past year and put an end to all those whiny questions about the importance of fashion. It made you want to dress up and go out and do Something.
Obviously not everyone can, at least in these clothes (honestly, very few people can). But at this point, Mr. Gvasalia is so widely copied by all brands in the mass market that before you know it, a version will arrive at a store near you.