Demna Gvasalia is nothing if not deeply referential.
The Georgian designer rose to prominence as the creative force behind the self-aware to a fault French label Vetements, which aped logos, streetwear culture, politics and social media through its zeitgeisty run. His designs found favour—and outrage—amongst consumers grappling with the distortion of what high fashion traditionally looks like, what it means and who exactly it's for.
In a way, Gvasalia's long-awaited and highly-anticipated Balenciaga haute couture debut is the perfect apotheosis of this theme.
The luxury fashion house's return to the prestigious week in Paris was characterised by so many firsts: Gvasalia's first time designing couture for the label, the first time the brand has shown couture since the legendary Cristóbal Balenciaga shuttered the house's atelier in 1968, and the first time men's looks appeared in a Balenciaga haute couture collection.
Staged in hallowed rooms of Cristóbal's original salons at 10 Avenue George V, Balenciaga's couture (re)debut was markedly different to the dramatic sets that have characterised previous Gvasalia showings.
Gone are the ceilings on fire, the runways covered in inky-black water, the digital debuting of clothing via hyper-referential and deeply allegorical video games. Instead, a select few of fashion's finest—including a masked Kanye West—gathered in the creamy, intimate setting of the restored-to-perfect-dishevelment salon to watch the show in near-total silence. The soundtrack, as many have noted, was simply the movement of the clothes themselves.
What clothes they were, too. Gvasalia's collection showcases a side of the designer that is perhaps more reverent than we've previously seen. But then, when stepping into the footsteps of Cristóbal, whose contemporaries called him "the master of us all" and "the greatest dressmaker who ever lived,"—Christian Dior and Diana Vreeland respectively—it's quite understandable.
Gvasalia's Balenciaga couture collection included faithful offerings that paid homage to Cristóbal's work—see exaggerated collars and proportions, large architectural coats, hats by Philip Tracy that blurred the lines between the art of millinery and sculpture.
Painstaking show notes reveal the focus on tailoring and textiles in Balenciaga's couture collection. Japanese denim sits alongside a draped, hand-painted polka dot dress in silk chiffon. Meanwhile, bathrobe coats (a silhouette for uncertain modern times if there ever was one) feature micro knifed leather, while dresses in floral-embroidered silks by Maison Lesage hark back to Cristóbal's archives with tenderness.
"It was a challenge to find the balance between the fusion of the architectural legacy, the history, and what I stand for, and how I want to communicate this art of dressmaking for today's audience, whoever that audience is," said Gvasalia per i-D.
It's hard to assess the success of any collection with accuracy in the flurry of attention following its immediate debut, let alone through digital packs—clothes are tactical, material things, after all. Whether a collection will actually sell well is also often opaque until much later down the line, let alone one with the added exclusivity of it being couture.
That said, it seems that in regard to marrying his own sartorial sensibilities with the commercial responsibility of a designer, and making clothes for digital denizens with history and the future a mere scroll away, Gvasalia has risen to the challenge.
Balenciaga Couture Autumn/Winter 2021
Here, all the looks from the collection.