In Balenciaga’s show earlier this year for the Fall/Winter 2020 season, Creative Director Demna Gvasalia envisioned an apocalypse. On screens overhead, Balenciaga’s presentation surged with boiling seas, fire-scorched skies, and droves of birds fleeing the scene, while below, models stomped through an arena flooded with water. To be there was to be equal parts terrified and electrified. We were, after all, at the cusp of a pandemic’s swallowing spread, maskless, sitting in the dark, watching the unfolding with a sense of wonder and inexplicable dread.
Seven months later, and the apocalypse rages on. Gvasalia couldn’t have known how prescient his Fall/Winter 2020 show would be, or how precisely he would tap the core of fear and uncertainty that would soon unspool from humanity as it grappled worldwide with a galloping virus, a catastrophic explosion in Beirut, community-consuming fires, mass cyber-terrorism, social justice protests, the Pentagon confirming the existence of UFOs, the push-through of Brexit, and a thousand-and-one other things that only sound fit for a sci-fi novel.
Remarkably, for the Spring/Summer 2021 season, Paris Fashion Week marched forward. Most brands adopted a “phygital” experience, inviting a minimal amount of guests to their shows and simultaneously live streaming them for a broader audience. Balenciaga took a different tactic. Instead of a normal Spring/Summer 2021 collection, it showed a condensed ‘Spring 21’ pre-collection via lookbook, with an accompanying video. The video shows the streets of Paris shockingly empty. During Paris Fashion Week, these same sidewalks would be crowded with the fashionable rushing to their next destination, with gawking onlookers, annoyed locals, and unwitting tourists capturing blurry nighttime photos of the Eiffel Tower with the help of an unwieldy selfie stick.
A quieter city – with its Fashion Week hustle and bustle dimmed – was both a reminder of what was going on in the world, and a perfect stage for disruption. Through these barren streets, Balenciaga’s models stomped along, mouthing the words to the song “Sunglasses at Night” – a classic by Corey Hart covered by BFRND.
To juxtapose this presentation against Balenciaga’s last is to see a real change in mood, echoing the shifts in the zeitgeist.
They wore lounging essentials like slippers, bathrobes, and pajamas, redesigned for an outing; the slippers came with a heel, bathrobes were made from faux shearling, and the pajamas were upholstered in elegant silk. They surged forward in oversized tracksuits and trompe l’oeil denim (which was actually beautiful silk printed to resemble denim, an extension of what we saw at Fall/Winter 2020). One eye-catching look sparkled under the street lights: a gown made from basketball chains that was inspired by the fisherman’s net dress from Cristóbal Balenciaga’s archives.
One factor that worked its way through the collection was sustainability, as climate change is a core issue for Gvasalia. 93.5% of the materials in the collection were either upcycled or certified sustainable, while printed garments were 100% sustainably certified. Many looks, in fact, were upcycled, as a way of taking what already exists and cutting and draping it into something new. This is something Gvasalia quite literally did while in quarantine, hence its importance as a collection theme.
Accessories, as you might have guessed, were a mainstay of the collection. For Balenciaga ‘Spring 21’, you’ll find the ‘Neo Classic’ bag cleverly destroyed and distressed in homage to its 20th anniversary, reflecting the same state you’d find the well-loved bag after two decades of use. Balenciaga also added the ‘X Pander’ shoe to its sneaker line-up, with a spring sole promising “a bouncier gait”. And as for the sunglasses the models wore “at night”, they were large, wraparound, and fitted with light-obscuring lenses so that you really can test drive them after dark.
To juxtapose this presentation against Balenciaga’s last is to see a real change in mood, echoing the shifts in the zeitgeist. From dire histrionics to quiet, optimistic exactitude, Gvasalia always has his fingers on the pulse.