When Demna Gvasalia presented his first collection for the now 80-year-old house of Balenciaga two years ago, the first look he offered up was a grey tweed skirt suit. The squarish skirt was split to the hip, while the jacket – the prophetic jacket – offered exaggerated shoulders, pitched slightly forwards, and a nipped-in waist that inflated out over high, padded hips. It was a business suit with alien proportions and it encapsulated the Eastern Bloc apostate’s approach to the couturier’s legacy.
“How do you persuade a woman to wear a two-piece suit who is not the German Chancellor?” the creative director had asked at the time, having spent the previous six months perusing the Balenciaga archive. His recipe – reworking the essence of Cristóbal Balenciaga for today; balancing reverence for the archive with complete, practically profane irreverence – has seen sales soar. Offsetting the surreal – lycra, fluoro Pantashoes (tights-cum-heels), trompe l’oeil trenches spliced with denim jackets, unimaginable couture proportions – with postmodern reworkings of the banal – plastic shoppers, comforter cases, techy rainwear, car wing mirrors – Gvasalia’s spent two years expanding his magic formula, playing on Cristóbal’s codes.
The late couturier was renowned for his way with shape – the V&A’s 2017 blockbuster show Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion was a comprehensive testament. The show charted the legacy of Balenciaga’s experimentations which, amid Christian Dior’s New Look heyday, offered a multifarious and unconventional approach to silhouette. From inventing the babydoll shape to the cocoon and the sack dress, he endeavoured to look outside of fashion for the avant-garde. “Haute couture is like an orchestra, for which only Balenciaga is the conductor,” Dior famously exclaimed. “The rest of us are just musicians, following the directions that he gives us.” The padded hip appeared again and again – in the 40s, the 60s and the 70s.
Of course, Gvasalia is not the first at the helm to reconsider these shapes. Nicolas Ghesquière explored the outré hip during his tenure, offering it in all kinds of spacey foil fabrics on dresses with sculpted capped sleeves (S/S08); a slinky black cocktail dress (A/W08); in a low-slung gathered skirt (S/S00); a sporty scuba dress (S/S03); and a double-breasted black blazer (A/W01), to name but a few. Alexander Wang followed suit with elegant jacquard silk skirts and chainmail tops (A/W15).
While each of Gvasalia’s collections offer new and unexpected objets d’art, he too remains unafraid to revisit and re-present winning codes – his various trademark shapes, including the hip, reappear again and again too. This hourglass silhouette has been reworked into opera coats, car mat skirts and trouser suits but for A/W18 forms part of a whole new language. “After two years at Balenciaga, I wanted to take all the codes of the house and filter them so they can be one aesthetic and one ethic,” he explained of the phalanx of curvaceous looks he sent out this week. This army of smooth jackets and molten trousers that slipped silently into shoes, floated down the catwalk, practically post-human. And it was all down to their digital tailoring.
In order to achieve this otherworldly look, Gvasalia had models’ bodies 3D scanned. Fittings were held on a laptop and then moulds for the pieces were 3D printed, and run up in a lightweight foam to which tweeds and velvet were bonded. “The tailoring part that you see is all printed,” he explained. “There are only two seams on the side and the arm hole. There are no darts, there is no construction, and it’s only one layer of fabric.” Such technology allowed the designer to explore the two core tenets of Balenciaga – volume and innovation in tailoring. “Balenciaga himself was a master, and the archives of the clothes from that time are from a specific point of view. My idea was to reinterpret and modernise it and see how we can work with traditional means of tailoring.”
The result is less a reference to the master himself than a continued dialogue with him – updating the couturier’s manifesto. As V&A curator Cassie Davies-Strodder said at the time of the exhibit, “I think the way they approach fashion – both Balenciaga and [Gvasalia] – are similar, not wanting to be a puppet for the fashion industry or the press. I think he’d be excited by someone like Gvasalia.” Sales would say that we all are too.