A show of tailoring and forgetting

Security was intense for the latest show of Balenciaga on Sunday morning in Paris, with guards positioned at the gateway to the Carrousel du Louvre, in its main corridors and at the entrance into the lower basement event.
The show was the first since the brand was engulfed in a crisis in December when the house was accused of considering child pornography in some ways artistic. The show invitations – a mockup of a tailor’s pattern – were delivered earlier in the week. But the exact address was not revealed until the morning of the show.

Balenciaga fall 2023 collection in Paris – Balenciaga

Guests taking their seats discovered cards bearing a three-paragraph statement by the house’s creative director Demna, explaining that his parents had hired a tailor for him when he was six so he could make his first suit. The final paragraph read: “In the last couple of months, I needed to seek shelter for my love affair with fashion and I instinctively found it in the process of making clothes. It reminded me once again of its amazing power to make me feel happy and truly express myself.”
The result was a hyper tailored and oft deconstructed co-ed collection, made in defiant proportions and sent out almost entirely logo free. It also marked a return to Demna’s earlier days when he launched his own brand Vetements in Paris, noted for its blend of street style and exaggerated volumes. 

A welcome reminder of how talented a tailor Demna really is; here his first look referenced his very first designed aged six. Tuxedos and double breasted blazers seemingly made of inverted men’s trousers, with waistlines as their trim. Voluminous tuxedo coats that finished at the ankle. Superb chesterfields again with waistline trim; and extra pant legs added – like to many looks. Or striking windowpane suits made with page-boy shorts and giant double-breasted jacket for ladies. 
For evening, bubble-shaped cocktails, again trimmed with menswear waistlines; or some very elegant plissé floral dresses with matching handbags. Other silhouettes were hourglass and cocoon – blending  Demna with Balenciaga.
Logos were almost entirely banished, apart from the odd double B buckle on huge bags. Several bags were even concealed under the follows of enveloping silk gowns.  A striking departure when you consider that Demna’s successful tenure at Balenciaga has been driven by logos; and pumped up by accessories.
This season, his one big footwear idea was a rather cool new biker-meets-medieval knight boot. Where, exceptionally, we saw the name Balenciaga written in tiny script. Before a finale of Maid Marion dresses in dramatic silver metallic silks. Considerable applause greeted the last look, but there was no final run-through of the entire cast; and no bow by the designer.

Balenciaga fall 2023 collection in Paris – Balenciaga

The unspoken big elephant in the room was, of course, December. When an ad campaign featured several children carrying battered dolls wearing S&M clothing and, more disturbingly, a copy of a Supreme Court document ruling that child erotica photography was pornography. This unleashed a firestorm on and off-line, including a vicious 15-minute attack on Fox News led by Taylor Carson. Not exactly a Balenciaga consumer, but all the same. Plus, in an extreme example of utterly incompetent crisis management, the house first attempted to shift responsibility onto the campaign’s photographer – unleashing a tidal wave of web abuse – and then sued the production company. Again igniting fury at the house’s failure to take responsibility for its own acts. 
Staged inside a huge white box, the show also felt a million miles away from Demna’s previous show – a giant muddy field where bedraggled nomads struggled home from a conflict.
That said, conversations with people at today’s show indicated that most clearly felt Demna had unfairly been the scapegoat for his company’s public relations disaster. Most were very keen to give him the benefit of the doubt, and believed this was simply a dumb mistake by a member of his comms team.
Underlining, how under stress the brand remains. Its patron, Kering CEO Francois-Henri Pinault toured the front-row with his two senior French flacks at his heels, gripping and grinning as he greeted scores of editors. There was also a huge phalanx of buyers in one section, indicating that commercially at least Balenciaga may not be in such bad shape. Even if visitors to Milan Fashion Week in February could not help noticing how empty the Balenciaga flagship was, even on a Saturday.
Backstage, several score of critics gathered around the obviously fragile Demna. After attending over 10,000 runway shows, this editor has never seen a designer looked more rattled.
Alone among colleagues, FashionNetwork.com asked Demna how December’s uproar had impacted him. He responded:  “Well, I began the collection in October, but obviously the situation affected my whole way of working. This is where the whole tailoring and deconstruction began with me working on it, which I never really have the time to do so much. But the situation confirmed to me that idea of making this about clothes 100% about clothes was right,” responded a clearly rattled Demna.
Seconds before Pinault approached, embraced Demna and said: “Take a deep breathe.”

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