Forget Y2K, friends. The Balenciaga news is that Demna (as he now wishes to be called) is rewinding the clock to the mid-to-late ’90s. That was the pre-internet, post-grunge time when the only permitted fashion colour was black, the only goal was being cool, and when illegal warehouse raves—and deconstruction and minimalism and underground and guerrilla fashion shows—were so good.
Mostly black and bristling with attitude, this pre-collection looks a bit like what Demna imagines that analogue era felt like, while simultaneously being 100% recognisable as 2022 Balenciaga, of course. “The ’90s are the decade in which I realised I loved fashion,” he declared on the phone from Paris. “People have forgotten that era because you can’t really search it. Fashion was dirtier, nastier, and fun then, not filtered and behaved and polished and proper and seen on every single platform as it is now.”
Obviously, Demna can’t really remember all the ins and outs of fashion in those days either. He was 14 in 1995. Not too young to form a whole-life commitment to thinking about clothes, though—or to set out on the route where he can end up at 40, having a great time playing around with the full ’90s-retro treatment: a look book of Polaroids, a film by the quintessential director Harmony Korine, and a faked-up video cassette marked “Balenciaga: The Lost Tape.” “It’s like discovering a show that never happened—it was a blurry period for Balenciaga, before Nicolas Ghesquière arrived.”
The videotape he sent out is unplayable, obviously—an obsolete object for a new generation to puzzle over. “It’s like a useless, archaeological artifact. I like nostalgia. I think it gains new value when everything is metaverse and cyber,” he said with a laugh. “I mean, I do embrace those projects too, with the games, clones, cyber-fiction, and everything.” Well, he can say that again. After two years of smashing through into digital entertainment with shows on VR headsets and the triumph of the Balenciaga x Simpsons and the red carpet movie-premiere collection in October, what could be more typically novel of him than doing a 180 with a concept that pretends to unearth a bygone time?
He chose Korine, the cult director of Gummo (1997) and Julien Donkey Boy (1999), to work up a grit-and-grunge online presentation because “he always cast nonprofessional people on the street. He knew people in fashion, went backstage; he was part of ’90s bohemian fashion. It was so interesting to watch how he worked, so unrehearsed.”
But back to the content. Designing as if in a time warp threw up lots of philosophical questions about the pace of fashion, he said. “We were coming up with things in the studio that could have been 30 years ago, but they look just as good today. We think fashion changes really fast, but does it, actually?” All that black, for a start: It may have been the subversive uniform of the ’90s, but it’s also a signifier of Cristóbal Balenciaga’s ultra-elevated haute couture. Cutting silhouettes in black (“it’s my favourite colour,” said Demna), he ranged through the wardrobe gamut: bell-shaped puffer coats; fiercely stark tailoring; slouchy pants; elegant cape-trailing dresses; a long, and a chic, T-shirt dress that might have come straight out of a minimalist fashion shoot.
Result: Balenciaga may be at the pinnacle of today’s hottest and trendiest fashion brands, but it’s also squaring the circle by making a lot of it seem timelessly intergenerational. Plenty’s here to seduce original ’90s people, who are well-represented in the casting, as well as Balenciaga’s avid Gen Z fans. It strikes an equilibrium between a stable identity and innovation—offering something for many types of people—that’s highly unusual to find in luxury fashion. “The strongest message for me is to be able to bring things back,” Demna argued, and he didn’t just mean references that resonate between past and present.
“Creatively, you can have ideas, and then they just vanish. The whole machinery of fashion is based on this relentless idea of progress and change. This season I brought back the thigh-high waders that we had in our last runway collection in March 2020. They didn’t sell them because the pandemic came. People were asking me: ‘What, you want them exactly the same?’ I was like, ‘Yes!’ That was my way of saying, ‘Why do we throw away good ideas so often?’ ”
Deeper dimensions of the effort to curb the wastefulness of fashion are reflected in Balenciaga’s shift to using “fourth choice” leathers, in other words, hides that are rejected for some imperfection. “Everything we buy is made from leftover skins that would otherwise be burned. If you can make it into a skirt or a jacket, why not? You can find a lot of this, all over the place. We’ve been doing this for a while.” Further, less environmentally impactful measures are the use of GOTS-certified organic cotton, recycled polyamide and polyester, and responsibly sourced viscose. Responsibility for contributing to the drastic cut in carbon emissions and other pollutants that are needed at a brand the size as Balenciaga is being taken seriously by the Kering parent company and the creative director himself.
As for him, the bit where he was designing for himself this season—or rather, for the imagined self Demna might have been in the ’90s, if he hadn’t been too young—came at the end. “Me, my favourite looks are the flared raver jeans with the crop tops,” he said and chuckled wistfully. “Couldn’t wear it now, but reminds me of gay Soviet Georgia underground clubs.”