• Text Tempe Nakiska
  • 6th March 2017

Radical tension

The most memorable few looks of this season’s Balenciaga show yesterday came towards the end: a series of gowns that channeled the house’s haute couture history. Inspired by some of Spanish couturier Cristóbal Balenciaga’s most recognisable shapes, they marked the 100th anniversary of his founding of the house. 

At such a big moment, it falls on the creative director to encapsulate a brand’s core DNA with even more intensity than usual. Georgian designer Demna Gvasalia’s aesthetic is based around context and sociological observation, and so it made sense that this season he would reference not only the clothes that made this house famous, but the way in which they were presented. And so he turned to the looks archive kept by the house’s founder, who had his haute couture collections photographed and filed away long before the term ‘lookbook’ arose. Gvasalia was inspired by the way the models posed in these photos – their personal eccentricities in the way that they stood or held the fabric, and how those quirks made the clothes even more alive. The most striking effect was an asymmetrical silhouette that reflected the way some models would throw a bolt of fabric over one shoulder, Gvasalia’s interpretation realised as a series of top-heavy coats and jackets. That kind of structural experimentation echoes the heritage of the house, whose founder split from the hugely popular hourglass shape pioneered by Christian Dior in the 1950s, ditching the waist and broadening the shoulders with styles like the spherical balloon jacket (1953), the high waisted baby doll dress, cocoon coat, and sack dress (all debuted in 1957). 

This decade – 1950 to 1960 – is the main focus of a new exhibition soon opening at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion is timed with the house’s big-100th and explores the legacy of its master couturier founder, whose designs shook Paris with their revolutionary manipulation of the female silhouette. Balenciaga often played with the tension between his designs and the body, and Gvasalia’s output at the house has so far also been marked by studies of the tensions between things – like last season’s tracing of the connection between luxury fashion and fetishism (“because high fashion is a fetish for luxury”). For FW17, he played with convention and innovation, repurposing silhouettes and materials to create something unexpected. He’d been thinking about the fluid nature of the design process, which can give way to accidental ideas. Like the slimline skirt whose waist was doubled at the front and cinched by a belt, a sizing issue becoming a vehicle for a new silhouette altogether. Elsewhere, this imaginative thinking resulted in skirts and coats fused together as a new hybrid garment. And those other skirts that looked like car-mats? They were car-mats – and some were even attached to the back of shirting, both giving an industrial feel that fit with the carpeted, carpark-like venue.

With Gvasalia, much of what has resonated with the world has been his ability to shine new light on everyday, average stuff. Nothing demonstrates that better than those car-mats; the nylon spare tyre covers that became tote bags; the IKEA shoppers in furry leopard; the combs worn as earrings. Paired with oversized floral tea dresses and stilettos stretched in thigh-high fabric it’s very Demna. But alongside a coat proportioned so strangely that it changes its wearer’s silhouette entirely – and makes you wonder whether it’s meant to be like that – it’s absolutely Balenciaga. Because more than a couturier, Balenciaga was fashion’s ultimate philosopher, questioning the fundamentals of clothing, running tests and using the results to formulate new ideas. The cut of that coat makes you question the way we would traditionally structure it, and why. And why it’s made out of that fabric. And why it has to be made of fabric at all. Why not a car-mat? And so on… the trick being that it works. 100-odd years of separation, but Gvasalia and Balenciaga have a few things in common. And that’s a tension with a lot of promise.