The rows of guests filming Balenciaga’s 52nd couture collection show in Paris turned the glittering spectacle into a cloud of digital confetti. We were left with what German artist and filmmaker Hito Steyerl refers to as ‘a ghost of an image, squeezed through slow digital connections, compressed, reproduced, ripped, remixed, as well as copied and pasted into other channels of distribution’. We end up getting only some of the story. A glimpse at the magic.
‘I notice it from backstage,’ says Demna, the mononymous artistic director of Balenciaga. ‘People are seeing the clothes in person, but looking through their phones. They truly have become a physical extension of our bodies.’ Most of us have no idea how long it took to cover the bustier dress worn by Eva Herzigová in 9,000 hand-mounted crystals and 36,000 bugle beads. Or that a pair of jeans were, in fact, not jeans at all, but canvas trousers hand-painted by an artist over a period of two months to make them look like jeans. ‘Fashion, including couture, has become show business. You see things through the phone held in front of what you are looking at,’ continues Demna.
’What is beauty?’: Demna on his transformative Balenciaga haute couture collections
The seductive realm of couture ought to haul our focus away from the noise of the seasonal, the short term and the quickfire towards something that is more profound. For Demna, couture is the chance to pay homage to the métier of making clothes beautifully. This is the thing that he cares about most. Through couture, the designer has ushered in a modern type of elegance to our visual culture and the images broadcast into the palms of our hands.
Compared to the mere months offered between the ready-to-wear seasons, Demna has almost a full year to work on the couture collection. This encourages a different feeling and a more critical, almost spiritual process. ‘It’s a true luxury for a creative person to have that. It’s a platform where you can tap into things so when they don’t work out, you have time to try something else,’ he says. ‘I always start with a very vague collection of ideas. Then I learn from the process of making.’
Cristóbal Balenciaga once said that a couturier must be an architect, a sculptor, a painter, a musician and a philosopher. More broadly, the references Demna draws upon aren’t things grasped from what he might have seen on the streets of Paris or Geneva, where he is based. It is about the tactile job of a bolt of cloth around the body. ‘There are many fittings so one can learn how to make things happen,’ he says. ‘More than anything, making mistakes is the most important part of the process as it triggers decisions. It guides you somewhere. It’s also a very natural and human thing to make mistakes.’
But what does it mean to be human when a half smile to the camera will open your bank statement and a fingerprint can unlock a hotel room door? At the heart of couture is flesh and bone, the many skilled pairs of hands working mostly in time-honoured ways. When it is mentioned today, we are often suspicious of its sorcery, anxious about its place in modern life yet happily floored by its splendour. ‘There’s an element of perfection in control, which we will never achieve, of course, because we are not made to be perfect. But when it comes to couture, there is the aspiration to be perfect.’
Like all good art, couture – away from the weary discussions about who is going to buy it – should take our breath away. The reintroduction of a couture line at Balenciaga in 2021 was framed around life today, not 60 years ago. The beautiful things that Balenciaga make, and the lush surroundings in which they are revealed, curiously rely on the rampant technology that we are all – Demna included – grappling with. The tension is in how to inspire people to feel something intensely, while creating an image that speaks with alacrity.
In around 1917, the French artist Marcel Duchamp openly rejected the work of many of his peers, including the painterly topographies of Henri Matisse, dubbing them ‘retinal’ art. In Duchamp’s mind, they were works devoid of philosophical content, intended only to please the eye. He would try to present a more conceptual point of view. Duchamp’s judicious, cerebral approach is a big influence on Demna: ‘My work has been so misinterpreted for years because people wouldn’t take five minutes to go a bit deeper. There is a lot of what I call “retinal fashion”, something only made for our eyes that we don’t have to think about. That’s not what I do.’ With his ready-to-wear, a beige terry cotton towel wrap skirt will become a meme for a week, but in a decade might be rewarded with a sharp reassessment. In years to come, the 3D-printed armour dress in resin that closed the couture show in July will have the space to speak beyond its immediate Joan of Arc campy largesse.
