The Balenciaga Bible
Want to learn more about fashion’s most controversial couturier? We have created a comprehensive Balenciaga brand guide for you, introducing the house’s most influential creative directors and profiling their most iconic designs. Read on to become an expert in all things Balenciaga.
In 1917, Cristóbal Balenciaga founded his fashion house, then named Eisa (a shortened version of his mother’s maiden name Eisaguirre), in San Sebastián, Spain. Experiencing immediate success, as members of the Spanish royal family began commissioning its designs, Eisa quickly expanded to Madrid and Barcelona.
Following the onset of the Spanish Civil War, the house was forced to relocate to France in 1937, where it opened an atelier at 10 Avenue George V and became known as Balenciaga. The move turned permanent, but Balenciaga’s Spanish heritage was not lost, as Cristóbal’s designs were inspired by the clothing of the country’s flamenco dancers, bull fighters, fishermen, and princesses painted by artist Diego Velázquez.
With Cristóbal at its helm, Balenciaga established itself as the most respected couturier in Paris. Though, its couture was technically not haute couture, as he resisted the rules and status of the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne (The FHCM Paris, Haute Couture article) by refusing to make the house a member.
Nonetheless, Balenciaga was and continues to be one of the most exclusive houses in luxury fashion. Starting with Cristóbal himself, this brand guide introduces Balenciaga’s most influential creative directors and details their most iconic contributions.
Photo by Christian Vierig/Getty Images
Photo by Boris Lipnitzki in 1927, for FIB Fashion industry broadcast
Cristóbal Balenciaga was born in Getaria, a coastal village in the Basque region of Spain, on January 21, 1895. When his father, a fisherman, died suddenly, Cristóbal helped his mother provide for him and his two siblings. As she was a seamstress for some of the area’s wealthiest women, he learned how to sew and made dresses with her. Upon taking notice of his skill, a local aristocrat, the Marquesa de Casa Torres, challenged Cristóbal to replicate one of her designer suits. After he passed her test perfectly and with ease, impressing her, she got him an apprenticeship at a nearby tailor. Cristóbal was just 12 years old.
Like most prominent designers at the time, Cristóbal never received any formal fashion education. He was completely self-taught and exhibited a natural talent, which made him a leading couturier in Spain, France, and the rest of the world.
A Silhouette to Rival Christian Dior’s New Look
Cristóbal was obsessed with perfecting the cut, fit, and proportion of his designs. As a result, he never drew a single sketch. Instead, he created his looks by working directly with fabric, draping it onto the mannequin. Cristóbal stated simply, “It’s the fabric that decides.
In the 1950s, the fabric decided on a signature Balenciaga silhouette that opposed the prevailing curve-hugging, hourglass trend, specifically Christian Dior’s New Look.While the silhouette never received a name of its own, it included pieces like the balloon dress (1950), the sack dress and cocoon coat (1957), and the baby-doll and empire dresses (1958)(From article by The Lifestyle Asia, "How Cristóbal Balenciaga revolutionised the female silhouette"), which were all waistless and non-fitting. The silhouette radically transformed the concept of dressing feminine, freeing women’s bodies from tight, restrictive clothing.
Though they were fierce competitors, Christian Dior recognized Cristóbal as “the master of us all.” (From article by Dazed digital) He elaborated, “Haute couture is like an orchestra, for which only Balenciaga is the conductor. The rest of us are just musicians, following the directions that he gives us.”
Photo by Christian Vierig/Getty Images
Women of Style
Cristóbal Balenciaga’s silhouette was quite forgiving. Its soft lines and volume hid wearers’ imperfections, making high fashion accessible to women of all body types. He once remarked, “A woman has no need to be perfect or even beautiful to wear my dresses. The dress will do that for her.”(From article by Lynn Yaeger for Vogue)
Universally flattering, Cristóbal’s silhouette soared in popularity and earned him a long list of loyal, high-profile clients. Grace Kelly, Jackie Kennedy, Princess Lee Radziwill, Ava Gardner, Countess Mona von Bismarck, Lauren Bacall, and Claudia Heard de Osborne were among those that praised its wearability.
