During his five years as creative director of Balenciaga, Demna Gvasalia has carved out a reputation as a man firmly fixated on the future. While the rest of the industry was adapting to digitally streaming runway shows during lockdown, Gvasalia one-upped them all, creating an immersive VR video game experience to unveil Balenciaga’s Fall / Winter 2021 collection, and then debuting the brand’s Spring / Summer 2022 collection exclusively using artificial intelligence, which mapped the face of a single model onto all 44 looks.
So how to top this streak of breakneck innovation? Always one to surprise, Gvasalia did a total 180, introducing haute couture to the Balenciaga offering for the first time in more than half a century. Developed over the course of a year from his home base in Zurich, Gvasalia’s 63-piece couture debut was unveiled in Paris this afternoon, in a salon-like set up inside Cristòbal Balenciaga’s newly restored Parisian apartment on 10 Avenue George V.
“It is the most spiritual experience I ever had in fashion,” Gvasalia told The Business of Fashion. “I feel like doing couture just makes me better as a person.”
It certainly proved—or at least served as a reminder of—his abilities as a designer. The collection was a stunning display of craftsmanship, deftly translating the codes of haute couture into 2021, balancing 50s-style appliqued satin gowns alongside couture-ified jeans and white T-shirts. Gvasalia insisted the latter were, in fact, harder to create—he sourced the very best fabric for ‘denim trousers’ from mills in Japan and Thailand and fastened the buttons with real silver. The white T-shirts took three months to perfect. “This is what turns me on,” he said in an interview.
Presented to a sparse but star-studded front row, including Travis Scott, Bella Hadid, and a balaclava-wearing Kanye West, the collection revealed a deepened synergy between the legacy of Cristòbal Balenciaga, and the Georgian designer who has spent the last half-decade transforming his namesake label into one of fashion’s buzziest. Voluminous, sculptural gowns—including one based on a sketch Balenciaga created for Jackie Kennedy in the 60s—were worn with silk opera gloves (and, in one instance, paired with a sensible tailored trouser), while Gvasalia’s signature puffer coats were blown up to performance art proportions.
The show had an added poignancy because of the choice to forgo a soundtrack: the collection was presented in complete silence. Everything—the clearing of a throat, the click of an iPhone camera—could be heard, as could the squeak of a leather boot or the swish of a heavily embroidered column gown. It gave proceedings a welcome sense of intimacy that is becoming rarer and rarer as runway shows become ever larger and more expensive spectacles.
With this, Gvasalia was making a deeper statement: if the pandemic has shown us anything, it’s that we need to pare things back. “Maybe somebody just stops buying sneakers and T-shirts for a year or two, and then they can have this amazing couture trench coat. I would love that,” he told BoF. It’s a compelling proposition. And coming from the man who has so continuously found himself on the precipice of change in the fashion industry, it’s one worth listening to.