It's time for Balenciaga to evolve beyond irony.
When Demna arrived in 2015, Balenciaga became a bellwether brand overnight. He carried with him the hype from Vetements, a young Georgian brand that turned enormous hoodies, modified DHL tees, and doodled-on jeans into the “It” items of the mid-2010s. This hype ignited and then oxygenated interest in Balenciaga, and it has managed to sustain it for years. Until recently.
Demna’s vision for Balenciaga wasn’t created in a vacuum. He worked on the womenswear side of Maison Martin Margiela in 2009 after he graduated from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp. Thus, his work at Balenciaga and Vetements could be seen as a spiritual descendant of Margiela’s pioneering, ultra-subversive craft. Steeped in the idea that the everyday, the mundane, and the sub-ordinary are capable of transformation into high fashion with the right set of skills and the determination to provoke, Demna brought Balenciaga to the forefront of fashion with a sort of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” mentality. The gloriously absurd proportions of his outwear and accessories, the juxtaposition of knife-sharp angles against ballooning silhouettes, the naif flower prints and moto-hellraiser leathers were so enticing because they both rejected and co-opted popular design at the same time.
When his version of Balenciaga first emerged, it seemed absurd that people would actually buy it, much less wear it. And then, the subversion of the idea of selling thousand-dollar hoodies and XL sneakers to the fashion-hungry masses began to seem really clever. And then, it took on a life of its own, a kind of tribal code worn by “If You Know, You Know” cool kids that broadcasted their allegiance to Demna’s challenge of the status quo. It’s like that weird paradox where you’re watching a film that’s so bad that it becomes good (See: Tommy Wiseau’s The Room).
I was skeptical of Demna at first, but then at the Spring/Summer 2020 show, something clicked for me. Here he was, taking on the political establishment with corporate suiting and villainous furs. It was dystopian, an anti-establishment code working within the establishment; postmodern provocation at its best. Demna, I thought, is an actual genius. So many electrifying moments followed. His terrifying, post-apocalyptic Fall/Winter 2020 show. His snow-blasted, defiant Fall/Winter 2020 show. His mud-splattered Spring/Summer 2023 show. His collab with The Simpsons. The Kering cross-brand collab (or "hack") with Gucci.
But Balenciaga has since ceased pushing buttons.
With a pre-collection of menswear and womenswear for Fall 2024 – shown along Windsor Boulevard in Los Angeles, which offered a perfect palm-tree-lined view of the Hollywood sign – Balenciaga aped LA-core in a way that felt redundant rather than inventive. It was barely distinguishable from what you might see on other streets within LA’s labyrinth of neighborhoods. The attitude was right. The guests were Balenciaga’s classically funky mix of metaphorical angels and demons, the models were Balenciaga’s usual crew of outre girlies (Minttu Vesala, Alex Consani, and Mariacarla Boscono, plus a surprise appearance by Brigitte Nielsen and Cardi B). However, it was disappointing to find that the clothes were predictable. It was all very expected, which is to say that Balenciaga has fallen into its own trap by becoming the very thing it once subverted.
What Demna has done so well with ready-to-wear is to take the idea of Comfort — which is traditionally schlubby, an afterthought, a disguise you wear when you want to be invisible — and transform it into something that feels special and well-made. This alone is a fashion feat, worthy of endless hours of analysis. But facing the challenges of last year’s backlash and the fact that Balenciaga is Kering’s only brand in this specific streetwear lane, it has to be more than just ironic, more than just a gag.
When you see Balenciaga couture in person, for instance, your jaw is on the ground. The details and construction are beyond belief. I’d love to see some of the design acumen made more obvious in Balenciaga’s ready-to-wear and not cloaked in a tongue-in-cheek collab or clown-sized sneakers. Kering’s other brands are all doing quiet luxury — a trend that is already showing signs of consumer fatigue. Balenciaga is poised to push the group’s offerings further, to be louder, to mean something more than flash-in-the-pan social media fodder. On a sunny day in LA, what was missing from Balenciaga's presentation was the feeling that something greater was lurking in the shadows.
On a sunny day in LA, what was MISSING from Balenciaga's presentation was the feeling that something GREATER was lurking in the shadows.