So much so, that Countess von Bismarck’s wardrobe was made up entirely of Balenciaga designs (even down to a pair of silk gardening shorts), the high cost of Jackie Kennedy’s Balenciaga pieces caused fights with her husband during his presidency (which resulted in her father-in-law covering the bill), and Claudia Heard de Osborne (who kept a suite at the Paris Ritz just for her couture) asked to be buried in Balenciaga.
Though Cristóbal reportedly did not like women who over bought, believing them to be unable to successfully style themselves, none of these women were ever turned away.
Photo by Jeremy Moeller/Getty Images
Photo by Jeremy Moeller/Getty Images
‘Monsters’ and Fashion Shows
Balenciaga’s in-house models were representative of the different types of women who wore its designs. Unlike those employed by other fashion houses at the time, they were fuller-bodied, middle-aged, and not conventionally beautiful. Notoriously nicknamed “monsters,” (From article by "FIB" Fashion industry broadcast) they stomped down the runway with detached, indifferent expressions on their faces and made sure to divert their gaze from the audience. They were directed to keep full attention on the garments, holding just a numbered card to distinguish their particular look from the rest of the collection (Cristóbal never named anything).
Each runway show included around 200 looks and lasted up to two hours, occurring daily for customers and twice yearly for retailers and the press. Though long and lacking the dramatics of the runways today, Balenciaga’s shows were anything but boring. The former editor-in-chief at Vogue, Diana Vreeland, painted a vivid picture, “One fainted. It was possible to blow up and die. I remember at one show in the early 1960s… Audrey Hepburn turned to me and asked why I wasn’t frothing at the mouth at what I was seeing. I told her I was trying to act calm and detached because, after all, I was a member of the press. Across the way, Gloria Guinness [the then-contributing editor at Harper’s Bazaar] was sliding out of her chair on to the floor. Everyone was going up in foam and thunder.” (From article by Fashion Telegraph)
The Mysterious Mr. Balenciaga
Despite all the hype that surrounded him, Cristóbal Balenciaga was an extremely introverted, private man.
He rarely fit his clients himself, avoiding them no matter how much money they spent at his atelier. Carmel Snow, the editor-in-chief at Harper’s Bazaar, was one of the only ones he was believed to be friends with. She even claimed that Cristóbal had created the stand-away collar (From article by Business of Fashion) specially for her. One of his most popular designs, it rolled back to give the illusion its wearer had a longer, swan-like neck.
He also did not attend the showings of any of his collections. As he felt indifferent about the press and their reviews of his work, he hid out in his study to prepare the next instead. In fact, Cristóbal dodged publicity throughout his entire storied, 50-year career, giving just one interview to Prudence Glynn of The Times in 1971. She attributed his silence to “the absolute impossibility […] of explaining his métier to anyone.”(From article by Vogue)
Carmel Snow Photographed by Louise Dahl-Wolfe in Paris1940
The End of the House of Balenciaga?
Following growing criticism of his work (most commonly, that his designs overwhelmed the women who wore them) and new, more restrictive tax and labor laws, Cristóbal abruptly closed his atelier and retired to Spain in 1968. When the news broke, the fashion community was shocked. Countess Mona von Bismarck, his most faithful client, went into mourning for three days!
Just four years later, at 77 years old, Cristóbal died in Jávea, Spain. Norman Norell, an American designer, despaired, “The three greatest dressmakers of the 20th century were Vionnet, Chanel and Balenciaga, not necessarily in that order. We have nobody to replace him.”(From article by WWD "Looking back at Balenciaga's storied past") While, Chanel herself had formerly described him as “a couturier in the truest sense of the word…the others are simply fashion designers.”(From article by Vogue "Viva Balenciaga Couture! 31 Masterworks by the house founder")
Balenciaga was a fashion house of the past.
That is, until 1986, when Jacques Bogart S.A. (From article by Groupe Bogart, timeline) acquired the rights to it and released a new ready-to-wear line under Michel Goma, who served as the house’s head designer until Josephus Thimister took over in 1992.
