PARIS — It was just a regular Wednesday afternoon — except the sidewalks of the normally sedate Avenue Georges V were clogged by a shrieking mass of teenagers, smartphones aloft, free hands waving over police barriers in a frenzy. It was the sort of scene that wouldn’t be surprising outside a rock concert or a major movie premiere or even the Oscars, except that this was none of the above. It was a Balenciaga couture show.
Or what might be more appropriately termed a Balenciaga couture happening, the second under the mononymic creative director Demna, who reintroduced fashion’s most exclusive art form to the house last July, 53 years after the founder closed his doors.
Now, like Demna’s ready-to-wear shows — effectively a form of social commentary — his couture has become the equivalent of a blockbuster event: the next stage in fashion’s evolution into pop culture.
Alton Mason, the actor, was there, chatting to the rapper Offset. So was Pierpaolo Piccioli, the Valentino designer, rubbing shoulders with the model Amber Valletta. Kris Jenner arrived with her granddaughter, North West, not long after Keith Urban had made an appearance. The Jenner/Wests and Mr. Urban there to cheer on respective family members Kim Kardashian and Nicole Kidman, who happened to be taking a turn on the runway, alongside Dua Lipa and Christine Quinn of the reality series “Selling Sunset.”
All of them guest stars in a production premised on subverting old norms and expectations — of luxury, materials, silhouette, what celebrity even means — in three acts.
Breaking the Fashion Fifth Wall
It began with the body erased, reduced to an attenuated silhouette in molded black neoprene, like a living line drawing, heads covered in glossy black face shields in coated polyurethane, and built from there. Shoulders were small and rounded, waists nipped, hips jutting, for men and women no matter.
There were trompe l’oeil tweeds and little black dresses composed of beaded organza and jersey, a “feathered” baby blue gown with fluttering organza petals. T-shirts were sculpted like crushed tin cans (crafted in jersey infused with aluminum to hold the shape) and denim was lined in satin with silver-plated buttons. Parkas were upcycled and inflated into beach-ball shaped blousons, leather dresses meticulously pieced together from strips of old belts, and overcoats that looked like fur made from embroidered silk with soaring, face-framing “Maleficent” collars.
Then the masks came off and the evening wear and famous faces appeared: in primary shades of taffeta and silk, ruched, woven and swagged. Ms. Kidman rustled as she walked in an asymmetric silver foil gown (it was actually coated taffeta) with a long train knotted at the hip and swishing to one side, like an Irving Penn photograph gone space age.
At the end, a veiled bride made her entrance in 820 feet of bell-shaped tulle that took 7,500 hours to embroider and was so enormous she couldn’t fit through most of the salon doors (she could barely fit down the runway). She would wobble, start and stop, back up and try again.
It seemed like a mistake, except that it also was a pretty effective dramatization of the way too much fealty to the past can be a stumbling block. That history should be studied precisely so it doesn’t have to be repeated.
Indeed, if Demna’s first couture show was about proving he could carry the mantle of the designer often referred to as the greatest couturier of all, known for an uncompromising adherence to his own belief system, this one was more about looking forward.
And if it had lost some of the shock of the new — well. Leave that to the “couture store”: two small boutiques for men and women that Balenciaga opened on the street level to coincide with the show, and that offer some looks direct from the runway — one of the trompe l’oeil tweed dresses, for example, or one of the metal-infused tees — so that anyone can just walk in and buy, rather than having to make an appointment and wait six months. (Anyone who has a spare 350 euros ($357) for a candle, or €100,000 for a dress, that is.)
The point being to break down fashion’s fifth wall: the psychological, if not financial, barriers to entry, the way Demna has broken down the barriers between the street and the haute, the everyday and the extraordinary.
From Show to Shining Show
If there’s anything the most compelling shows of the week have demonstrated, it’s the power of transformation, one of the essential promises of fashion.
That was the subject of a very smart Viktor & Rolf outing, a piece of pointed performance art disguised as a collection from the designers Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren in which the building blocks of men’s tailoring — suiting, crisp shirting, tuxedos — were seemingly inflated to bombastic proportions. Stretched on a carapace of metal that turned the torso into a monstrous heart-shaped V, the jackets and big shirts were then stripped off (as usual the designers themselves made an appearance on the runway to demonstrate) and reduced via a series of integral pulleys to wearable, human and, not coincidentally, more feminine form.
And it was at the heart of John Galliano’s Maison Margiela presentation. Like Demna, Mr. Galliano is transforming the very essence of what a show can be.
During Covid he had eschewed the runway for fantastical films that melded fiction and fashion, putting clothes in the context of the stories we tell. But rather than abandon that creative experience the way so many other designers have done to rush back to the way things were, Mr. Galliano hybridized it: upcycling stories and mashing together cinematic clichés to create something genuinely new, as he has done with his Margiela clothes.
As onstage “Cinema Inferno,” a ridiculous gothic play, unfurled — the story, set somewhere in the mythical American West, of a crystal-trousered gunslinger and his tulle-frocked gal, on the lam from family and a gang in sandstorms, waving fields of wheat, fire and the old movie house of their minds (it didn’t make all that much sense if you were there, either) — it was simultaneously filmed by trench-clad participants and broadcast on big screens overhead to those in the audience and those online. As if to acknowledge that now people often don’t feel they exist unless they exist digitally, and the way we increasingly float in the liminal space betwixt and between.
There was a histrionic, evil mother in a gorgeous crimson gown; a swirling prom featuring an Easter basket’s worth of trapeze dresses in organza and star-spangled, soft-focus tulle; a chorus line of lavish swing coats in mint green, cherry and pink martini. There were ruby slippers and diamond-dust cowboy boots. There was a slip dress made of black mirrored shards embedded in net, like a host of falling leaves. There was blood on the floor, nonsense, romance and really fabulous fashion.
And though you could question the wisdom of featuring gunplay in any story, even the most obviously fictional, given the current state of mass shootings in America, you couldn’t question the point: Clothes are the costumes we wear to create ourselves. In every possible form, and format.