A New Chapter At Balenciaga?

1:47 PM

Probably the most anticipated show of Fashion Month, more than Dior's without Raf, Lanvin's without Alber, or Hedi's "is it his swan song is it not his swan song", was Demna Gvasalia's first collection with Balenciaga. I don't know if I am in the minority on both fronts of adoring Alexander Wang's work with Balenciaga and feeling a bit underwhelmed with Demna's debut, though I'm pretty sure I am, as the majority of press following the S/S 2016 show sang praise after praise to Demna. I'm still figuring out: do I absolutely hate this? Or do I simply like it but don't care for it? What are the problems surrounding the first collection and why is everyone else okay with ignoring them? 

Before we talk about Demna, let's talk about Alexander for a little bit. Alexander Wang was brought on to be the creative director for Balenciaga, after Nicolas Ghesquiere stepped down, when his street fashion brand (much loved by those looking to emulate the perfect 'model off duty' look) was in it's seventh year. He has been hailed as a fashion wunderkind with his collections regularly making best of lists. When it came to his stint at Balenciaga, there were misses, as there are with any designer (they can't all be hits) but more often than not I really loved his collections. Yes they were fairly "safe" - not having the shock that Nicolas Ghesquiere's did - but he was true to Cristóbal - which also may have been his downfall.

While I loved Wang's work with Balenciaga I could definitely see why he didn't completely win over the fashion set. Looking through his three years of collections you can see his effort to really focus on archival items. Bringing things from Cristóbal's collections to the present. Which potentially backfired on him. They were beautiful pieces, yes but there was lack of innovation (unlike under his own brand) and it's easy to simply pull from the past and not inject any individual flare onto it or updating it. The complaint was that bulk of his work with Balenciaga was stiff, that he didn't take risks, and he was too strict on himself with the "rules" established by what was traditionally 'Balenciaga'. These complaints ultimately made it rather ironic when it his final collection with Balenciaga, was his best reviewed collection. It was described as being freer, relaxed, light and far more successful in couture application. Wang even said, in regards to the collection being his last, "Let's take a risk, what do you have to lose?"

Imagine if he had that mentality from the start!

That being said, what are my thoughts with Demna Gvasalia's debut?
Though he has been working in fashion since 2009 (with Maison Martin Margiela and Louis Vuitton) his efforts with Vetements as head designer is incredibly young, with only three seasons under it's belt. Demna has openly said that the clothes are "ugly, but that's why we like it." This isn't coming from a negative place mind you, they reference the '90s quite frequently, synthetic is the fabric of choice,they rework and restitch already made items (i.e. DHL shirts and Levi's Jeans), it is anti-fashion with a high fashion price. To sum it up, it's about designing what people want to wear, not dictating what they should be wearing. Additionally the interesting thing about Vetements as a brand is that they aren't technically selling clothes per se, they are selling an attitude. You can see it when they send a model down the runway wearing a shirt that says "You Fuck'n Asshole"  or the way hems are deliberately left unfinished on a dress where fabric looks quite literally damaged or used, or in extremely oversized shirts, jackets, trousers etc. When viewing the runway shows the same argument that is often used for Hedi's success with Saint Laurent in regards of designer vs good styling could almost be applied to Vetements as well. Yet each collection has been unanimously well received. It's easy to wear, it's high fashion without the stuffiness, it's quirky without it being kitschy, it's pulled together yet also undone.

However, how can this factor in with Balenciaga? Alternately, does this same mentality factor in with Balenciaga? My issue with Demna's first collection is that it is fairly wide arching, trying slightly too hard to appease everyone, the looks being extremely broad. From the tailored suits, to sportwear, to busy florals, to leatherwear, it was hard to define who the Balenciaga girl is. Is she one who wears a two piece suit, is she one that wears a cheeky brand labeled wind breaker, or is she one that wears a Margiela like dress (I know Demna, you hate the Margiela comparisons, sorry but it's there) paired with candy cane stockings? Collections are typical cohesive visions which makes it challenging to look through Demna's Balenciaga without feeling that it jumps all over the place. For Vetements, who's label is not about concept, - the concept is that there is no concept - it's about practicality and wearability. While throwing in a wild card here and there isn't a bad thing, a collection that is full of wild cards can be. Bridget Foley shares the sentiment over at WWD:

"The problem with the currently au courrant “wardrobe” approach to the runway is that it offers many options and often, little vision.... Gvasalia rooted his premise for Balenciaga in cut and construction, so there was a definite thought process in the works. But the result was too broad a swing, from good-side-of-the-Eighties racy to — what’s a nicer word for frump-ola? A designer runway collection that tries to speak to everyone runs the risk of not being heard in all the fashion noise."