Cristobal Balenciaga fitting a model in Paris 1968, Photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson
Nicolas Ghesquiere, Photo by Annie Powers, Courtesy for Business of Fashion
Nicolas Ghesquière got his start in fashion at an early age, honing his talent at many different brands until he worked his way up to the creative director positon at Balenciaga.
After Ghesquière showed an interest, refurbishing chandelier crystals into jewelry and sketching dresses, his father helped him write letters to several designers. At just 14 years old, Ghesquière began a summer internship with Agnès B. in Paris, where he mostly observed, photocopied, and made coffee. Though he was assigned the menial tasks typically associated with an intern, Ghesquière immediately knew he wanted to pursue a career in fashion. Following another internship with Corinne Cobson the next summer, Ghesquière announced that he was going to drop out of school to work for her fulltime, causing a tense rift with his father. While he did end up finishing high school, he left immediately after graduation for Paris, arriving with just $500 and a credit card his mother had secretly slipped him for emergencies. “It’s always the mother,” (From article by The New York Times Magazine) he says.
Ghesquière promised himself he would get a job at Jean Paul Gaultier by the time he turned 18, and he did. After six months of peddling African statues to galleries, he met Gaultier’s first assistant Myriam Schaefer and was hired on the spot. Following his time there (he eventually left due to increasing cattiness in the studio), Ghesquière worked as a freelancer for Pôles and Callaghan before he was picked up by Balenciaga.
In 1995, Ghesquière began designing wedding and funeral attire under Balenciaga’s Japanese license. Though a step down for him, he reasons, “It was not the most exciting job but, for me, it was the most beautiful name in fashion. I didn’t care at that time. I was thinking, ‘It’s okay. I will go, and I will see what the potential is and see what is going on.’ So, it was not the most glamorous way to approach the brand, but it was interesting to work on this license and to see what was left from Balenciaga.” (From article by Vogue "Nicolas Ghesquiere)
Just two years later, after Josephus Thimister was unceremoniously fired (for playing live rock music so loudly that guests walked out of his show), Ghesquière was promoted to creative director. Suspecting that Helmut Lang would be the next at Balenciaga’s helm, everyone was surprised by his appointment. Though it is hard to believe now, Ghesquière was completely unknown in fashion at the time. His unlikely ascent, which proved successful from the release of his very first collection, would pave the way for other ‘no-name’ designers in the industry (like Alessandro Michele at Gucci).
Photo by Digital for style, Vogue for Balenciaga SS 2003 Ready-to-wear collection
Photo by Digital for style, Vogue for Balenciaga SS 2003 Ready-to-wear collection
Photo by Digital for style, Vogue for Balenciaga SS 2008 Ready-to-wear collection
The Revitalization of Balenciaga
Remaining open only to license its name for fragrances, Balenciaga was barely surviving. Though Ghesquière designed many notable collections for the brand (the neoprene dresses in Spring/Summer 2003, (Vogue Runway for "Balenciaga Spring 2007 Ready-to-wear) the robot-esque leggings in Spring/Summer 2007(Vogue Runway for Balenciaga Spring 2008 Ready-to-wear) , and the floral prints in Spring/Summer 2008, (Vogue Runway for Balenciaga Spring 1998 Ready-to-wear) his debut for Spring/Summer 1998 stands out among them all. A turning point, it revived Balenciaga, transforming it back into the luxury (power) house it had once been under Cristóbal.
With less than four months to start and finish the collection, Ghesquière created 51 striking looks. Crafted in all-black jersey and leather (with the exception of two off-white pieces), they showcased an expertise in cut and proportion that had not been seen since Cristóbal himself. Ghesquière mixed the founder’s celebrated silhouettes with ‘90s minimalism, presenting shapeless dresses alongside low-cut, tailored cigarette pants.
Today, Ghesquière still loves the clothes but hates re-watching the show. He recalls, “They [the company] wanted the Opéra Bastille – wrong venue. They wanted the girls to walk in a circular thing – didn’t fit. Even the carpet was bad. When you’re a newcomer in Paris, the Chambre Syndicale puts you between two huge designers. You have no chance to get good girls, and the press is too busy to come.” (Another for Remembering Nicolas Ghesquière’s Revival of Balenciaga") While Ghesquière is less than proud of its production, the Spring/Summer 1998 show launched his 15-year tenure at Balenciaga and legacy in fashion.
