Critical Shopper: Balenciaga Makes You Look Twice

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Critical Shopper: Balenciaga Makes You Look Twice

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Critical Shopper

By KATHERINE BERNARD

This past weekend, Demna Gvasalia, the creative director of Balenciaga, unveiled a new logo for the French fashion house at its new Madison Avenue store: new leaner letters “inspired by the clarity of public transportation signage.”

Clarity and mundanity are constant inspirations for Mr. Gvasalia; he’s a founder of the design collective Vetements, which appeared on the map two years ago after showing a collection that included pieces with the red and yellow DHL delivery logo.

Mr. Gvasalia, who previously worked for Maison Margiela and under Marc Jacobs and Nicolas Ghesquière at Louis Vuitton, was appointed creative director at Balenciaga in 2016. Since then, he has appropriated Bernie Sanders’s campaign logo, salesman khakis, politician polo shirts and take-the-cat-to-the-vet sweatpants for the luxury space, meming fashion, making us laugh and look twice.

The thrust of Mr. Gvasalia’s references are best summed by my partner, Carrie, as she puts on a pair of Balenciaga sunglasses in the store: “These are the exact glasses that my mom has, except hers are transition lenses and she uses them for driving.”

You know when you leave a movie and feel as if you’re still in the movie? Once you’ve been into Balenciaga, everyone on the street appears to be in a full Balenciaga look. For days, Carrie and I elbow each other when we see one: “Balenciaga,” we whisper. A man in baggy khakis and thick-soled sneakers bending to pick up after his dog, a child in a red puffer coat carrying both his and his little sister’s backpacks after school, a tourist wearing a sweatshirt with the Eiffel Tower on it. All of these outfits have a $5,000 version hanging in the Balenciaga Matrix.

In-store, an Italian shopper is holding a small shoulder bag made from a cut-up and resewn blue Ikea Frakta bag. The leather one Mr. Gvasalia made for Balenciaga ($1,695) inspired fashion fans to cut up and craft all kinds of pieces from the plastic carryalls. In a dressing room, I turn over a tiny stool to check: It’s Ikea.

I try on a sweater with bra underwire sewn into it ($1,150) and am really excited when I see that there’s a small knitted strap hidden inside, like the back of the bra. This seems like something Cristóbal Balenciaga, an exactingly playful designer in his own way, would do. I get deodorant on the sweater when I take it off and consider sending a pic to Mr. Gvasalia: “Next season?” He might.

I try on a blazer with hip inserts that exaggerate it into an hourglass. On its shoulders are seams pushed way, way forward, so that even when you’re standing up straight, you’re emulating the famous fashion pose, squeezing your waist and pushing out your collarbone. This is construction as pun, a far more difficult and refined way to make a joke than with just a silk-screen. It’s genius.

There’s a peacoat ($2,150) you imagine was inspired by a toddler who screamed, “I do it!”: Its button-up is way off. There’s a check mohair version ($3,150) with gold buttons that similarly get lost, letting you button the coat at the shoulder. Depending on how often you can tolerate saying, “No, it’s supposed to be like this” (it does button up “normally” if you desire), it seems like the perfect everyday coat.

Balenciaga’s location on the Upper East Side is part of the gag. A saleswoman tells us there have been some confused double takes when shoppers enter and see the Mark Jenkins mannequin sculpture, which looks like two men in khakis and sneakers — one in a blue Balenciaga campaign tee, one in red — leaning away from each other but tied by their hoodie strings, making the hoods pucker and squeeze to the point of suffocating tension.

“The store’s so pretty!” an expensive-vested woman says when she walks in with her preteen daughter.

I’m told the store is modeled to look exactly like the warehouse where the clothes are stored. The walls are flat gray, the racks are shiftable rails, the ceiling has exposed vents, and the carpet is gray with the logo repeated in black. The clothes are always in the exact same context, whether hanging for customers or warehouse employees.

There are still pre-Gvasalia holdouts, like the Classic Hip bag ($850) — because they’re the big hits, one assumes. For some of the familiar bags, he has added a twist: the same design with the stitching and the hardware pulled out. They’re shells of their former selves.

On a wool coat, a woven tag that says “Made in Italy” in loopy script is sewn on the outside of a sleeve, right where you’d have a wristwatch. In a similar vein, there’s a $285 oversize T-shirt bearing the logo for Kering, Balenciaga’s parent company. Owning how owned you are is perhaps the punk of the information age.

And since the whole point is being in on jokes, I don’t mind at all when our salesman outs me as the Critical Shopper at the end of our visit. It feels right.

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