Despite what felt like resounding praise from the fashion world that Demna was Balenciaga's saving grace, after it was all over it was hard for me to recall what the new generation of Balenciaga was about. Vetements is about an attitude but was Balenciaga about.....? Vetements made a splash for being the outlier in the fashion world at a time when everyone was playing by the book. Which, funny enough as a label that's really about not standing out at it's core, that caused it to stand out. Nevertheless bringing that same mindset over to a fashion house with history can cause that brand to lose meaning. That's not to say that Demna wasn't respectful of the Balenciaga heritage, he was! He created modern interpretation of the off the shoulder looks that was a staple of Cristóbal, he pulled the idea of the tailored suit and tweaked it (though god, please god no hip padding it's simply not going to happen I'm sorry), and he took the bubble skirt and made it appropriate for day wear and even nightwear being incredibly versatile.

Yet, all of this felt a bit like Vetements... with a bigger budget. That doesn't mean you can't inject a bit of your own personality into a traditional fashion house - Hedi did it for Saint Laurent and it is flourishing - however when you're designing for two labels concurrently you have to make sure there isn't too much overlap. Take a look at Karl Lagerfeld's work with Chanel and Fendi - two completely separate entities. Unlike Karl, there was a lot of overlap from Demna in  Vetements A/W 16 and Balenciaga A/W 16:

Thigh High Chunky Boots?: Check (Balenciaga / Vetements)
Trench Coats?: Check (Balenciaga / Vetements)
Floral Pattern Mixing (down to the neck tie)?: Check (Balenciaga / Vetements)
Belted Leather Outerwear?: Check (Balenciaga / Vetements)

(Top Photo Alexander Wang // Bottom Photo Balenciaga)

When we look back to Alexander's work with Balenciaga there was a clear separation between the two labels. Some 'Alexander Wang' trickled in, but there was never a nearly identical piece, simply hints of his personality. You can see it in the slight sporty vibe of the Balenciaga S/S 2015 show where were a few collared tops and dresses that were similar but not identical to the few in his personal S/S 2015 show. The combat boots in the Balenciaga A/W 2015 show were clear Wang staples without it feeling like it was pulled from the Wang runway. Yet each collection was concise in it's intent as a collection for the House of Balenciaga not Alexander Wang. The overlap wasn't as overt as it is with Vetements.

It is also worth noting that there was a very obvious lack of diversity in regards of ethnicity on both the Vetements and Balenciaga runways that is incredibly unfortunate. Both shows featured a predominately white model lineup, with not single model of color. This is a rather stark contrast to both Alexander Wang's and Nicolas Ghesquiere's work with the fashion house who included women of color in their runway shows at least attempting to make efforts to diversify their casting. Hopefully this will change in the future, as it can lead to be problematic to only include white models which can alienate customers of different races - and ultimately is a step back for an industry that is rather white washed to begin with.

I'm not arguing that it was a bad collection, there was a lot right about it: the off the shoulder pieces as mentioned above were lovely, the strapless dresses in the silver holographic print and black embellished print following it were beautiful, the crystal heels were fantastic, the stirrup, riding pants will definitely become the new leggings of fall. Yes, there was plenty to praise about the collection, but before we get ahead of ourselves and write off Alexander's tenure with Balenciaga as a failure and put Demna on a pedestal let's acknowledge that his first effort still has a lot of room for improvement.

For more interesting reads on Balenciaga, Vetements & Demna Gvasalia: 
(Photos from: BoF //  Vogue Runway // Space Matters // Vogue Runway // Vogue Runway // Dazed Digital

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