Photo by Digital for style, Vogue for Balenciaga SS 1998 Ready-to-wearcollection
Photo by Digital for style, Vogue for Balenciaga SS 1998 Ready-to-wearcollection
Photo by Christian Vierig/Getty Images
The City Bag
Just as Ghesquière was getting his start at Balenciaga, bags were emerging as the must-have piece in every designer collection. Fendi had the Baguette; Dior had the Saddle. Balenciaga was again a sought-after brand, but it lacked its own ‘IT bag.’ To solve this problem, Ghesquière designed one of his own, introducing the City (originally named the Lariat and commonly called the Motorcycle Bag) in 2001. However, the City, which went on to become one of the most defining bags of the early- ‘00s, almost did not even make it into production.
When Ghesquière presented the City to Balenciaga’s board, it was met with disapproval. Unlike the in-demand styles at the time, the City was big, soft, and slouchy. It lacked structure and rigidity, and, according to Ghesquière, “Accessories were rigid. Luxury leather, especially, was about rigidity.”(From article by Racked "The Lady Bag") They did not believe the City would sell.
After some of Balenciaga’s models (led by none other than Kate Moss!) took notice of the bag backstage after a show, Ghesquière asked for permission to gift them some samples. He recounts, “Every girl who was walking, including Kate, came in and was like, ‘What is that? Is it vintage? Is it something that you found at the flea market?’ I was like, ‘No, it’s a handbag that we prototyped but just didn’t produce.’ We didn’t produce it because I think when I showed the prototype to the people who asked me to do it, they weren’t happy with it. […] Then, when it was in the studio and the models noticed it, I said, ‘I think we should just do 25. Let me just give them to the girls because at least some people will be happy.’”(From article by Racked "The Lady Bag")
As fashion’s most influential girls were photographed carrying the City everywhere, customers began demanding it and the board finally approved its release. Ghesquière believes it resonated so strongly because it was new, but looked vintage. Crafted of distressed goatskin and detailed with braided handles, tassel zipper pulls, and antique, brass hardware, it already had a worn-in look. Like the leather jacket it resembles, the City was made to last for decades, looking even better and becoming even more covetable with use. In the January 2006 issue of W Magazine, Mary Kate Olsen’s City Bag was described in a disgusting yet enviable manner: “The version she’s carrying today was originally mint green, but it’s so dingy, covered with stains, pen marks, and even a chewed-up piece of gum, that it looks almost gray.”(From article by Vogue)
At first, Balenciaga only offered the City in one size (medium) and two colors (black and brown), but, due to its popularity, variations were quickly introduced. Throughout his time as Balenciaga’s creative director, Ghesquière created an entire Motorcycle collection, varying the hardware (in silver, rose gold, gold, and enlarged sizes referred to as Giant 12 and 21), expanding its color range with limited-edition, seasonal hues, and releasing additional sizes (with new names like the First, Work, Weekender, and Part Time).
Since Ghesquière’s departure, his successors have updated the City according to more recent trends. Alexander Wang designed the Metallic Edge line in 2014, using high-shine metal plates to accentuate the detailing on the bag; whereas, Demna Gvasalia sized it way down to a Nano in 2016, and covered it in logo graffiti a year later.
Over the last 20 years, the City Bag has gone from cult favorite to classic, earning the title of Balenciaga’s best-selling piece.
