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Can Balenciaga Modernise Couture?

Reviving Balenciaga’s haute couture operation has been a transformative experience for Demna Gvasalia, resulting in a democratic, gender-fluid collection that includes jeans and t-shirts. The designer sits down with Tim Blanks for an in-depth interview on the label’s ‘50th couture collection.’
Balenciaga artistic director Demna Gvasalia. BFRND.
Designer Demna Gvasalia is reviving Balenciaga’s haute couture operation. BFRND.

As quantum physics is to science, haute couture is to fashion. It exists in a higher realm, fosters more elevated thinking. Some acolytes might even say there’s a spiritual element. Cristóbal Balenciaga certainly believed so. The devoutly Catholic couturier sought transcendence in his work, believing he could get closer to God in the perfection of his craft.

For the past six years, Demna Gvasalia has been creative director of the house Cristóbal founded in 1937, but his bailiwick has been ready-to-wear. Balenciaga’s couture business died in 1968, the day Cristóbal locked the doors of his salon on Avenue Georges V and walked away. According to current CEO Cédric Charbit, a couture renaissance was on the cards from the moment Demna arrived at the Kering-owned house. “I think it’s a creative obligation. We both knew it when we first met, even though we never said it. It was meant to be.”

Demna — who has transformed himself recently by shedding not only weight but also his family name, so he is now single-monikered, like Cher, or Drake or Björk — credits the prospect of turning 40 and the ensuing introspection for bringing him to this place. “I didn’t have to do couture. No one really asked, and I didn’t have to prove anything in a way.” But the compulsion was overwhelming. “It is the most spiritual experience I ever had in fashion,” he says now, chiming with Cristóbal. “I feel like doing couture just makes me better as a person.”

Couture is the most spiritual experience I ever had in fashion.

He talks of his Trinity, the three designers who have had such an impact on him that he doesn’t think about anyone else: Gabrielle Chanel, Martin Margiela and, above all, Cristóbal Balenciaga. Demna is passionate about the work, fascinated by the man. Doing his due diligence above and beyond deep dives into the Balenciaga archive, including a pilgrimage to Getaria, Cristóbal’s hometown in the Basque country, he unearthed some common ground. “He grew up in this very, very religious place, his family rejected him because of his sexuality.” There were smaller details that struck chords. “His mother had a Singer sewing machine, actually very similar to my grandma’s, with a huge crucifix above it. I grew up with a huge crucifix hanging in my bedroom.”

But Demna feels the main connection is this: “I just do my thing and I go for it. And I think that’s what he did. This is why, for me, his work is still relevant today. He had no fear. That’s what made him so unique. People would call his models ‘the Balenciaga monsters’ because they were not beautiful. At the time when Dior was making the New Look with the silhouette based on the waist, he made the potato sack shapes. I recently saw an old French Vogue article about how ugly the press found Balenciaga dresses like that and I felt so relieved. It made me feel good that people didn’t understand him. Of course, there were people who did, and who were devoted to his work, but the mainstream back then didn’t get what Balenciaga stood for. I see parallels, because I’ve been part of some kind of… let’s say… controversy of what fashion today is and what it could be.” Perhaps that’s what Charbit means when he says, “The biggest opportunity for us is to make sure people now see Demna’s silhouette with the notion of elegance and sophistication. Some of them couldn’t see that before.”

In a significant tip of the cap to continuity, the house has invited guests to see Balenciaga’s “50th couture collection,” as if Demna were picking up where Cristóbal left things in 1968. There will be just one couture show a year, as opposed to the typical two. Charbit says, “I think the way we’re going to present it, it’s going to be as modern as it gets, and as traditional as it gets.” For Demna, it’s down to “the necessity of having enough time to work on something special enough to be called couture,” he says. “I need to be able to enjoy it and I need 12 months to do that. It’s impossible to do it even in six months because the whole process is so different, and it requires so much effort for perfection — though we never get to that perfection, even in haute couture.”

I went as far as T-shirts and five-pocket jeans.

