When Demna Gvasalia, the wunderkind behind the Vetements collective (of which he is now no longer a part), first took over at Balenciaga we were skeptical. We were prejudiced by how marvelous Nicolas Ghesquière’s stint was at the helm, so much so that we were willing to forget the Alexander Wang’s seasons ever existed. Ghesquière’s vision at Balenciaga remains one of our favorite eras at any fashion house ever.
Gvasalia’s ironic slogans, oversized silhouettes, logo’d surfaces, and sharp accessories were immediate fashion fodder. Whether it’s because he’s been bashing us over the head with variations of the same idea for so many seasons or because Spring/Summer 2020 crystallized what he’s been doing all along, we are officially converted. Here’s the essence of what we finally realized: Gvasalia is the ultimate postmodern provocateur.
His Spring/Summer 2020 collection, taken in pieces, is not that weird, but in strategic combination, the effect is hallucinogenic. The first look, a baggy suit, owed its oversized structure to interior scaffolding, which demonstrated the wit and intent behind the massive silhouette. The model who wore the opening ensemble was a silver-haired everywoman, a plain corporate drone, replete with an office badge.
Set against a smothering blue backdrop, which served to replicate European Parliament where so much political strife has been playing out lately, the collection was strangely dystopian even though it traded in the common vernacular of suits, jeans, and boxy-shouldered dresses. It made us imagine a scene of automatons or humanoid clones headed to work in a faceless building while “Don’t Worry About the Government” by the Talking Heads scores the soundtrack.
Postmodernism is innately critical of modern social constructs, while using the language of modern society to critique itself. These messages are double-coded; a catchall word for it is “irony” much the same way Balenciaga’s collections have been deemed ironic with their intentionally ugly sneakers, and in the case of this show, those name tags, Hello Kitty bags, and corporate logos.
Some proponents imagined postmodernism as representing society on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The idea is that everything might look normal on the surface, but underneath lurked something terribly wrong, or at the very least terribly odd. Two American iconoclasts, David Byrne and David Lynch, used their postmodernist art to throw a wrench in suburban utopia by subverting the American dream. It’s no coincidence that Balenciaga Spring/Summer 2020 conjured them both in spirit.
It was there in the disproportionately large suits that Byrne favored onstage (Google: David Byrne+lamp dance, thank us later), and in the destabilizing details that wormed their way into the worlds Lynch created in shows like Twin Peaks and films like Blue Velvet. We also couldn’t help but make associations to other villainous and gripping references. The silhouettes and the dresses in this Balenciaga show looked like they came straight from the closet of Alexis Carrington Colby, Dynasty’s conniving matriarch.
This wasn’t a fashion show, this was political art.
The puffy outerwear that swallowed up one’s frame called to mind another villain: Despicable Me’s Gru, while a maximal spotted fur coat with oblique shoulders made us think of Cruella de Vil. Pitched against the parliamentarian backdrop, it made for some pretty sinister, but altogether subtle, imagery. These instant associations to suburban subversion, and status-hungry villains had everything to do with Gvasalia’s deconstruction of global powers. Corporate greed, first-world problems, late stage capitalism, and all that.
The closing looks – which were cast in literal bell shapes in the form of pleated Lurex and crushed velvet – were a recognizable riff on the works of house founder Cristóbal Balenciaga. There was nothing postmodern about that, it was simply great design work. No need for double-coded messaging here. However, the rest of it was a brilliant sartorial essay on subversion. Globalism has resulted in many of the first-world nations transforming from democracies into corporatocracies.
Statistically, 100 companies on this planet are responsible for 71% of global emissions, and yet corporations are shielded from responsibility because of the legal notion of corporate personhood. Multinational conglomerates will stop at nothing to increase profit, even as human lives and the environment are ravaged. To what end? And mark our words, it will come to an end.
What really brought the idea home was Gvasalia’s use of olfactory branding. He tapped Sissel Tolaas, a scent scientist, to create the literal smells of blood, money, and oil, which were pumped into the show venue. Gvasalia criticized the corporate establishment with this collection, but relied on the codes of corporatocracy to do so. The earrings were made from credit cards, for goodness sake! The fact that these looks will be packaged for mass consumption and sold for top dollar – as they deserve to be given their incredible quality and design acumen – is all the more audacious, and we love him for it.
This wasn’t a fashion show, this was political art.