Photo by Claudio Lavenia/Getty Images
Photo by Kirstin Sinclair/Getty Images
The Departure of Nicolas Ghesquière
After 15 years as Balenciaga’s creative director, it was announced that Ghesquière would be parting ways with the house. While the fashion industry was stunned, his departure had actually been a long time coming. Ghesquière and Balenciaga’s owners had never agreed.(From article by New York Times Magazine)
In 2001, shortly after Ghesquière started at Balenciaga, the house was bought by Kering (then Pinault-Printemps-Redoute). Though Ghesquière had successfully rebuilt Balenciaga with his acclaimed collections and ‘IT bag,’ doubling its sales in just his first two-and-a-half years, Kering planned to close it in 2003. As Balenciaga was still not profitable, Kering wanted to focus on the other smaller, but more viable brands in its portfolio (like Bottega Veneta, Saint Laurent, and Alexander McQueen). Ghesquière himself was suffering under Kering’s control. He believed the production of his designs in Italian factories was compromising Balenciaga’s image, and he experienced a complete lack of communication between himself and the luxury group. Following a phone call with his father, Ghesquière had decided to quit. He planned to notify Domenico De Sole, who was Kering’s CEO at the time, the next day. But, before he could, Ghesquière received news that De Sole had failed to renegotiate his contract and was out (along with Kering’s creative director Tom Ford). Ghesquière decided to stay, but things never improved.
On November 5, 2012, Ghesquière finally left Balenciaga. Kering released an official statement, praising him: "With an incomparable creative talent, Nicolas has brought to Balenciaga an artistic contribution essential to the unique influence of the house." (From article by Vogue) Ghesquière, on the other hand, stayed quiet.
Months later, he gave an interview to System magazine, divulging all the reasons he chose to terminate his contract. Ghesquière explained that he had always been on his own at Balenciaga. While he recognized his design and studio teams, Ghesquière said unlike Miuccia Prada at Prada and Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel, for example, he had a complete lack of support on the business side. Eventually, he claimed Balenciaga became so corporate that it was no longer even linked to fashion. Ghesquière dished, “It was around that time that I heard people saying, ‘Your style is so Balenciaga now, it’s no longer Nicolas Ghesquière, it’s Balenciaga’s style.’ It all became so dehumanized. Everything became an asset for the brand, trying to make it ever more corporate – it was all about branding. I don’t have anything against that; actually, the thing that I’m most proud of is that Balenciaga has become a big financial entity and will continue to exist. But I began to feel as though I was being sucked dry, like they wanted to steal my identity while trying to homogenize things. It just wasn’t fulfilling anymore.”(From article by Business of Fashion) The luxury group later sued him for his comments.
Almost one year to the day after his exit, Ghesquière was named the artistic director of womenswear at Louis Vuitton (which is owned by Kering’s rival, LVMH).
The son of Chinese immigrants, Alexander Wang grew up in San Francisco, California. From a very young age, he was motivated to work in fashion. Wang accompanied his mom to the hair salon, ripping pages out of the magazines in the waiting area. With the images as his inspiration, he often snuck into her closet and took her clothes apart, using the fabric to teach himself how to sew and try his hand at design. When he became old enough, Wang signed himself up for a summer fashion course at Central Saint Martins in London. But, he always knew that if he wanted to make a name for himself in the fashion industry, he needed to be in New York City.
After finishing high school, he was accepted to Parsons School of Design and moved there. Before the first semester was even in session, Wang had already landed a job in retail and an internship at Marc Jacobs, managing all three responsibilities at the same time. During his next internship at Teen Vogue, Wang saw an opportunity to start his own line. When he noticed that the luxury brands Vogue was used to working with were hesitant to send clothes to its younger publication, Wang approached his editor with an idea. He wanted to design clothing for the magazine’s target demographic at a much more accessible price point. She, Gloria Baume, directed him to the showroom, which gave him the summer to prepare a collection and offered to handle all of its press and sales. Upon returning home and receiving the support of his mom, Wang decided to drop out of school to focus on starting his own namesake label. He was in the sophomore year of his undergraduate studies, and he was just 20 years old.
When Wang returned to New York City with his samples (cashmere knitwear in six unisex silhouettes), Teen Vogue already had someone in its portfolio that was designing something similar and was no longer interested, but he did not give up. With the help of his sister-in-law, he sold the original pieces and established his brand. Today, Alexander Wang is famous for its gothic-grunge sportswear, which is sold through both high-end retailers and more accessible collaborations with H&M, Adidas, and Uniqlo.