The collection is a substantial 63 looks. “I started with… I wouldn’t call it red carpet, that sounds almost vulgar for couture… ball gowns, dresses for really special occasions that very much refer to Cristóbal’s work. But then I started missing things I could relate to. Where was the trench coat? Where was the denim jacket? I went as far as T-shirts and five-pocket jeans, basically working around the idea of a modern wardrobe in couture. There is certain pragmatism in it that goes away from the dreamy decorative ideal of couture, the ribbons and feathers and all that. It grounds it to something that is relevant and can speak to my audience now. And also having different price ranges because ballgowns may cost so much that my potential audience will be limited to ladies in palazzos in Venice, and it’s kind of difficult to say I’m trying to modernise the idea of couture if I only do that. So, I needed to do a five-pocket jean, which is probably the easier part, but then I came to the idea of doing a couture T-shirt and that was probably the hardest. How do you do a couture T-shirt?”

If you’re Demna, you spend months testing necklines and armholes, trying out noble fabrics like silk and cashmere, until you end up with a tee made in silk satin, lined with the slightly padded material that Cristóbal used to give a roundness, a softness to fabric. Much easier was the five-pocket jean, cut from denim handwoven on old American looms somewhere outside Osaka in Japan. The metal buttons are silver, not Levi’s aluminium. “It’s the most noble materials you can get for the most mundane kind of garment that you can buy anywhere today,” says Demna. “But I have to say I struggled the longest with the T-shirt because I felt it was so important to try to incorporate engineering into that garment. It took me longer to do than a tailored jacket, which is the other very complicated piece. It’s much easier to make ballgowns and embroider them.”

To do couture in 2021, I cannot give it a gender.

The size of the collection is partly because he had so much time but also, says Demna, “because at one point, I started to get a bit jealous of the fact that I was only working on women’s couture. I felt like that’s kind of unfair, I want to be able to experience what that is as a male customer. The idea of gender in couture felt very irrelevant to me. If I want to do couture in 2021, I feel like I cannot really give it a gender.”

He describes the collection as gender fluid to the degree that there are looks where the gender of the wearer is irrelevant. “Obviously, there are ball gowns that I didn’t put on men because I didn’t want it to become too much of a costume in that way. There are certain types of garments that are difficult to put into a genderless context because of fashion history. I think that was the interesting challenge, but a very easy one in a way, because with the type of fashion vocabulary in which I work, there is no gender really. And that for me is also a way of seeing couture that I don’t think I have seen so far.”

It’s an extension of the democratic spirit which has seeded Demna’s work from the moment he first claimed the spotlight with the launch of Vetements in 2014, but recontextualising that in a couture context turned into an interesting exercise in defining the target audience. There are no more Mona Von Bismarcks, ordering outfits by the dozen from Cristóbal every season, right down to her gardening clothes. “I realised this had to be for everyone,” says Demna. “At one point I thought, It cannot be like it used to be. Balenciaga was actually notorious as a house for not letting people in. They had face control like at Berghain [the Berlin techno club’s ferocious door policy is the stuff of nightlife legend]. People wouldn’t get in because they didn’t like how they looked. I find that kind of exclusivity makes the whole idea of couture very old-fashioned. Maybe I’m a bit too much of an idealist in that, but I would like to do couture for anyone…” He catches himself… “not for everyone because obviously it’s something you need to be able to afford, but on the other hand, I’ve heard stories of women in the Fifties who would work as a cleaning woman and put money aside to be able to buy one Dior jacket at the end of their lives, almost like you’re collecting a piece of art. Maybe somebody just stops buying sneakers and T-shirts for a year or two, and then they can have this amazing couture trench coat. I would love that. So my idea is really to be open to anybody who wants to have it.”

He goes as far as recasting the underlying issue of cost “as almost a political thing. Fashion is so available and so cheap in a way. We forget how much labour it takes to make the perfect jacket. Maybe I’m naïve, I just believe in this idea that fashion today is in a state of digital mayhem, which the notion of couture can help it survive by going back to the human, where it comes from.” Demna adds, “The idea is kind of anti-consumption.” If that sounds obtuse, Balenciaga CEO Cédric Charbit adds a little definition. “Demna’s vision encapsulates scarcity, uniqueness, craftsmanship, sustainability. It all sounds like a modern conversation, but it’s actually the conversation that has always been 100 percent the conversation of couture.” But as CEO, Charbit’s responsibility is the bottom line. “You notice people on social media wondering, ‘Is that really something that brings money in?’ It’s that conversation, and the interest, that matters. Then money will come as a consequence of the job we do well.” Speaking of money, couture is often a loss-making activity and Charbit won’t be drawn on the scale of Kering’s investment. “We have their unconditional support,” he says. “We don’t disclose figures, but it takes a lot.” The house aims for its couture operation to break even.

