Demna’s done it again. Or has he? The Balenciaga FW20 collection has begun to percolate online, with one item in particular — a football shirt — lending itself to much Twitter outrage. Depending on which way you look at it, it’s either more Gvasalia genius or, well, all a bit off.
As is the Georgian’s wont, the item seemingly riffs off an entirely random original source: Manchester United’s 2002 Nike goalkeeper jersey. As far as the design goes, it's, euphemistically speaking, fairly basic — akin to something you'd pick up on the cheap in a discount sports outlet. The difference lies in its price tag of $780, which begs the question as to who's really laughing? Is it tasteless class appropriation or yet another genius middle finger to the luxury world?
Gvasalia's adapting of working-class references and everyday items to fuck with the rich is nothing new and a practice the designer traces back to French artist Marcel Duchamp. When Balenciaga released its Zen sneaker earlier this year, it felt brilliantly naughty because of the niche factor (turning up to high school in the UK wearing Lonsdale Benn or Slazenger Warrior trainers — the clear reference point — back in the mid-noughties was akin to signing your own death warrant). A football jersey feels more on the nose, having already been wrung through the high fashion wringer by the likes of Off-White™, Martine Rose, and yes, Balenciaga in the past. But it's the evident kitschiness of Gvasalia's latest creation that sets it apart — it looks pretty awful, and perhaps that's the point.
Football is the domain of ordinary people, and Gvasalia adapting and transmogrifying its uniform to sell to the bourgeoise with more money than sartorial sense could be interpreted as the joke being on them. Ralph Lauren sold the dream of playing polo with high society; Balenciaga sells fake-looking football clobber that you'd find at a car boot sale. As LOVE senior editor and fashion critic Pierre Alexandre M'Pelé noted, "When luxury houses tackle physical recreation, they usually go for the type of activities historically associated with and practiced by the upper class [...] Luxury houses aim to woo a wealthy audience with elevated, showstopping items one could not afford easily. With his football jersey, Gvasalia is deconstructing what luxury means."
Of course, that's only one way of looking at it. Others will ascribe to a more straight-forward view that some things — especially a pursuit as sacrosanct as football — should be off-limits and that there's something fairly gross about rich people cosplaying in clothing typically worn by the working class. Given the "streetwear-ification" of football jerseys — not to mention the front and center logo that is pure Instagram catnip — the cynical side of me also bristles at the fact this piece will no doubt fly off the rail. Taking that factor into account, I'm always reminded of a brilliant paragraph that appeared on the Business of Fashion in a 2017 profile of Gvasalia and Vetements' aesthetic:
[Demna Gvasalia's] Vetements isn’t actually a Robin Hood figure, because it doesn’t give to anyone. That would require that it take a stance on things, one way or another, and it refuses to do that. It’s more accurate to say that Vetements flips off the rich and the poor alike. Its costly re-appropriations don’t say anything concrete about the relationship between rich fashionistas and the working class, much less do anything to change it. What they do is simply present an inversion of the usual appearance of that relationship, and profit from the surprise the new appearance elicits — from anyone, poor or rich, who is willing to pay for it. What matters to Vetements, as to the other proponents of the new aesthetic, is the flipping-off itself. On that evaluation, it could be said that the new aesthetic is empty, but briefly enjoyable for its sheer impertinence.
So there you have it, perhaps we shouldn't think too deeply and instead take the jersey for what it is: a frivolous bit of exorbitantly priced fun, dreamed up to fuck with people. Has Demna done it again? The fact we're talking and Balenciaga is back in the headlines would suggest he has. This is his world, and he's having a blast watching us try to untangle it.