Brands sometimes go through a reinvention, a renaissance, that’s usually in sync with a change of creative direction. Chloé had it with Claire Wright Keller; Céline with Phoebe Philo; Lanvin with Alber Elbaz. With them, each new designer brings a new aesthetic that becomes a sartorial by-word for the brand. Chloé is refined, 1970s bohemian. Céline is artistic minimalism. Lanvin is louche femininity. That’s just the way things are. It doesn’t matter what came before (Michael Kors at Céline anyone?), when a strong visual voice comes in and overhauls a brand, these things tend to stick.
To the case in point: Balenciaga is no stranger to reinventions. The Nicholas Ghesquiere era had a profound impact on the brand, bringing an eclectic futurism to the hallowed couture house – at odds with Alexander Wang’s streamlined urbanism. But there’s a new era dawning, one as ground-breaking as Ghesquiere’s. Enter Demna Gvasalia, the wunderkind designer at Vetements, known for his uncompromising, referential streetwear aesthetic. Hardly in-tune with the space-age cocoon shoulders the house is famed for, but that’s sort of the point. A reinvention isn’t a reinvention without change. First, what’s constant: a focus on the shoulder. While Cristobal favoured a rounded silhouette, for his first collection Demna went for the boxiest cut around. An ‘I left my coat hanger in’ cut would be too soft a comparison; the new shapes lean towards power-dressing Transformers or geometric American footballers. Puffer jackets, huge and enveloping, were shrugged off the shoulders to expose sequin roll necks. Stilettoes came encrusted in swathes of crystals. Stirrup pants appeared. It was new. Exciting. And the fash pack went mad for it.
Buoyed by this, subsequent seasons have continued to tap into this new mood. If it ain’t broke… Squared shoulders, oversized coats, bikers and trenches are frequently teamed with accordion pleat skirts and acres of Lyrca. Those stretchy, colour-pop thigh boots have been a motif for some seasons now, and their popularity shows no sign of waning – they’re the perfect slimline foil to pumped up proportions. Retro floral dresses, striped shopper bags that wouldn’t look out of place on an East End pensioner, androgynous suiting, kitten heels and anoraks – all part of the new Balenciaga lexicon. While it’s the norm for superbrands to have a library of pieces they ‘own’, what’s incredible is the speed at which this has happened for Balenciaga – a repertoire as defined and expansive as this usually takes a career, not a few seasons.
This is a testament to Demna Gvasalia as a designer, no doubt, but also great news for shoppers. It’s now so easy to buy a future icon of Balenciaga design history. For AW17, it was all about the giant tote bag. Big and boxy, models carried them nearly dragging on the floor or tucked under the arm. Sock boots still reigned, worn with everything from slouchy knits and floral skirts to directional heritage check coats and, most excitingly, with couture-esque gowns. Bustiers, bows, ballooning silhouettes reminiscent of Cristobal’s fashion-defining work, tulle, feathers and florals – all given a shocking jolt of neon spandex in the form of thigh boots. These are the gowns Hollywood’s cool, young set will be wearing on the red carpet – so get ahead of the trend.
For Pre Fall ’17, the skin-tight boots of previous seasons took on a (subtly) new guise: wader-high boots that stiffly sit away from the skin are rendered in shiny leather, or legging boots, crafted from velvet, cling to the legs. Sportswear influences are felt in the new triangle bags while granny chic has moved away from florals to tightly knotted hoods and necklines. Gotta keep that perm and purple rinse in place, girls. Hot pink anoraks channel “Don’t Look Know” and 1990s windbreaker vibes, while coats and tailoring are either outsized or belted at the waist. It’s all hammering home Balenciaga’s design DNA: keep it big on the top, keep the legs sleek, keep it bright. Old school fabrics, blousy femininity and androgynous tailoring are key – just make sure they’re contrasted with something made of Lycra in an unexpected colour.
Experiencing the Balenciaga effect yet?