‘Everyone wants an instant success. I think that’s a big problem,’ says Demna. ‘Duchamp once said: “The danger is in pleasing an immediate public, the immediate public that comes around you and takes you in and accepts you and gives you success and everything. Instead of that, you should wait for a public that will come 50 years or 100 years after your death. It is the ideal public – the right public – that I want.” That really spoke to me.’
Couture should transcend the everyday. It should yank you out of your inbox, your problems, your anxieties. For those of us who will never buy the clothes, or even see them in real life, we get 50 per cent of the experience. Demna says: ‘The silhouette, the volume, the three-dimensional process, the experience of wearing it – it’s crucial. Somebody who goes into the couture salon and tries on the pieces wouldn’t need to know why it is so much work because they can feel it. Visually, however, if we are talking about this retinal layer of fashion that’s about visual perception, couture is powerful. It makes you think about what is elegant. [It makes you ask] what is beauty?’
Couture should make us raise an eyebrow and gasp for air. ‘I can’t remember the last time I had that feeling,’ says Demna. ‘It’s very rare. It doesn’t happen to me when I go to an art exhibition and it should, but it doesn’t. I might love something, but not to the point where I’m breathless, awe-inspired.’
In October 2023, he travelled to Venice with his husband and frequent collaborator Loïck Gomez, a musician and composer who works under the moniker BFRND. Walking around the city one evening without any GPS reception, the couple realised they were lost. ‘I cannot say it was breathtaking, but that was one of those moments where I thought, “Wow, this is so beautiful”, almost like an imaginary world that is not imaginary at all.’ Similarly, after Balenciaga’s Fall 2024 show in LA in December 2023, Demna found himself overwhelmed by the intensity of the sunset across the Hollywood Hills.
Both moments arose spontaneously. They were respites from the demands and rigours of his job. ‘I’m a very curious person and I need that unknown territory to be able to be triggered to have an inspirational experience. And it is always related to the situations where I have no control. You cannot control a sunset – and that’s great.’
In 2023, Balenciaga returned to its original address at 10 Avenue George V, where Cristóbal Balenciaga established his Paris ateliers in 1937 and lived until retiring in 1968. Although the location had served as a flagship store in the decades since, the historical couture salon on the fourth floor had remained closed. Today, a near- perfect facsimile of the original, lined with white stucco arabesques, patinated light grey carpets and ‘ash-stained’ curtains, exists just above street level. ‘For me, it’s very important for it to feel like a special place,’ says Demna. ‘It is the same place where Cristóbal used to be... he would look out of the window and see the same trees. From that point of view, it is a very emotional space.’
It makes an enchanting backdrop for the couture shows. ‘I always knew that couture had this kind of magic to it, of being an experiential way of wearing clothes,’ he says. ‘I just wondered if it would still be like that. The world we live in is so oversaturated with information, colour, visuals. We’ve become numb to the beauty of the world. Why don’t we see the beauty anymore? We need it to survive as a human race. I don’t want to be numb to the sunset.’
A version of this article appears in the March 2024 Style Issue of Wallpaper* available in print, on the Wallpaper* app on Apple iOS, and to subscribers of Apple News +. Subscribe to Wallpaper* today.
All looks from Balenciaga’s 52nd couture collection. Models: Bo Exters at Next Paris, Diego Torrealba at Success Models. Casting: Ikki Casting at The Art Board. Hair: Kazue Deki at Calliste Agency. Make-up: Marielle Loubet at Calliste Agency. Digi tech: Carole Durosoy. Photography assistants: Louis Dumetz, Hugo van Manen. Fashion assistant: Kris Bergfeldt. Post-production: Courtoisie Fashion.
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London based writer Dal Chodha is editor-in-chief of Archivist Addendum — a publishing project that explores the gap between fashion editorial and academe. He writes for various international titles and journals on fashion, art and culture and is a contributing editor at Wallpaper*. Chodha has been working in academic institutions for more than a decade and is Stage 1 Leader of the BA Fashion Communication and Promotion course at Central Saint Martins. In 2020 he published his first book SHOW NOTES, an original hybrid of journalism, poetry and provocation.
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