Balenciaga plays it safe enough at Paris Fashion Week

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Balenciaga plays it safe enough at Paris Fashion Week

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A subdued show at Paris Fashion Week on Sunday morning underscored Balenciaga’s current motive: move on from the scandal that rocked the brand at the end of 2022 while stripping down spectacle to focus on clothing. 

“Fashion has become a kind of entertainment, but often that part overshadows the essence of it,” read creative director Demna’s note to guests left on show seats. “In the last couple of months, I needed to seek shelter for my love affair with fashion, and I instinctively found it in the process of making clothes…This is why fashion can no longer be seen as entertainment, but rather the art of making clothes.”

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For the Autumn/Winter 2023 collection, he forewent logos and sneakers and the more dramatic moments that the brand’s runways had become known for in recent years, like a staged snowstorm that swirled around models lugging trash bags for AW22 and a runway mud pit for SS23. This season, the set was minimalistic, with models striding down a clean ivory carpet. The show’s location, an event space within the Carrousel du Louvre shopping mall, was kept under wraps until the night before, minimising attention outside before it began. The space itself was a blank slate of sorts — Carrousel du Louvre was Paris Fashion Week’s centre stage until the early 2000s but had been almost deserted by fashion brands as a show venue for two decades. 

Celebrity attendance was also very much diminished. Korean-American rapper Big Matthew, Taiwanese singer Rainie Yang and Chinese actress Song Jia sat front row; last season, Kylie Jenner attended, while former brand ambassador Kim Kardashian attended the AW22 show.

Still, 700 guests — an uptick from past seasons — filed in to see how Balenciaga would approach its first show since the controversy around two ad campaigns released last year whose imagery was accused of being suggestive of child sexual abuse and pornography. Kering, which owns Balenciaga, launched an investigation following the incident and said it found no ill intent, “just errors of judgement”. Neither Demna nor Balenciaga CEO Cédric Charbit were fired; Kering CEO and chairman François-Henri Pinault said that people have the right to make mistakes in defence of the decision. 

In his first interview since the scandal broke, Demna told Vogue (which is owned by the same parent company as Vogue Business, Condé Nast) in February that he takes responsibility for the errors and said that he planned to change his approach moving forward. “It really changes my way of working, which has previously been more instinctive; doing something that would be seen as maybe provocative just because I was thinking, Oh, that’s fun,” he said. “This is part of my learning: I will have a more mature and serious approach to everything I release as an idea or an image. I have decided to go back to my roots in fashion as well as to the roots of Balenciaga, which is making quality clothes — not making image or buzz.” 

All of which brought us to today’s collection. There were 54 looks, including sharply tailored suits, evening gowns, and a new handbag named Huge Bag. With softer, feminine touches, the collection was more human, less dystopian — though the brand’s streetwear influence shone through with the addition of a zip-up hoodie plumped with inflatable forms sewn into their sleeves. “The idea was to be 200 per cent me,” Demna told reporters backstage after the show. “My idea was to purify, to edit it to the point where it speaks for itself.” About the romantic dresses at the end of the show, he said: “My team members are not used to that in ready-to-wear from me, so I had fun observing them being surprised by me making the lace dresses.” 

Vogue Runway’s Sarah Mower wrote: “Stripping back to the fundamentals of design — as against the performative, the ‘experiential’, and meme-generating multi-platform communication harnessed by brands — has been a thrust of this latest round of shows. Nowhere was the extreme tension between those two poles felt more sharply than at the Balenciaga show for fall 2023.”

Just like Kering’s largest house Gucci, Balenciaga has an ongoing “elevation strategy” in place, opening a couture store last year after relaunching couture in 2021. As luxury houses become bigger, they are upping the ante with higher-end offerings and personalised customer service in dedicated stores for the most affluent customers (such as Gucci Salons and Chanel “Salons Privés”) to keep their uniqueness and avoid ubiquity. 

Kering doesn’t break out Balenciaga’s sales — it’s part of the group’s “Other houses” division, which brought in €3.87 billion in 2022 — but a clear rebound effort is underway after the scandal dealt a blow to brand revenue. 

“Balenciaga had an exceptional year until the end of November with the implementation of the elevation strategy,” Pinault told reporters during the company’s earnings press conference in February. “The error that we made with the campaign penalised the brand in the Anglo-Saxon markets in serious ways. It impacted Balenciaga a lot in December in the United States, the Middle East and England. The Asian markets didn’t react. The house has lots of work to do to restore its image in the US. We are working on it.” 

Kering group managing director Jean-François Palus told analysts in February: “The impact of the regrettable controversy is now fading away, but of course, is still affecting trading right now. We think that this should be over in the course of the second quarter of 2023.” 

“From the show on, we [will] resume a normal pace of expression of the house,” Pinault said. On Instagram, that reset was made clear. After wiping its feed clean, the brand shared a video of the new collection following the show on Sunday. 

Balenciaga is ready to move on. Is the rest of the industry? 

Overall, responses were varied. Julie Gilhart, fashion consultant and chief development officer at Tomorrow Ltd, says the show was “perfectly executed”, a balance between creativity and wearability – likely what Demna was looking to achieve. “It left me wanting more. It was a step in the right direction.”  

“Maybe the most striking thing is the absence of logos, so that made you focus on the design,” says Institut Français de la Mode professor Benjamin Simmenauer. “Demna returned to more technical things such as the coats made of trousers, more tailoring, more formal outfits, but in a way, it’s still the same silhouette — it’s not a major U-turn.”

This story first appeared on voguebusiness.com 

Also read:

Beyond couture, can Schiaparelli succeed in ready-to-wear?

The Long View by Vogue Business: Luxury growth torch to pass from US to China in 2023

Carven taps Louise Trotter as creative director

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