In December 2012, Wang replaced Nicolas Ghesquière as Balenciaga’s creative director. Though Wang had no experience in couture, he brought Balenciaga a young, cool perspective and access to the American market. Wang was reluctant to take time away from his own label, but he was excited by the opportunity to design for a house at a much higher level. On accepting Balenciaga’s offer, he declares, “I never turn down an opportunity. I live life without regrets.”(From Article by I-D staff)
At Balenciaga, Wang paid tribute to Cristóbal’s mid-century shapes without sacrificing his own edgy flourish. He created cocoon coats, peplum jackets, bubble skirts, and stand-up collars, but with mesh, exposed zipper, staple, and neon yellow accents. Though Wang’s collections were largely met with approval, he never produced a stand-out look or accessory. Instead, his time at Balenciaga was defined by the A-listers he dressed for major red carpets, including Lady Gaga, Julianne Moore, Kerry Washington, Carey Mulligan, Emma Watson, and Taraji P. Henson.
After less than three years and ten collections, Balenciaga and Wang mutually decided not to renew their contract, which was set to expire shortly. Wang left to put all his energy into his own brand. He reasoned, “At the end of the day, I think everyone acknowledges that as a creative, there’s always a hierarchy of ideas. Do you give your best ideas to the brand that has the bigger platform and better resources or the one that you own yourself? So, it was always this internal struggle of where I wanted to give my best output. And realized that I wanted to come back home and I wanted to give my all to the brand that I had ownership over, that the ideas and the success of those ideas I would have ownership over.”(From article Business Insider)
Since his exit, Wang has disrupted the industry, pulling out of New York Fashion Week, refusing to design according to the season, and staging runways in unique, public venues.
Alexander Wang, Photo by Business Insider
Demna Gvasalia, Photo by Willy Vanderperre for The New York Times
Following Alexander Wang’s brief stint, Demna Gvasalia was chosen to be Balenciaga’s next creative director – the third since the house’s resurrection in 1997.
Gvasalia grew up in Sukhumi, a city on the Black Sea, in the former Soviet Union and now-separatist Abkhazia region of Georgia. Forced to flee the civil war, his family moved to the capital of Tbilisi and later settled in Düsseldorf, Germany.
Uprooted throughout his adolescence, Gvasalia has never quite felt like he belongs. Even in the industry in which he has so quickly become an international sensation, he sees himself as an outsider. Though he heads one of the largest, most respected houses, he will always be the designer that completely changed fashion by redefining the concept of luxury. Andrew Bolton, the Wendy Yu curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, explains, “It’s fashion you want to see – fashion that makes you think differently and that challenges you. To have someone come along who does that, it takes a while to get used to it. It took me a while to understand.”(From article by The Washington post) Gvasalia’s rise has been celebrated, yet controversial.
Gvasalia received a degree in economics from Tbilisi State University before he enrolled at Antwerp’s prestigious Royal Academy of the Fine Arts, where he studied patternmaking and tailoring. After he graduated with his master’s education, Gvasalia collaborated on menswear with Walter van Beirendonck (one of the famous Antwerp Six) and showed his own line at Tokyo’s 2007 Fashion Week.
After van Beirendonck’s retirement, Gvasalia designed womenswear for Maison Margiela. In 2013, he was hired as a senior designer of women’s ready-to-wear at Louis Vuitton – first under Marc Jacobs, and later Nicolas Ghesquière. Shortly before leaving Louis Vuitton in 2015, Gvasalia founded independent fashion label Vetements together with his younger brother Guram.
Vetements started as an outlet for Gvasalia’s frustration with the industry. He asserts, “I was an executor, not a designer. I wanted to design and transmit my message. I didn’t want to just design for the sake of it. I wanted to establish a dialogue and use fashion as a communicative tool.”(From article by Vogue)
And, with the release of its DHL-inspired t-shirt (From article by The Guardian) people were certainly talking about Vetements and Gvasalia. At its beginning, Vetements did not have an established production base, so it used other labels’ (not only DHL, but also Levis) expertise and experience through collaborations. Gvasalia took otherwise simple, humble concepts and turned them into luxury products, hiking up the prices (that DHL shirt retailed at almost $300 and the Levis at over $1,000). But, this was not a new practice for Gvasalia; he had been doing it since he was a kid. As his mother did not have a wardrobe, Gvasalia used non-traditional objects, like curtains and armchairs, to experiment with fashion. His creative process has always been influenced by improvisation, pushing the boundaries of what is considered high fashion.
