The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Highsnobiety as a whole.
For fashion, 2018 was a year in which Balenciaga — along with OFF-WHITE and Gucci — reigned supreme. That makes perfect sense, as the historic label’s role as the coveted post-ironic fashion label is a sign of the times we live in.
Fashion should reflect something tangible about the state of the world. A case in point: when Dior showed a robotic saddle bag with accompanying cyborg jewelry at its Pre-Fall 2019 men’s show recently, it was an earnest blend of luxury design with a modern curiosity about AI, siphoned off into pearlescent, metallic, old-meets-new menswear. Very 2018 and very reflective. Literally.
Mirroring the culture is nice, but some brands take a more aggressive stance, engulfing culture, swallowing it up and spitting it back out. This is what Balenciaga has done with gusto since artistic director Demna Gvasalia took the reins in 2015.
At the time of his appointment, fashion houses were hastily adjusting to the demands of the 21st century with an industry-wide “pivot to internet” that included webstores, Instagram accounts, and livestreamed fashion shows. But instead of positioning itself as adjacent to internet culture, Balenciaga became internet culture, provoking outrage with its meme-ready garments, reality-warping digital art campaigns, and a 180-degree flip of what a luxury item looks like.
At the core of Balenciaga is an impetus to absorb the world in which it operates. Whereas other designers might create collections around one specific subculture — Raf Simons with gabber, Hedi Slimane with indie rock — under Gvasalia, Balenciaga’s porous design ethos takes in whatever the culture has to offer and makes it “fashion.”
In this sense, for Balenciaga, everything is to be referenced: Crocs, tourist tote bags, normcore, boybands, taxi air fresheners, punk, IKEA bags, Bernie Sanders, techno, graffiti, fatherhood, the LGBT+ community, Comic Sans MS… you get the idea. Whatever the zeitgeist spurts out, Balenciaga can repurpose it as a must-have item. It’s genius and it sells. As one Highsnobiety writer put it, Balenciaga knows us better than we know ourselves.
Gvasalia’s vision for Balenciaga — irony for irony’s sake, nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake — reached critical mass at its SS19 show in Paris. The collection featured monstrous leather jackets, Eiffel Tower-adorned tailoring, Microsoft WordArt dresses, and an overstimulating set design by Canadian artist Jon Rafman that started as a computer loading screen before descending into “a darker, flame-filled technological chaos.”
A tenet of Balenciaga’s aesthetic, and one that connects the dots to founder Cristóbal Balenciaga’s sculptural haute couture collections, is an obsession with shape and volume. This has been continued through Gvasalia’s obsession with layering and kicked off in FW17 with the Triple S sneaker.
Named for its three-layered sole, the Triple S continued its hot streak into 2018, building to a dizzying 18 colorways. As one of the ugliest, most hyped, and most expensive sneakers on the market, it’s a signifier of unabated irony and an example of how the “less is more” adage doesn’t fit into a market where excess and ridiculousness creates relevancy. Balenciaga is the fashion equivalent of content oversaturation and it knows it. As it competes against a cultural sounding board of Trump’s tweets (and the @replies), a Brexit shit-show, and a godforsaken 24 hours news cycle, Balenciaga knows it has to make a lot of noise to be heard, and even hold our attention within the political cacophony.
One of Balenciaga’s biggest items this year was the seven-layer coat, seen in public on Marc Jacobs, who could barely squeeze into a cab while wearing it. Only Balenciaga can produce something so absurd and know it’ll work. After all, at the end of the day it’s still a fucking Balenciaga jacket and is therefore a must-have piece of outerwear.
Though often imitated, Balenciaga advertising campaigns are dramatically different from those of other fashion houses. They can be creepy and unsettling but are arguably more “real” that the aspirational glamor typically associated with high fashion marketing.
Copenhagen-based artist Yilmaz Sen created the brand’s nightmarish Spring 2019 campaign, a series of videos that distorted 3D generated bodies way out of proportion, provoking comments as disparate as “I love it” and “I’ve never been so uncomfortable.”
“[The Spring 2019 campaign] makes us question what’s beautiful,” Yilmaz tells Highsnobiety, “In this case, with my project for Balenciaga, it’s already unreal, so I can see that the reality I created is something that’s probably not making people question their own lives or if it’s cool in some way. I mean, it’s also not realistic, but it’s just not disturbing to me in the same way that I’m disturbed with the beauty standards of what I see in other fashion campaigns.”
Balenciaga can influence the narrative of what is cool because whatever it chooses to design will be made in the context of a Balenciaga item. So even if it looks like a souvenir NYC tote bag, it’s not and it costs $2,000. Very nonsensical, very nostalgic, and very 2018. The genius of Balenciaga is that the end product is both the medium and the message.
We live in a time of luxury Crocs (that sell out at the preorder stage, no less). The narratives of what’s real, what’s fashion, and what’s luxury have been disrupted beyond recognition. The brands that grappled with this early on are now top of the fashion chain — just look at Virgil Abloh, who carried his meta-references and air quotes all the way to Louis Vuitton.
The late photographer Bill Cunningham called fashion “the armor to survive the reality of everyday life.” But what is everyday life now? We live most of it as an anxious mess online — a canceling here, a short-lived vindication there, a virtual influencer getting invited to Prada shows while you’re stuck at home trying to find the livestream.
Tapping into what “everyday life” looks and feels like in 2018 — a numbing caterwaul of content and nostalgia — is what Balenciaga does best. And the “armor” it offers are layers and layers of obfuscation and confusion, which feels more or less spot on for the zeitgeist — whatever that is today.