Fashion today is in a state of digital mayhem.

As fundamental as cost is couture’s elastic time frame. “Having time is something that ready-to-wear fashion has lost completely,” says Demna. “Everything is so available, you click twice on your screen and you get it delivered to your place in two hours.” There’s some irony in the fact that he is serving an antidote to exactly that kind of product-driven instant-grat landscape that Balenciaga has dominated since he became creative director in 2015. “That’s probably the most punk thing I can do,” he says with a chuckle. “That’s how I see it, because it is actually against everything that is currently happening in fashion to do couture... We live in an era of digital mayhem, everything is available anywhere in the world, you don’t even know which brand is which unless there is something written on it. Couture is basically like the sacred Grail. We need to go back to the roots of where everything comes from.”

Demna is partial to the word “reset.” He considers it the silver lining of the pandemic. He spent the first few weeks of lockdown at home in Zurich, like everyone else, sitting round in his pajamas, getting depressed until he realised that fashion could help him weather the storm. He started to dress up every morning, obsessively creating looks, like he had somewhere to go. (His transformation into a quarantine fashion plate was captured in forensic detail in the Autumn issue of Re-Edition magazine.) “It brought me the joy that I used to have when I was a little boy, dressing at home, though my father would punish me for wearing a skirt or my mum’s high heels.” From one obsession it was a short step to another, and Demna plunged back into work on his couture collection. “Somehow I fell back in love with fashion in a way, thanks to the pandemic and thanks to couture.”

Balenciaga’s last live show in Paris, just days before the pandemic exploded, was a dystopian extravaganza of apocalyptic proportions. He insists he really enjoyed that outing last March. “It was like making a movie for 15 minutes, but then the pandemic started and I knew I wouldn’t be able to do live shows for a year. And this whole digital world opened and I thought ‘Why not explore that and see how far we can go?’ It was quite a ride.”

In lockdown, Demna presented the Winter 2021 collection as AfterWorld, a complex video game. “We worked on it for over six months and it was a nightmare of a project. I have to say I hated it so much because I never spent so much time on making a show or even a collection. Every tree was digitally created in that game, so even though it’s like a 10-minute experience and you might think it’s nothing, creating the digital world was just the biggest pain in the ass I ever had.”

Something easier was clearly called for with the following season. Unable to import his usual cast of characters from around the world, Demna decided everything would be shot on one person, his artist muse Eliza Douglas. So the idea of the clone was born. “To make it easy,” he sighs. “Well, it wasn’t. It was even harder than AfterWorld because I didn’t know what a technological challenge it was to Photoshop all those faces. I actually realised during the last year how limited technology is today, much more than we think. You know we’re in 2021 and I hardly have 4G here on my terrace.”

Those experiences would have been more than enough to make anyone crave the human hand of haute couture as a blessed escape from digital mechanics. He agrees. “I had a hunger for the human, the hunger of touching clothes, of seeing unmasked faces.” Couture represented all of that for him, a real life.

But if his enthusiasm for memorable machine-age presentations has been dialed down for couture, it is scarcely any less striking. Unlike Chanel with Rue Cambon or Dior Montaigne, Balenciaga was never associated with an iconic address, though the business astutely held on to 10 Avenue George V, where Cristóbal had his salon. (His fragrance, Le Dix, was named for it.) It wasn’t much more than an average Parisian apartment that had, over the years, devolved into a storeroom for the Balenciaga boutique on Avenue Montaigne. “I realised that this was the moment to give back that historical address to Balenciaga, and couture was the argument of actually doing something there and investing money and effort into it,” says Demna. There was enough old footage for the creative team to be able to reproduce the original interior — the stucco-ed walls, the curtains, the floor, the chairs, everything — exactly as it had been on the day in 1968 when Cristóbal Balenciaga turned the key in the door and walked away from the business he had spent 30 years building. But Demna’s final flourish was that the re-opened salon should look as though it had been untouched for half a century. It took a whole lot of subtle, artful ageing. “I would say that trace of time is probably the most Demna element that I wanted to give.”