Vetements started as a raw, personal, and subversive project for Gvasalia, but as he began to find himself, marryingthe French musician and composer Loïk Gomez, moving to Switzerland, becoming a vegetarian, and abstaining from alcohol, Gvasalia decided to step down as the creative lead of Vetements in 2019. He reasons, “I’m a different designer now than I was five years ago. I’m no longer on the dark side of the world. […] I realized that, as with any project, Vetements had a deadline for me and my expression there.” (From article by Vogue)
Demna Gvasalia for Balenciaga
When Gvasalia was named Balenciaga’s creative director in 2015, the industry was confused. Many had labeled Gvasalia as anti-fashion, questioning whether he could even be considered a designer. They could not see how such an avant-garde, underground creative could respect the heritage and carry on the legacy of a couture house like Balenciaga.
But, Gvasalia and Balenciaga’s founder Cristóbal have a lot more in common than one might first think.
Both men are appropriators. Gvasalia has been widely accused of lifting logos and items from the everyday. Not just at Vetements, but also at Balenciaga. Most notably, with the house’s version of Ikea’s popular FRAKTA bag. After Gvasalia reimagined the Swedish brand’s iconic plastic blue shopper in leather, charging about $2,000 for a bag that originally costs under $1, there was much debate over whether he is cheapening or redefining luxury. However, Gvasalia traces appropriation all the way back to Balenciaga’s founder, who designed a loose shirt called a Vareuse after the fishermen in his hometown. Gvasalia defends, “It was a uniform of the poor that he turned into an icon for the brand. I just wanted to point out that appropriation didn’t start as a concept in fashion with me. I’ve just maybe modernized it in a way that’s understandable for my generation of consumers who I talk to.”(From article by WWD)
Both men are fond of volume. Cristóbal was most famous for creating shapeless pieces, playing with proportion to hide human imperfection. Gvasalia credits him as the inventor of the oversized look, which suits his personal style and design aesthetic perfectly. Growing up during Georgia’s liberation from the Soviet Union, Gvasalia’s family could not always afford new clothing for him. He reminisces, “I wore leftovers of my rich, grown-up cousins and brother. Everything was oversized. Even if my parents would buy me clothes, they would buy it for three years in advance so I could wear the same thing while growing. I always wore clothes like that and also because I had kind of issues with confidence in my body and physique when I was a teenager. So I tried to hide myself.” (From article by The Washington Post) Cristóbal’s baby-doll dress and cocoon coat ushered in a new silhouette, which Gvasalia reintroduced with his voluminous puffer coat (you know, the bright red one that was knocked off by basically every budget retailer).
Both men will go down in history as disruptors, who ultimately restructured the fashion system. Cristóbal refused to join the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, so the house’s creations have never qualified as haute couture. He also rescheduled his collection presentations, showing them just one day before the clothing retail delivery date (instead of four weeks) to prevent others from copying his designs. Similarly, as of Fall/Winter 2019, Gvasalia got rid of pre-collections at Balenciaga. Instead, he designs just two major collections a year, combining winter with spring and summer with fall to more accurately reflect weather and shopping patterns, reduce waste, and protect his creative process.
Not as different from Cristóbal as people once feared, Gvasalia has proven all of his critics wrong. Since his appointment, Balenciaga’s sales have more than doubled, breaking over €1 billion in revenue. (From article by The Fashion Law)
Thus far in his residency at Balenciaga, Gvasalia’s sneakers have been among his most profitable designs for the house.
In recent years, sneakers have become the new ‘IT bag’ in the fashion industry. As they are more affordable and fit every body type, sneakers serve as an accessible entry product for many customers. Seemingly every luxury brand has released its own, but with three particularly popular models, Balenciaga sneakers lead the category.
