Balenciaga’s big rethink
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For nearly a decade now, fashion folk have grumbled about the industry’s insatiable and unsustainable pace. The unforgiving number of collections produced per year, the upside-down seasonality and an improbable sales calendar that sees the price of garments slashed too early and shoppers being faced with sweaters months before it is sweater weather.
Though the commercial machine of the industry set this pace, it is the brands’ designers and artistic directors who have felt its most adverse effects. With their creative energy zapped by an increase from two annual collections to six – in some cases more – the accepted relentlessness has led to the burnout of many great talents and a brutal expiry date for those unable to maintain the hype.
Still, nothing changed – until this year. In May, following stalled production and stagnant sales, two industry-led petitions, one helmed by Belgian designer Dries Van Noten and the other facilitated by the media company Business Of Fashion, called for concrete solutions. Although no panacea has been offered to date (the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode – Paris Fashion Week’s managing body – is unable to offer comment, citing the instability of the ever-evolving situation), a handful of power players are taking charge of their own agendas.
Balenciaga, along with other houses within the Kering stable such as Saint Laurent and Gucci, is one of the leaders. “At some point, we need to realise that the system we are in doesn’t work for us. It has been one‑size-fits-all, but the brands all have different visions, points of view and resources,” says Cédric Charbit, the upbeat CEO of Balenciaga, over a Zoom call from his spacious office in the brand’s Parisian headquarters. “Why would we all follow the same exercise to have a collection ready on a certain day and to present in the same format?”
From the doldrums of lockdown, Charbit and Balenciaga’s 39-year-old Georgian-born creative director, Demna Gvasalia, hatched their plan. “Demna took the lead. Even in the first few days of lockdown, Demna and I were on the phone talking about the next move for the brand… it was never a blackout, from a creative standpoint,” says Charbit.
His solution? The house will now present four gender-inclusive ready-to-wear collections a year, as well as debut an annual haute-couture collection next July. The crucial difference is that the timing of the main season collections and pre-collections will flip – a change that gives Gvasalia and his studio more time to realise and execute ideas, while offering the client more seasonally appropriate garments via see now, buy now.
The next realisation of this will be presented this December. Denied the runway model at which Balenciaga excels, the house is pushing a digital format instead: guests will be invited to experience the autumn/winter ’21 collection via headsets and a virtual runway, while an augmented-reality video game, Afterworld: The Age of Tomorrow will simultaneously introduce the collection to the broader public. Around 50 per cent of the collection will be available to purchase immediately, and the remainder will arrive in May.
The concept and the clothes have been designed to transport us to 2031 – a time when our wardrobes will include more upcycled and multifunctional fabrics, and the clothes that we buy are designed to stick around. It is a more hopeful evolution of Gvasalia’s vision of late – one that has seen him positioned somewhere between soothsayer and doomsayer. (See the autumn/winter ’20 apocalyptic show, presented last March, rooted in his fears around climate change.) The Balenciaga avatars in Afterworld wear faux-fur coats with monumental shoulders, Nasa spacesuits and even armour, expertly constructed using a centuries-old technique. Undeniably more appealing is the interpretation of this protective sheathing as lacquered material for fierce‑looking pumps and chevalier-style thigh-high boots. They’re bewitching when paired with a dress that ripples with silver sequins, mimicking dragon scales.
As ever, Gvasalia’s kinks distract from how uniquely versatile his designs are. The suits and coats are made in stonewashed and stretched jersey for extra comfort, while multifunctional garments offer more bang for your buck: a blanket transforms into a hooded cape, a parka doubles as a duffel bag. The collection also includes tailoring constructed from mesh-lined fabrics that make it suitable for activewear; as well as the logo merch, including Nasa and PlayStation 5 monograms, which will be sure to sell. One T-shirt bears the statement: “Hi, my name is… if I am lost, take me to the Balenciaga store.”
It is this instinct for combining the right balance of high-fashion, concept and strong commercial pieces that has ensured Gvasalia’s success at Balenciaga. Despite the challenges of 2020, the house posted concrete results in Kering’s October statement, delivering double-digit growth in both retail and wholesale channels for the third quarter, and showing healthy signs of expansion in Asia and North America as well.
This latest presentation is reflective of Kering’s digital innovation – see also Gucci’s recent collection release presented as a seven-episode mini-series co-authored by Alessandro Michele and Gus Van Sant. “This adaptation is actually a necessary evolution. We need to create events and content that are digitally driven in the first place… and to bring on board the resources to do so,” says Charbit, who points out that while a show may cater to a live audience of up to 700 guests, the digital reach can number in the tens of millions. The new strategy reflects the brand’s reverence of the wider public – and the client who is ready to click and buy – but Charbit remains convinced about the efficacy of the fashion show, which will stay in place for Gvasalia’s haute-couture debut next July.
As to the future of Balenciaga – which was well on track to hit €1bn in 2018 – Charbit is happy to follow Gvasalia’s vision. “I am so grateful to work with someone who has a mind like Demna’s, who is helping us to project ourselves into the future,” he says. “I’ve never felt so optimistic.” In the universe of Balenciaga, it seems, a brave new world awaits.