Balenciaga "Hard Couture" Is High Fashion's Alter Ego

Demna is the antithesis of tradition, seldom sticking to the antiquated rules of high fashion so that he, under the subversive umbrella of Balenciaga, can re-write the rule book. This could not be truer for Balenciaga’s 51st Couture show, which debuted at the original salon of Cristobal Balenciaga — the same venue as last year’s Couture show, marking Balenciaga’s return to the calendar.

Balenciaga (under Demna) is now two Couture shows down, which in itself is a momentous achievement, considering that it has been down to the designer alone to bring back Couture and present these collections following the closure of the atelier in 1968. The pressure of a Couture show was definitely in the air, as was the anticipation, but Balenciaga did more than just deliver.

Shock-factor is Balenciaga’s modus operandi, but in this instance, it didn’t feel performative. Viral moments came from the likes of Kim Kardashian, Naomi Campbell, Inti Wang, Dua Lipa, Christine Quinn, Nicole Kidman, Bella Hadid, Eduardo Camavinga and BFRND walking the runway, with North West, Kris Jenner, Offset, Keith Urban and makeup transformation extraordinaire Alexis Stone (as Jocelyn Wildenstein)
sitting front row alongside the glitterati. Ominous masks designed by Mercedes-AMG F1 Applied Science, covered the faces of the familiar family of Balenciaga models, who were dressed in gimp-like Japanese limestone-based neoprene uni-pieces. Speaker bags playing the show’s BFRND and Gustave Rudman-curated “Love in E Minor” soundtrack had been made in collaboration with Bang & Olufsen, and were hyper-minimal and clean – eschewing Y2K trends for something typically Danish. Upcycled Helly Hansen jackets, complete with off-center branding and faux fur hoods also graced the runway. This wasn’t just a moment in Balenciaga’s history — which yet again served more menswear Couture — it was an utter diversion from the expected tropes of this industry.

A Canadian Tuxedo consisting of an oversized denim jacket with lapels that transformed into a hood, and a skirt with a train, was yet another example of Demna pushing the boundaries further than ever before. This was also evident in the T-shirts, which were bonded with aluminum for a crinkled, cut, manipulated and molded organic silhouette, as if forever shaped by being thrown onto the floor.

Matte black neoprene, sticking to the skin like lacquer, enabled traditional suits to ascend into a vacuum-packed world that was eerie and uncomfortable to look at. A vintage bomber jacket was blown out of proportion beyond Balenciaga’s usual manner – yet again, offering something traditionally not Couture in a high-end attitude. With that in mind, Balenciaga’s use of upcycling was also innovative for Couture; as vintage bombers, parkas and car coats, as well as jeans, were deconstructed and reassembled. Belts were “methodically sourced” and wallets were turned into intricate patchworks, while antique watches were recontextualized as earrings.

Proportions were a clear focus of the show. Trousers were cinched at the waist and met with shirts that doubled as corsets. Shoulders on sparkling dresses extended beyond what looks natural, and trench coats got the exploded treatment thanks to lapels that, like the Canadian Tuxe, turned into a hood.

Unlike traditions, Balenciaga didn’t leave the best moments to last for its 51st Couture show. Kim Kardashian wore a silky LBD with a sweetheart neckline and a train, paired with her favored footwear — high heels that turn into leggings. Kidman’s dress was metallic silver and creased like aluminum foil, it too finished with a train bow tied to the waist. Only Naomi Campbell could exude an elegant stature beneath a dress that consumed the legendary model’s body, which played on Balenciaga’s recent bin bag references, with a skirt and bodice that extended beyond the neck.

But at the end of the day, this was a Couture show, and while subversion is expected it was also required for Demna to show his atelier-spec prowess. A little black dress was overlayed with a glistening, shimmering latticework of crystals, while other dresses were made from dusty blue feathers that added volume to an otherwise simple shape. The final moment — which stuck to the Couture tradition of the closing look being bridal — was nothing short of breathtaking. Although its huge, billowing skirt meant that the model struggled to fit through the narrow doorways of the house’s salon, its details were the most distracting element. The embroidery process took 7,500 hours, and used 25 types of paillettes and beads, including 70,000 crystals, 80,000 silver leaves, and 200,000 sequins. Transformed into flowers, these were embroidered all over a semi-sheer, multi-layered 250-meter tulle dress that billowed from the waist down. A backless veil in the same style served sophistication, while the dress itself was something out of a fairy tale — albeit one tainted by Balenciaga’s sense of humor that started the show with submissive ensembles. By executing this show, Demna proved himself as more than just a headline-grabbing designer, and that Balenciaga is more than just provocation.

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In related news, Balenciaga has also opened its first Couture store today.
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