Gvasalia debuted his first sneaker in November 2016. Known as the Balenciaga Speed Trainer (From article by Vogue), it is essentially a sock with a sole, as it features a nylon double-knit jersey upper and a thick rubber bottom. Though it was unfavorably compared to a scuba shoe, the Speed Trainer immediately sold out everywhere (fastest in the tonal black and white colorway), earning the title of “most-wanted sneaker in the world.” (From article by GQ) After four years, Balenciaga rereleased it as the Speed Trainer 2.0(From website "Hypebeast") , updating the original design to be more comfortable and agile; to better support every area of the foot and offer extra flexibility, the Speed Trainer 2.0 has a sole that is split into five different segments.
In his Fall/Winter 2017 Men’s Ready-to-Wear (From article by Vogue) show (otherwise known as the Bernie Sanders or tourist dad collection), Gvasalia introduced the Triple S (From article by Highsnobiety). The polar opposite of the sleek, minimalist Speed Trainer, the Triple S is bulky and mammoth. Named for the three soles it stacks into one (from running, basketball, and track and field style shoes), it has a chunky 6.5-centimeter platform that leaves quite the footprint. Gvasalia describes the inspiration behind the design, “I hate to see small feet visually. A lot of guys don’t like to have small feet. To me, large shoes are more stable, and more masculine. Also, I believe when you create a new silhouette, the product succeeds.” (From article by WWD) Though it was widely dubbed the ‘ugly sneaker,’ the Triple S outsold even the Speed Trainer. Gvasalia, however, does not consider it to be ugly. He contests, “I don’t like ugly things. Like, I don’t know who came up with that. I actually love beautiful things; but maybe I try to see beauty in other things that are not conventionally considered as beautiful today.” (From article by The Washington Post)
The following year, in his Fall/Winter 2018 Ready-to-Wear (From article by Vogue) collection, Gvasalia unveiled another style similar to its predecessor. Called the Track Sneaker (From website by Hypebeast), it is just as clunky as the Triple S, but much more technical. Resembling a hiking boot, it is comprised of 176 leather panels, which are layered to expose a mesh underlay, and an extended tread. While the orange and blue combination was especially sought-after, the Track Sneaker has been styled in a number of limited-edition colorways, including LED heels, neon green, and Michael Jordan’s famous black and red (or ‘bred’).
With hit season after season, fashion’s style setters are always eager to see if there will be another Balenciaga sneaker.
Balenciaga Speed Trainer
Balenciaga Speed 2.0 Trainer
Balenciaga Triple S
Photo by Christian Vierig/Getty Images
The Return of Balenciaga Couture
Now, the man who transformed sneakers is planning to enter a completely different realm of fashion. Fifty-two years after Cristóbal showed his last collection and closed his eponymous house, Gvasalia is relaunching Balenciaga’s couture line. The show, which will also include men’s pieces, is scheduled to take place in July 2021 (it was originally set for July 2020 and then January 2021, but has been delayed due to the COVID pandemic). Gvasalia acknowledges, “Haute couture is the very foundation of this House, so it is my creative and visionary duty to bring couture back to Balenciaga. For me, couture is an unexplored mode of creative freedom and a platform for innovation. It not only offers another spectrum of possibilities in dressmaking, it also brings the modern vision of Balenciaga back to its sources of origin. Couture is above trends. It’s an expression of beauty on the highest aesthetic and qualitative levels.” (From article by Fashion Magazine)
While at the house, Gvasalia has dabbled in couture, issuing nine made-to-order looks at the end of his Fall/Winter 2017 Ready-to-Wear (From article by Vogue) runway in honor of Balenciaga’s 100-year anniversary. Providing the industry with just a brief glimpse, it has been eagerly anticipating a full collection ever since. And, Gvasalia cannot wait to deliver. He excitedly states, “Couture represents freedom of creativity and freedom in fashion. And that’s maybe the reason why I wanted to do it so badly. I believe strongly that couture actually may save fashion, in its modern way. It can actually become the driving force of fashion again, because you’re free from the constraints of industrial production.” (From article by Highsnobiety)
All we can do is wait and see if Gvasalia will live up to the hype yet again.