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Balenciaga returns to haute couture: what can we expect?

By Nora Veerman

Jan 28, 2020


52 years after the closure of the original Balenciaga couture ateliers, Balenciaga announces the revival of haute couture. In other words: Demna Gvasalia will take responsibility for the new couture line. For the occasion, Balenciaga has a new couture workshop set up based on the old Balenciaga workshop on 10 Avenue Georges V in Paris.

History teaches us that couture in historic fashion houses - Chanel, Dior, Givenchy - is often a combination of decades of fashion heritage and the head designer's contemporary vision. The Balenciaga house has a rich history of image-defining silhouettes: from the typical suit with sculptural lap to stately, voluminous evening dresses. But former Vêtements designer Gvasalia also has an emphatic signature, albeit one with more street-cred.

The combination is not new: Gvasalia has been designing ready-to-wear for Balenciaga for several years. But haute couture holds a different status and, not unimportantly, a different customer base. It requires trend-setting ideas and outstanding craftsmanship. How will Gvasalia fulfil this need? FashionUnited outlines the possibilities based on two idiosyncratic oeuvres.

Model in Balenciaga evening dress, 1959. Photo: Intercontinental / AFP

The heritage: Balenciaga's sculpted femininity

The Spanish couturier Cristóbal Balenciaga opened his Parisian couture house in 1937. The city of lights is teeming with successful couturiers, but Balenciaga distinguishes himself from his colleagues by the architectural quality of his work. Balenciaga's evening dresses are not graceful and delicate like those of Madeleine Vionnet, or playful and narrative like those of Elsa Schiaparelli. His are more abstract, stiffer, sculpted around the woman's body in heavy fabrics like taft silk and satin. His designs also often contain references to his Spanish background, such as large ruffles and black lace.

In the fifties and sixties Balenciaga brought unseen forms to the fashion scene: balloon-shaped dresses, voluminous babydolls, or, on the contrary, straight, pocket-like creations. Balenciaga balances the weight of heavy skirts with an emphasis on shoulders and back, by means of large coats and sleeves, dragging and bows, stand-up collars or deep, sexy cuts. His designs surprise the viewer time and again with unexpected angles, layers and openings.

His iconic suit also has pronounced shoulders, as well as a sculptural lap and a characteristic double row of buttons.

Model in Balenciaga suit, 1947. Photo: © Lipnitzki / Roger-Viollet / Roger-Viollet / AFP

Balenciaga closes his couture house in 1968 and dies four years later, at the age of 72. He became a great inspiration for later couturiers, such as his protégé Hubert de Givenchy, and Azzedine Alaïa. In fact, Balenciaga's work is not couture: the designer systematically refused to meet the requirements of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, such as producing two collections a year, each of 75 pieces, and a minimum of 20 staff members - and was therefore never admitted to the order of couturiers.

The designer: Demna Gvasalia's "flea market chic"

At least Gvasalia and Balenciaga have something in common in that respect. Also Gvasalia does not abide by the rules of the fashion world from the beginning. After his training at the Royal Academy in Antwerp, he worked for a few years for moderebel Walter van Beirendonck and then at the conceptual Maison Margiela. Both brands play with the conventions of what fashion is or could be.

Vêtements ready-to-wear, autumn 2018. Photo: Catwalkpictures

In terms of philosophy, Gvasalia and Balenciaga may have similarities, but aesthetically they seem to be miles apart. In 2014 the Georgian Gvasalia and his brother Gurem will establish the brand Vêtements. That goes a step further: it brings the clothing from the streets, specifically the streets of Eastern Europe, to the Parisian catwalks. Vêtements overwhelms the public with combinations of granny dresses, football scarves, bomber jackets, hoodies and oversized coats (also a trademark of Margiela). The result is grim and sympathetic at the same time. International fashion media label it as "underground clubby" or "flea market-chic".

In 2016, Vêtements makes a real furore with a single item: a yellow T-shirt with the logo of mail order company DHL on it.

Gvasalia for Balenciaga: Spandex couture and play on silhouettes

In 2015 Gvasalia will be appointed artistic director at Balenciaga. It soon becomes clear that there is also an overlap between the designers in the field of design.

In his first collection for Balenciaga, designer Demna Gvasalia presents a series of suits as Balenciaga could have made them himself: characteristic in shape and above all perfectly cut. Balenciaga reveals the craftsmanship that Gvasalia has mastered. This will possibly come even more to the fore in the couture collections for Balenciaga.

Balenciaga ready-to-wear, autumn 2016. Photo: Catwalkpictures

But Gvasalia also sheds new light on the Balencia heritage. In his ready-to-wear collections (for both women and men), he emphasises its modern, innovative elements: the large shoulders and pronounced volumes, for example, now iconic for Gvasalia, in combination with his contrasting, narrow sock boots with pointed noses and thin heels. This play of forms could be an interesting starting point for a couture collection.

Balenciaga ready-to-wear, spring 2020 and spring 2017. Photos: CatwalkpicturesGvasalia's handling of material is also striking. Like Balenciaga, Gvasalia lets his materials speak for themselves, although Gvasalia does not opt for taft silk, but rather for the - considerably less saloon fähige - Spandex. The creative freedom of couture can challenge Gvasalia to experiment more with this kind of material.

In the Balenciaga autumn collection 2017, also the hundredth show of the brand, Gvasalia offers the most concrete look at the couture collections of the future: a reinterpretation of Balenciaga's evening silhouette with balloon shaped layers. This could be where Balenciaga's princesses and Gvasalia's postmen will meet in the future: at the intersection of gala and grunge, between sculpted forms and the bravura of the street.

Balenciaga ready-to-wear, autumn 2017. Photos: Catwalkpictures

This article was originally published on FashionUnited.NL, translated and edited by Kelly Press

Homepage image: Model in Balenciaga design, 1955 and Photos: AFP / Catwalkpictures