An archive image of Cristóbal Balenciaga in his atelier. Thomas Kublin.

One vital component of Balenciaga’s epic presentations over the past few years has been the thundering soundtracks composed by Demna’s husband Loik Gomez, who makes music under the name BFRND. I was sworn to secrecy about the accompaniment planned for the couture presentation, but its startling appropriateness is in keeping with the intent of the event. The salon is also scented by Sissel Tolaas, an artist-researcher in smells of all kinds. She’s collaborated with Demna before. Here, she captured the olfactory essence of the small church on Avenue Marceau where the devout Balenciaga would worship twice a day. “I wanted the salon to smell like church,” says Demna. “For me, Balenciaga is pretty much a fashion religion, as much as it can be.”

There is always one glaringly obvious question regarding icons and acolytes in circumstances such as these, especially when the acolyte is as ardent as Demna: what does he imagine Cristóbal Balenciaga would think of what he is doing? “That’s the scariest question,” he answers cautiously. “It’s exactly the kind of question I asked myself: putting it in the context of 2021, would he approve? Seen from the 60s, of course not, he would never approve of a five-pocket jean. I guess that he would never approve of whatever happens in fashion today in general. In my offices in Paris and Zurich, I have a big portrait of Cristóbal. He usually never smiles in portraits. I have the rare ones where he actually does have the suggestion of a smile. I often look at them. It’s a good filter. It always grounds me and brings me back.”

For me, Balenciaga is pretty much a fashion religion.

Demna claims it wasn’t so long ago that he was wondering how long he could hold out in fashion. He wasn’t excited anymore. But working on couture has revitalised him, reminded him how much he loves fashion, how bad he’d be at doing anything else. His wide-eyed wonder at the world that has opened to him is contagious. He spent almost five months developing “the bluest blue that I have ever seen, the most vibrant orange.” He’s drawn on an artisanal crème de la crème: Huntsman & Sons in London for the tailoring, Abraham in Zurich for fabrics (they supplied silk to Cristóbal), embroiderers everywhere. And — what seems most wondrous to him — he made a hat. “All these things I didn’t know I would be into at all, I think it suddenly opens in me these new possibilities that I didn’t know I had. If somebody would have told me two years ago that I was going to make a big hat, I’d be, like, ‘You’re crazy.’ I mean there’s no way I’d want to make a hat.”

Another challenge he relished was creating an atelier of petites mains whose artisanship is responsible for making the clothes. They’re the bedrock of any couture house. But Demna didn’t want to cherry-pick his way round other ateliers in Paris. So he created one by promoting talent internally from Balenciaga’s ready-to-wear studio. “I felt like rather than taking somebody who did 20 years at Saint Laurent or Dior couture or whatever, why not work with our people and create a separate segment where these people would actually grow together with this idea. Our pattern-maker Simon, who is head of the couture atelier for women, is 31 years old, but he’s a master at what he does. I mean, he’s better than people who have 30 years’ experience. But the most exciting thing is you see in his eyes the passion about an armhole. And I want the 20 and 30-year-olds in my teams to be as excited about couture as I am. It also gives me hope for its longevity. Who are those people going to be in 10 or 15 years? We need them for this craft to survive the digital, computer-dependent era in fashion.”

One imagines that such an investment in the future health of his beloved métier would sit better with Cristóbal Balenciaga than the thought of a five-pocket jean, though the irony isn’t lost on Demna that it is the success of Balenciaga’s ready-to-wear which is underwriting the return of its couture. It was, after all, the rise of ready-to-wear which made Cristóbal close his house in the first place in ’68. He could no longer relate to fashion, and knew his time was done. “My first thought was that some people might think it’s almost blasphemous of me to go back to something that le maître Cristóbal decided to stop himself,” Demna admits. “But he could not relate to his time and that’s a different story completely. Obviously I wanted to pay tribute to his legacy, but also restore to Balenciaga the historic notion of a unique, incomparable heritage. It does feel to me like that is my mission.”

Related Articles:

Can Balenciaga Become a Megabrand?

Why Balenciaga’s Next Big Drop Is Haute Couture

Balenciaga CEO on Brand Activism

Demna Gvasalia Reveals Vetements’ Plan to Disrupt the Fashion System

Cristóbal Balenciaga (1895-1972)

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