Demna Gvasalia is proud of his footwear fan base — Balenciaga recently launched a Sneakerhead Bag, after all — but when the creative director set his sartorial sights on the pinnacle of fashion design, haute couture, he finally found peace in this chaotic industry.
"I've learned what I've really always loved about fashion and about making clothes," the Georgian designer explained during a virtual conversation with Nicole Phelps at the annual Vogue Forces of Fashion event on Thursday. "It's the way clothes make us feel, the way they transform us, that's the magic that is hard to experience in ready-to-wear because we do too many products and in a very short period of time, but couture actually is the place where this magic is preserved."
Gvasalia's couture debut on Wednesday was pretty magical. Set to a silent soundtrack, the clothes were meant to speak for themselves, and the masterful silhouettes did just that. Gavsalia began his creative couture process by going back to the archives to study Cristobal Balenciaga's work. "Couture is the essence of Balenciaga," he said. "It's the starting point — not a bag, not a sneaker, not a logo T-Shirt, all of which I love designing, but it's the highest level of craftsmanship — the silhouettes, the architecture of the garment, everything that is in the foundation of this house."
It was an important to Gvasalia that the label's couture comeback was not a tribute or a one-time homage to its founding father, but rather a fusion between his vision of couture and the heritage of the house.
The designer explained that several of Cristobal Balenciaga's iconic pieces and silhouettes were pinned to his initial moodboard for the collection, but that he transformed them into modern versions during the design process. One piece, however, he did not reinterpret: "The wedding dress is pretty much identical to the original. We had three fitting sessions in which we tried to change it and find a more clever and novel way to put darts and seams and all of that to go back to the original construction." Gvasalia did change the fabric of the dress by developing a new luxurious jersey material made out of silk yarn.
There were plenty of ingenious fabrications in the collection, from a leather made to look like a terry cloth bathrobe-style coat, to silk embroideries made to mimic different types of fur. Gvasalia noted that these various textile experimentations and material developments are usually very hard to achieve in the ready-to-wear process, but that the hands-on atelier approach in couture allows you to get creative.
As expected from a contemporary pioneer of streetwear, Gvasalia included several casual pieces into his custom-made mix. "I wanted to create a conversation with a modern customer who can be a couture customer of Balenciaga," he said. "For that reason I needed to put mundane, everyday pieces that we know from any kind of wardrobe into the couture context: A shirt, a denim jacket, pocket jeans, a trench coat."
The denim looks that were a part of his first handcrafted offering were far from your standard, sturdy pair of Levi's. Sourced from special manufacturers in Japan that work on old machines to make handwoven jeans, which were then tailored to perfection after 12 fittings, these jeans were every bit as magnificent as a red-carpet dress. And it is this unmatched level of personalization and attention to detail that convinced Gvasalia to become a couture wearer himself. Gvasalia's first couture experience was a made-to-measure suit, a wardrobe staple that he previously stayed away from because it felt foreign to him.
"I didn't like suits until I had a couture fitting," he explained. "Each of them were an experience where I realized what couture really is: It's an experiential thing. It's something that only the wearer can know and it gives you confidence. You see yourself in a different light when you wear couture. I never experienced how a garment can have an impact on your confidence."