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What would Cristobàl think of Balenciaga?

Similarities and differences between two eras of a revolutionary brand

What would Cristobàl think of Balenciaga?  Similarities and differences between two eras of a revolutionary brand

When Cristóbal Balenciaga founded his eponymous fashion house in 1919, the Spanish designer was an instant success. He was hailed as a visionary and revolutionized the fashion industry, pioneering women’s fashion in the mid 20th century. In 2015, co-founder of Vetements Demna Gvasalia succeeded Alexander Wang and became the new creative director of Balenciaga. His unique style marked a significant shift in the brands approach and despite some skeptics, he revived the fashion house in a way nobody could have anticipated. At first sight, it is difficult to imagine two designers further apart from one another. From Cristóbal’s elegance that once literally made Audrey Hepburn froth at the mouth to Demna’s penchant for streetwear and the designer who dressed Kim Kardashian head to toe in yellow caution tape. The former was known for his introverted personality, he notoriously hated the press and never took a bow at the end of his shows. He catered to high society and perfection was everything. The latter engages with the press, has made close friends with social media’s finest and has embraced subcultures and an alternative audience. The two may seem worlds away from one another, but look a little beneath the surface and you will see that these two revolutionary designers are more similar than they initially appear. Both far ahead of their time and breaking boundaries within the industry, it seems Balenciaga’s current creative director has taken a few cues from the renowned ‘master of us all’

Their first and perhaps most significant similarity is their choice of models and muses. Balenciaga’s house models were once called “the monsters”. They were said to have been instructed not to smile or make eye contact, they were plain and somewhat robotic. The garments took center stage, they were works of art and the models were simply vessels to present the clothes to the world. Balenciaga’s favorite one was said to be a woman named Colette. Journalist Rosamund Bernier wrote that “She walked in like a grenadier, as if she wanted to kill everyone. The way she would halt before clients. One was afraid!” This stark, regimental energy was present at Balenciaga’s most recent Paris fashion week presentation. The SS23 collection was showcased in an actual mudpit and opened by none other than Kanye West dressed in a full security rig. Models stomped through thick mud and water with force and grit. The knife boot, chunky platforms and leather appeared frequently and the softer more elegant garments dragged through the mud in a dramatic nod to fashion’s obsession with vanity. 

Though Demna’s selection of models and front row inhabitants comes from a more modern understanding of the importance of celebrity power and influence, something that Cristóbal’s era had less of a connection to. Both have an undeniable understanding of how to question both the fashion industry and our society as a whole and the people they choose to represent the brand encapsulate that message perfectly. Despite this, the two designers both have a very different view of the fashion industry. Cristobal Balenciaga was said to be a modernist who hated the modern world. He strived for sheer perfection, he was incredibly exclusive about the people he dressed and his fashion house was built on the premise that a woman would change her clothes three times a day. For Cristóbal, the fashion world was a place of austerity, extravagance and glamor that could not be tainted by anything less than perfection. Demna’s vision for the new era of Balenciaga looks to destroy some of these perceptions. From the literal mudslide to the Wall Street takeover and smashed iPhones alluding to over consumption and waste. His modern take on the fashion house is an example of how high fashion is beginning to slowly veer away from its otherworldly appeal. Regardless of their take, both designers make a considerable statement when it comes to disrupting the traditional fashion system. 

Streetwear and Cristóbal Balenciaga are rarely uttered in the same sentence. Most often recognised for his grandeur and haute couture creations, we often forget the designer's connection to the street. Balenciaga created the first vinyl raincoats reminiscent of those worn by French paramilitary police officers in Paris. He made inventive daywear that responded to the needs of women during the Nazi occupation in Paris. From functional cycling outfits to dresses with detachable skirts for effortlessly transitioning from day to night. Cristóbal’s connection to the street, though often overlooked, played a huge role in his success. Gvasalia similarly takes the ordinary and makes it extraordinary. From plastic bags likened to Ikea shoppers to Lays crisp packets, his ability to bring the everyday into the high fashion world always manages to make for a huge viral moment. In 2021, the Georgian designer revived the haute couture branch of Balenciaga, which closed in 1968. 

@studnioo Balenciaga #balenciaga #fashion #fashiontiktok #fashiontok #fashionidea #style #men sweet caroline but dark academia - mike hunt

The unexpected revival came as a shock to many, an area of fashion reserved for the opulent and elite would appear to disengage the likes of Demna who has made a serious case for puffer jackets and hoodies. However, the show paid homage to the label’s founder in the most perfect way. Taking place in the historic atelier of the brand, the show featured opera gloves and double-balloon silhouettes made famous by Cristóbal over fifty years ago. Demna of course brought his own unique style to the collection including a denim jacket and jeans in the signature Balenciaga silhouette. This modern take contrasted beautifully alongside a floral silk gown inspired by a piece once designed for Jackie Kennedy. Gvasalia said he saw reviving fashion in its most expensive form as an “anti-consumption” move. «Maybe somebody just stops buying sneakers and T-shirts for a year or two, and then they can have this amazing couture trench coat. I would love that» he said. Would Cristóbal approve of Demna’s satirical take on his legacy? It is hard to say what the founder would think of his brand over a hundred years after its debut. Times have changed and a new era of Balenciaga has seen the brand flourish as it once did in the 1950’s. There is no doubt that Cristóbal would be proud of the brand’s bold and courageous moves made by its current creative director, taking inspiration from his iconic legacy and adapting to a new and ever-changing audience.