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Slimane, Gvasalia and the Power of Emotional Experiences

BoF's Imran Amed asks, in an age of fashion immediacy, can genuinely emotional fashion experiences — like those staged by Demna Gvasalia at Balenciaga and Hedi Slimane at Yves Saint Laurent — really be communicated at scale to millions of end consumers?
Yves Saint Laurent Autumn/Winter 2016 show | Source: InDigitalitalia, Courtesy of Saint Laurent
  • Imran Amed

LONDON, United Kingdom — There has been much hand-wringing about the fashion month just ended. While the dominant topic was the rise of 'fashion immediacy' and direct-to-consumer shows, it's pretty clear we are far from consensus on this issue. Indeed, after meeting with designers, chief executive officers, retailers, wholesalers and the fashion councils in Italy, France and the US, it's pretty clear that the questions surrounding the fashion system and the role of shows will take some time — possibly several years — to sort themselves out.

Naturally, looking back at the season gone by, I also thought about the experiences that made a real emotional impression on me. In my short time in fashion, such moments have been few and far between: Raf Simons' debut at Dior was certainly one, as were several of Alexander McQueen's shows, Rick Owens' Spring 2014 stepdancers show and Alessandro Michele's first womenswear show for Gucci in February of last year. But this season, I was lucky to experience two genuine fashion moments that, in a way, were polar opposites.

Walking into the Balenciaga showspace on Sunday morning, there was certainly a sense of anticipation about Demna Gvasalia's debut for the storied house. Personally, I wondered whether he would be able to carve out a distinctive identity for Balenciaga, one that would be differentiated from the red-hot street-inflected aesthetic of Vetements and respectful of the architectural precision of Cristóbal Balenciaga.

It turned out to be all of that — and more. Demna had thought of the entire experience from the moment we walked into the venue, where little speakers squawking out unintelligible noise lined the route downstairs into a huge underground television studio. The walls were insulated with grey padding and there were no windows at all. We really could have been anywhere in the world.

Before the show started, I began to feel differently in that hermetically sealed environment. For one, it was quite warm. And then, when the intoxicating soundtrack started with a few intermittent beeps and the first look — a tailored plaid blazer with padded shoulders and hips — came out, I was hooked. As the show progressed and the music became increasingly layered and complex, the key messages of Demna's Balenciaga were revealed: a focus on outerwear and tailoring, and an unusual but striking use of colour blocking and pattern mixing.

It wasn't a perfect debut. The patchwork floral dresses paired with candy-stripe stockings were less successful and the accessories looked too boxy and clunky to be commercially successful, but it was the overall experience and feeling that made it one of the top shows of the season. Even with all the breathless expectation, Demna managed to deliver something that people really responded to. By the time I left the show space, I felt a bit disoriented, as if stepping onto solid ground after spending time on sailboat.

The other memory that will stick with me — completely different, but equally powerful — was the secretive show staged by Hedi Slimane for Yves Saint Laurent. Very little information was shared with us before — or after — the show and the clothes weren't loved by everyone. But for me, as an experience, it will certainly go down as a genuine fashion moment and not just because it very well might have been his last show for the maison.

Rather than a blaring soundtrack, there was just the slightly eerie sound of Bénédicte de Ginestous announcing each outfit, as she did for all YSL's couture shows between 1977 and 2002. (Funny because, as several people have pointed out, the models, gussied up in shorter than short skirts and full-on makeup and slicked back hair, looked like a couture version of the backup singers in Robert Palmer’s memorable ‘Addicted to Love’ video from 1985, which could have made the perfect soundtrack.)

But it was the silence here that was so striking. And, interestingly, it wasn’t until I watched the show afterwards on the Internet that I realised how smart it was. A silent video on the Internet feels so different from all the noise out there. It draws you in as a viewer and combined with the theatre of watching the people at the show and their reactions, it was quite engaging to watch this show online. But that doesn’t mean it really worked well as a consumer-marketing vehicle or captured the full experience of being there.

With all this talk of so-called 'fashion immediacy,' I wonder what will happen to real experiences, when you actually feel something beyond the clothes and the fashion circus because a designer has thought so carefully about the moment they are trying to create. Both shows were small and on a human scale, where one could appreciate the clothes up close. Can these kinds of intimate experiences really be translated up at scale for thousands, if not millions, of end consumers?

Imran Amed, Founder and Editor-in-Chief

Editor's Note: This article was revised on 11 March 2016. A previous version of this article misspelt Demna Gvasalia's name.

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