Balenciaga Couture Is the Death Knell of Influencer Culture

Is it too crazy to think that Balenciaga’s couture show, presented Wednesday in Paris, might change the world?

Stick with me for a moment. Back when we still had flip phones, an aesthetically pleasing life—or at least the image of one, presented to your peers—was for the very few. One of the many ideas that appeared in the wake of the iPhone’s launch in 2007 was that aesthetically-pleasing, photo-worthy product was practically a democratic right—and so we got disruptive bed linens, cheery-colored Dutch ovens, and suitcases (that looked like big iPhones!) peddled with Susan Sontag quotes. Life might be difficult or chaotic or traumatic, but these easy to buy products, beckoning to us between photos of our friends’ vacations with their rounded edges and flat surfaces, smoothed everything over. As a result, the past two decades have been some of the most visually rich (but profoundly numbing) in history. It’s been a golden age for looks-first, and in some cases looks-only, life.

In the six years since he took the helm at Balenciaga, designer Demna Gvasalia has been staging a creepy counterrevolution. His work suggested the world wasn’t a smooth, tranquil place—everything has actually been ugly and queasy and strange and most of all funny. A fashion designer’s job, especially in these globalized, fashion-for-all times, is to capture the zeitgeist, but perhaps no designer in history has taken that mandate more literally than Gvasalia, whose work touches on attitudes far beyond style (like the encroachment of virtual reality on real life), and yet nearly every season innovates wildly through clothes (he told that story with a pair of rubbery suit-of-armor boots). Just as the iPhone seemed to Apple-ize so many consumer products, everything ugly, or aesthetically displeasing, seemed to reflect the Balenciaga aesthetic. Hence the memes that often blossom around the brand’s products—not to mention the anger the brand inspires when it puts something people consider outside the realm of high fashion in a runway context, like Crocs. In its loving sociology of people, archetypes, and the uniforms of power, Gvasalia’s work can’t even really be characterized as dystopian. It’s just reality.

So what does it tell us about the state of the world that Gvasalia, master of internet-era populism, has now launched couture, the most rarefied, most expensive, most art-for-art’s sake part of fashion? The first part of the answer lies in the clothing itself, which was sick—crisp but blousy suits; a dorked-up but sublimely lean tuxedo; big swaggy dresses and capes; plushy, almost corny terry cloth bathrobes that were actually microbladed leather; and feathery frocks and jackets that were actually silk embroidery meant to mimic the motion of the real (arguably unethical) stuff. As I said: sick. And all classic Gvasalia, from the urinal-is-a-fountain fashion play—a couture bathrobe?!—to the mind-bending trompe l’oeil materiality, like the leather robes. But it also suggested that Gvasalia, whose clothes have always been extremely online, is abandoning the flotsam of digital life for something private, exclusive, and extremely human. And yet his ambitions to transform the way we all see the world—that populism—still remains. It’s a tricky thing to pull off, and it requires something of a coup: a total dismantling of the way fashion and social media feed off each other.

Courtesy of Balenciaga.
Courtesy of Balenciaga.

It started with the shoulder. It used to be that Gvasalia’s silhouettes were big, tall, tense, and pitched forward—a material incarnation of fashion’s need to charge forward no matter what. Here, the shoulders were thrown back: some had the rounded shape of old Balenciaga, like those beloved by Cristobal himself, while others were portrait necklines tossed up and off the shoulders. It was the lean-back: a new confidence, a sense of tranquility rather than menace, and even sensuality.

Courtesy of Balenciaga.

What united the looks, which spanned from wedding dress-formal to a pristine tracksuit, was an exactitude, evident even in photographs, and a hyperreality that transcended digital fashion’s moribund obsession with fantasy. It was almost like they were too good for the virtual world, and for the first time in over a year, I felt I was truly missing something by seeing a collection through a screen. The funniest part about this collection was that, in true Gvasalian fashion, it looked very simply like pure, unfettered couture—over-the-top crazy shapes, opera coats, huge swags of fabric, and nutty hats. (“I think the uselessness of hats is very appealing to me in the context of couture,” Gvasalia, who has designed more than his share of dad caps, told WWD. “It suddenly became such an obsessive point for me, which I enjoyed a lot.”) Other looks (“daywear,” in couture lingo) spoke to the way that streetwear has become the ambient, standard style sensibility. I got stuck on look 38: a grey zip-up hoodie over a black T-shirt and jeans, which is simultaneously the uniform of the most and least powerful people on the planet. The jeans weren’t just any jeans, but the greatest jeans—made from denim produced on old American looms now employed by Japan’s denim obsessives (ah, globalism!). And this hoodie is the result of months of thinking, and multiple fittings, in which the designer’s team inspects and edits and obsesses over the garment to make it fit just so, and, if the couturier is really good, make some of the wearer’s flaws recede. It captures a phrase we toss around in fashion and shopping all the time—the perfect hoodie—and takes it to the extreme. It’s fun to think that Kanye West, a longtime supporter and collaborator of Gvasalia’s who was in attendance at yesterday’s show, is probably working out the exact same question from an entirely different angle at Gap. Streetwear isn’t dead, as so many have predicted. Instead, it’s become couture.

Courtesy of Balenciaga.

More immediately, though, the collection suggests that menswear is probably the future of couture. The star attendees were West; James Harden, who recently joined the board of Saks; Lil Baby; and Lewis Hamilton, the Formula One Driver. Already Balenciaga was the luxury brand perhaps most fueled by its appeal to young men—its 2019 billion-dollar revenue projection, CEO Cedric Charbit said, was mostly fueled by millennials (many of them male) who flocked to its Triple S sneaker. Men’s couture has been a thing for a while now, but the approach at brands like Dior, Valentino, and Givenchy has been to translate the sweeping romance of women’s couture into menswear. Gvasalia isn’t a cynic, but clearly romance means something a little different to him. Pinned to a number of those strange suits was a carnation, a flower associated with a deep and obsessive love.

Courtesy of Balenciaga.
Courtesy of Balenciaga.

You might say, ultimately, it was anti-social media fashion, a prioritization of personal taste over objects meant to appeal to the masses. Last week, the brand wiped clean its Instagram account, which had previously stood for a sloppy, uninspirational way of being online—a yawn in the face of performative polish that itself became a performance. Speaking about his most recent ready-to-wear collection, back in June, Gvasalia told Vogue, “I think social media is boring, and dangerously addictive for some, as well as super manipulative. We need to find new ways of using it that is less harmful for society. The freedom that it ‘suggested’ originally is now governed by algorithms and commercial interests.” The furthest you can get from algorithmic fashion, from commercial interests, is couture—a garment that is made specifically for the wearer, and a pursuit that usually costs a fashion house more than it earns. (Balenciaga’s CEO told WWD they hope to break even.) Fashion, as Gvasalia well knows, is a powerful means to shape behavior. What could these new costumes instruct its wearers to do?

And while every runway show makes promises it might not be interested in keeping, I wonder if the focus on the individual, on personalization—and the quietness, aided by the soundtrack-free show—might be the first little death knell for influencer culture. It’s telling that the brand didn’t simply delete its online presence. The quickest way to stage a revolt is from within.

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