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What’s in the Box?

Battered but unbroken, Demna is battling his way out of a box at Balenciaga. But at Valentino, Pierpaolo Piccioli’s box is packed with possibilities, writes Tim Blanks.
A model walks the runway for Valentino's Spring/Summer 2023 show in Paris.
A model walks the runway for Valentino's Spring/Summer 2023 show in Paris. (Getty Images)

PARIS — Balenciaga’s show took place on the rim of a giant mud installation by artist Santiago Sierra, who has always courted controversy with his close-to-the-bone scenarios. The air in the venue was redolent of the smell of freshly turned earth. Maybe this was the site of a missile strike, maybe a recently exhumed mass grave. Events in Ukraine weigh heavy on designer Demna, given the trauma of his youth in nearby Georgia. When his models arrived, tramping through the mud in hoodies and shorts, they were battered and bruised, like kids dragged off the street to fight Putin’s senseless war. Their desperation was palpable. BFRND’s soundtrack was a relentless rat-a-tat-tat sonic assault.

But Demna’s casting was a democracy of the displaced. It wasn’t only scruffy kids in tatty sportwear, and Kanye West dressed as a security guard. It was women in evening gowns, trailing through the mud, it was tech workers, gym bunnies, tycoons, club kids. War had arrived on their doorstep. They had to leave now so they were taking a dirt track to the border, because the roads were closed. That was when the missile struck. You read it in the paper yesterday.

That’s one way of interpreting the extraordinary scenario Demna offered us on Sunday. Another was the one he gave us post-show. You’re so tired of being put in a box, especially by social media, but the more you try to be yourself, the more you get punched in the face. So you just have to get back on your feet and fight through the bullshit. And you have to dig for the truth, create one huge sucking pit of honesty at all costs.

Balenciaga is a luxury label, and Demna sees luxury being put in a box too. Why should it just be a cashmere sweater, he wondered backstage. Why couldn’t it be a distressed, graffiti-ed track suit that it had taken a dog’s age to besmirch? Balenciaga now has a whole Department of Ageing Things and Making Them Dirty. “It’s much harder to make things dirty,” he insisted.

Some of the models had papooses with (not real but scarily lifelike) babies in them. Demna loved the idea that a dad could be someone with piercings, who wore ballerinas and crazy clothes. He’s now 41. Maybe he’s feeling broody, which would be an investment in optimism. Yes, he’s an optimist, he claimed, but he’s not seeing much to be optimistic about. Even though he skated around the issue of how close the mise-en-scene of his new show was to current events, Demna continued to claim the show was like a personal therapeutic exercise for him. He liked the idea of not knowing where the dirt track led.

He also said that it was the outlet he had with haute couture that allowed him the freedom to create such dystopian fantasias. One was about brand heritage, the other was about himself, (im)pure and unadulterated. But he created such irresistibly current images that you could only think he was being a bit disingenuous. Like the last catwalk pairing: Julia Nobis in a glamorous column of black sequins, trailed by a hunched crone in a dress cobbled together from old leather tote bags. She looked like she wanted to Eat the Rich. And that’s a message which is truly torn from today’s headlines.

In one of those funny synchronicities that fashion excels at, Pierpaolo Piccioli was also thinking about boxes. His theme at Valentino was Unboxing, as in opening Pandora’s box and unleashing a whole platform of possibilities. The show invitation was actually a black plastic box. It was quite hard to dispose of in a hotel room, meaning at least one possibility — the one that involved recycling — became a bit of a chore.

The show manifesto declared “Multitude becomes one.” There was certainly enough of last season’s pink in the audience to induce a headache of homogeneity. On the catwalk, the manifesto translated into another fiesta of head-to-toe monochrome, though this time it was scrupulously matched to the skin tone of the model wearing the look. Ideally, this would pull focus to the face, the individuality of the wearer, but there were unfortunate distractions, not least of which was the problem a number of the models had with their footwear. And — cruel irony — the catwalk was an unusually lengthy and arduous trek, up and down, backwards and forwards, which added to the unendurable length of the show itself. Another own goal was the way some models had their faces stencilled to match the Valentino logo on their outfits to create a completely character-denying effect.

Piccioli has been swirling his couture and ready-to-wear together for a while. Anyone looking for a pair of dungarees in duchesse satin knows where to come next Spring. He’s also expressed a fluid attitude towards gender. Whether it’s marabou, sequins or chiffon, his girls and boys were once again drinking from the same well. But what these swirls and twirls have done is make it difficult to see who Valentino is actually for anymore. Under Mr Valentino himself, there was never a scintilla of doubt, but after a run of seasons where he was fashion’s cock of the walk, it felt here like Piccioli got lost in a grandiose and ultimately confusing statement about…um…unboxing? Maybe it’s best to try that in comfortable shoes.

Further Reading

Balenciaga and Dior may offer radically different visions, but haute couture is always about an emotional response, writes Tim Blanks.

The Italian brand staged a couture spectacular on the Spanish Steps that proved to be as much a collection of Pierpaolo Piccioli tropes as a ‘dialogue’ with founder Valentino Garavani.

About the author
Tim Blanks
Tim Blanks

Tim Blanks is Editor-at-Large at The Business of Fashion. He is based in London and covers designers, fashion weeks and fashion’s creative class.

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