How many coats do we need? Not that we, living near the equator, would really know, but if Balenciaga’s latest collection is to be accepted, quite a few. And not just for different days, but for wearing them at one go. Kiasuism (or should that be kiasiism?!) is well and alive, and has found its way to Paris, and is happily expounded by Demna Gvasalia. As it appears, you may not be warm enough until you look warm enough.
Or, perhaps, there aren’t that many. It’s just an illusion, as the Imagination song goes. Maybe they are simply more-than-twofers. It is possible they are fourfers, or maybe fivefers! We couldn’t tell from in front of our Surface Pro. The streaming was too well edited, and we were too amused, borderline entranced: Can outerwear look so delightfully monstrous— malformations that will do Victor Frankenstein proud?
Mr Gvasalia understands the importance of keeping the shapes of Balenciaga intriguing. The house was built on that. In fact, he has always made a statement in body-obscuring outerwear, the way other designers underscore the histrionic possibilities of gowns. Remember the oversized anoraks of his debut women’s collection around this time in 2016, or the weird, boxy, rigid coats of his first men’s wear collection not longer after? Big is key to Mr Gvasalia’s Balenciaga, misrepresenting the size of the body is the idea. Not Fernando Botero-big, but certainly Niki de Saint Phalle-distorted. The outerwear immediately gave the show (and subsequent ones) the imprimatur of youthful, if geeky, hipness.
The distortion, in fact, can be likened to Cristobal Balenciaga’s imagining of silhouettes that broke away from what was considered appealing at that time. Looking back, the cocoon must have been rather shocking for women who were used to what came after Dior, but it was pivotal to the couturier’s exploration of the spaces between body and garment, which in itself can be traced to the east—to Japan, where the kimono, too, embody this complicated, ultimately sensual, relationship.
It is hard to resist the temptation of joining the dots between Mr Gvasalia’s outsized, warped outers and developments in the east. The over-layering seems to challenge the very notion that looking like a country-bumpkin cousin of the Michelin man is not really stylish. In fact, the idea of Uniqlo’s winter-travel must-have Heattech is to allow one to don fewer pieces or to trim down the volume, but that preference for bulk-reducing sleekness is now delightfully barred from Balenciaga’s doors.
In addition, those big jackets, teamed with scarves covering the head, truly remind us of the 1992 Zhang Yimou film The Story of Qiu Ju (秋菊打官司) in which Gong Li, playing the protagonist, goes to the city from her rural home in what, to her, must have been her finest threats, but were, in fact, her version of maternity wear, styled for the sophistication and snobbery of the city. Qiu Ju, as it appears now, was rather ahead of her time! What must costume designer Tong Huamiao, who was also behind Raise the Red Lantern (大红灯笼高高挂), be thinking now?
The shape shifts/enhancements are also applied to blazers and overcoats—fairly straight forward styles with stiff, almost linear shoulders, but with rounded, unnaturally pronounced hips, a silhouette that debuted in Mr Gvasalia’s first collection for Balenciaga. We admit that, back then, we didn’t take to this strange constriction, as well as the exaggeration with delight. They appeared, at first gawk, like subjects of Velázquez’s painting adopting waist-down bumps for their riding coats. It truly looked odd, as if of another era, Spanish or not. The modestly panniered jackets appeared once more, but this time, they are like selfies—you get used to them.
Even the men’s jackets and coats have exaggerated hips, as if they’re some kind of cardboard cutouts for a new hour-glass ideal of the male species. Designers have been feminising men’s wear for many years, using fabrics and colours usually preferred for clothes with bust darts, and giving guys skirts—in some extreme cases, dresses—to wear. But nothing is perhaps more feminine that according a man prominent hips! A diminishing of conventional musculature, of primal motivations, and a visual leveler of the power between sexes that’s part of Balenciaga’s ‘agender’?
Perhaps, therein lies the newness: the man with child-bearing hips. Stud not! Sometimes, with Mr Gvasalia, you wonder if this is really a gag, or a detail to draw the sexes closer. Unisex designs have, till now, largely been about making clothes that align with men’s aesthetics rather than with women’s: that’s why unisex clothes have largely been shirts, T-shirts, hoodies, and pants, sized to accommodate the girls. It is rarely, if ever, the other way round: there are unisex shirts, but no unisex blouses. Is Mr Gvasalia making a point about gender rather than sex?
For sure, it’s hard to say that Balenciaga is sexy. This season, however, the show opened with six short, body hugging dresses, but when the “Time’s Up”, it’s hard to look at these dresses and think that the wearer wants more than to look good. These are likely more merchandising anomaly than sexual aggression. Mr Gvasalia has made quirky-stylish-norm so much a part of Balenciaga that it is hard to imagine he’s doing an Anthony Vaccarello here. Sure, these clothes are not for clambakes or curry chicken potlucks, but they are far from taking the Tatler Ball by storm.
From the dad look to one that is mom-sy, Balenciaga sometimes appears to be Mr Gvasalia’s private joke. Take those pencil skirts, for example. The primness is underscored by their high-waist and past-the-knee length, yet the front overlap slit reveals an additional panel that looks like exposed, unlined inside, which, if one remembers, were once considered so unsightly that women had to wear petticoats under their skirts to conceal exposed hems and over-lock stitches. It’s now a design feature and it has a rather home-sew feel to it; yes, mom.
Balenciaga, in its new aesthetic form, was, admittedly, hard to digest in the beginning. The turning point for us here at SOTD was the spring/summer 2018 collection, now seen in the stores. We were sold on those seemingly plain work shirts and were even more taken, seeing them up-close, with the collar—button-down in the front (to the disapproval of the office sex pot, we’re sure), but gently scooped in the rear. That’s the beauty of Balenciaga now: it’s not so straightforward black and white, and, certainly, not front and back.