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Why Balenciaga's Next Big Drop Is Haute Couture

Creative Director Demna Gvasalia's meme-worthy designs have propelled Balenciaga to over $1 billion in sales. What's motivating the move further upmarket?
Balenciaga Spring/Summer 2020 | Source: INDIGITAL.TV
By
  • Sarah Kent

LONDON, United Kingdom — Balenciaga has become known for its high-end take on streetwear under Creative Director Demna Gvasalia. But with the trend for urban chic beginning to wane, it's returning to its roots.

In July, the famed French fashion house will show its first couture collection since founder Cristóbal Balenciaga closed the atelier in 1968.

The move underscores Balenciaga’s ambitions after several years of meteoric growth, driven by Gvasalia’s genius for disruption and meme-able hits. The brand crossed the billion-dollar sales mark last year, more than doubling its size in the course of just three years.

"The idea was to welcome new customers," said Balenciaga Chief Executive Cédric Charbit, adding that since the announcement dropped Monday morning, the brand has already received a lot of requests. "We're looking at a new typology of customers who are interested in the work of Demna Gvasalia to explore couture and become couture customers."

The company has become a star in parent company Kering's stable of luxury brands, which also include Gucci and Bottega Veneta. But as Balenciaga looks to the future, maintaining its growth is a challenge. Unlike Gucci, the brand doesn't have a stable of classics to fall back on and relying on churning out hit after hit every season can be risky.

Relaunching couture has been years in the making. Gvasalia held it as an ambition from when he first joined the house, which has couture in its DNA. In 2017, he went back to the archives to close Balenciaga's 100th anniversary show with nine couture recreations.

The bet on couture signals the brand's ambition to reclaim its heritage and join the suite of luxury brands that use their ultra-high-end collections to cast a powerful aspirational halo over more affordable products. Still, the move upmarket is a bold one. While couture is the dream-maker, it's a time-consuming and costly business with a very limited market. Fragrance and beauty, on the other hand, scale fast and have wide margins.

Alongside the designer’s commitment to the brand, Balenciaga is betting on its existing momentum and "unlimited" support from parent company Kering to make its re-entry into couture a success.

“It’s a lot of money, but it’s a wise decision,” Charbit said. "We have in mind [financial] balance. It's not a marketing plan. It was an idea that became an option."

The company will establish a dedicated team and atelier replicating the original salons at the house's historic Avenue George V address. According to Charbit, "it's a move from street to salon" for Gvasalia and his team. And in a press release, the designer described the launch as a duty that takes Balenciaga back to its origins.

“For me, couture is an unexplored mode of creative freedom and a platform for innovation,” he said. “Couture is above trends. It’s an expression of beauty on the highest aesthetic and qualitative levels.”

Additional reporting by Sarah Schijen. 

Editor’s Note: This article was corrected on January 20, 2020. A previous version of this article misstated a quote from Balenciaga CEO Cédric Charbit that the launch was a test of Demna Gvasalia's ability to move from street to salon.

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