A new silhouette to enthuse about: that's what fashion critics got when last week Balenciaga's first menswear collection by Georgian-born Demna Gvasalia - of fashion cult collective Vêtements - opened menswear fashion week in Paris. Unfortunately, there wasn't much else to spot after that (in the collection and during menswear fashion week...). But let's go back to Balenciaga.
Exaggeration was the keyword behind Balenciaga's designs: jackets were at first characterised by an extremely wide shoulder line in the style of Frankestein's monster circa 1931; then the shoulder line became painfully narrow. There were also blazers matched with tight bermudas accessorised with Nazi knee-high boots, and high-waist pants and shirts that were cropped and finished with an elastic bottom. Skater chains attached to the waistband, caps, voluminous trousers, cropped tailored bombers and a blue or yellow leather bag derived from the classic Ikea's Frakta carrier bag were directly borrowed from the Vêtements-meets-Margiela glossary.
The collection finished with an ecclesiastical note: a lace altar-boy cassock peeked from beneath a suit, liturgical shades of red and purple were applied to glam suits, a priest's soutane was reduced to a disturbing sleeveless vest and priest's stoles were turned into scarves. The liturgical silks actully came from suppliers to the Vatican (but to save money, look for ecclesiastic accessories on second hand market stalls/at antique markets in Italy and you'll get the same look for a fraction of the price).
The starting point for this collection was an unfinished coat spotted in the Balenciaga archive and made by Cristóbal himself, this reference emerged in one detail: fitting cards of the kind usually employed for the measurements of clients of bespoke tailored pieces, casually inserted in the pockets of the jackets. Show notes mentioned indeed "the tradition of bespoke tailoring" and a will to "define and assert new men's silhouettes through tailoring."
Though the catwalk show took place on the rooftop of a Jesuit school in Paris and there were these ecclesiastical references, Gvasalia wasn't thinking about Balenciaga's Catholicism or his passion for Zurbarán's paintings of saints. The only connection with religion and this collection was maybe the fact that fashion is becoming more and more a cult for attitude crazed devotees worshipping at the altar of a trend or a designer.
As a whole the collection was a remix of Martin Margiela, David Byrne's giant gray suit from the Talking Heads' 1984 live movie Stop Making Sense with the chasubles and stoles (and voluminous silhouettes) of ecclesiastical garments in Fellini's Roma. In a nutshell, the radically new reeked of the ridiculously old.
While Balenciaga was into art and architecture, it takes courage to say that this collection was about architecture. The latter should provide solutions to fashion, rather than making the wearer look ridiculous. Indeed you don't have to look like a massive building (and get stuck in doorframes as you used to do in 1983...) to prove you're wearing something "architectural".
Yes, it was a break from Alexander Wang's (the previous designer at Balenciaga) vision, but we should all try and be less enthusiastic, and avoid screaming about the umpteenth fashion genius as soon as something "unusual" hits the runway. This is indeed fashion for a restricted number of wealthy people who love cults and feel comfortable going around looking like a massive fridge or an emaciated vampire (apparently the collection will go into production as it is, so these weren't just showpieces).
Yet, there are reasons to be happy about all this: if you have embarrassedly stored in your wardrobe one of those suits/jackets or even trench coats with tremendously wide shoulders from 1983-84 you can finally wear it and join the cult, as you wait for the next Vêtements collection.
Scheduled on Sunday as part of Couture Fashion Week in Paris, the collection will be a massive collaboration with garments created together with a long list of brands, including Levi's, Hanes, Manolo Blahnik, Juicy Couture, Carhartt, Eastpak, Canada Goose, Lucchese, Mackintosh, Dr. Martens, Reebok, Church's, Alpha Industries, Champion, Kawasaki, Schott, Comme des Garçons and Brioni. As they say, there's safety in numbers.
As for Gvasalia, rather than a genius or the fashion saviour we have all been expecting (ah, if only we could stop prematurely calling people geniuses and then destroying them in six to nine months…), he is a necessity, not fashion-wise but critic-wise: he is indeed an excuse to write about something happening in an otherwise moribund fashion industry, something or rather someone desperately needed on the Fashion Titanic.
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