Balenciaga AW21 Couture: Haute revival of the century


By Kelly Lim

Balenciaga AW21 Couture: Haute revival of the century

Balenciaga is officially back in couture, and with a new maestro at its helm to restore the Maison’s revered made-to-measure status to new heights. For the modern age, creative director Demna Gvasalia refreshed fashion’s oldest and most prestigious world of design by elevating everyday codes through sophisticated constructions and iconic silhouettes. These bring to mind the architectural shapes and drapes of founder Cristobal Balenciaga himself.

Balenciaga’s current creative director

In a handwritten letter signed “Love, Demna”, the Belgian designer explained that he felt it was his “creative duty to the unique heritage of Mr. Balenciaga” to revive the 102-year-old brand’s foundations of haute couture. The birth of ready-to-wear in the ’60s had revolutionised the fashion industry with the mechanics of mass production, but it also questioned the very raison d’être for the bespoke concept of high fashion. It was in part the reason as to why the brand’s Spanish founder suddenly shuttered his salon 53 years ago.

So what was Gvasalia’s answer to couture’s search for relevance in the contemporary age of commerce? A marriage of Balenciaga’s sculptural couture legacy with the normcore glamour of his prêt-à-porter. The result was a subversive gender-fluid collection staged at the reconstructed atelier in the brand’s original Parisian headquarters, presented by an enigmatic cast dressed in bespoke pieces spanning bathrobes to ballgowns.

Gone were the dystopian doomsday scenarios and digital epics that distinguished Gvasalia’s past ready-to-wear shows, and in its place was Balenciaga’s original show space in all its cream-clothed glory. Looking slightly worse-for-wear with the facade of age-stained interiors, it was as if the salon had been there since the last century. A signature motif of the brand, red carnations made an appearance atop elegant gold chairs in the contentious etiquette of seat saving—but in this case, a must for the show’s incoming attendees. In the experience of one lucky bloomer, the flower accompanied the tailored wool ensemble in the opening look for the runway, resting in the firm grip of the model who wore it.

The half-century comeback was one of the hottest shows of Paris Couture Week, drawing a star-studded FROW that was graced by the likes of Anna Wintour, Bella Hadid, Salma Hayek and an incognito Kanye West (we still see you, sir).

And so, without music, the show began in utter silence to transport viewers back in time to the days of private salon shows, and to also pay tribute to the stillness of lockdowns when cities turned into ghost towns. As models slinked by with their shoes padding softly across the carpet, guests were forced to focus solely on the clothes in the absence of a soundtrack alongside the swish-swooshing whispers of by-passing fabrics and the awkward clearing of throats.

Following their rose-bearing leader, the first set of looks presented an all-black selection of tuxes and suits with sculpted shoulders and shapely trousers, on women and men, who trudged across the atelier in heeled boots. Waists were cinched on some, while others showed off cuffed sleeves in white, alongside the pairings of dark wraparound shades, glittering chandelier jewellery, pristine opera gloves and the occasional Balenciaga packaging. In reference to the elaborate hats during Mr. Balenciaga’s tenure, volumes were balanced with shiny lampshade chapeaus to finish off the silhouette in avant-garde perfection.

As the show progressed, shapes and silhouette grew in architecture to transform the body. Assertively protruding collars stuck out, up and over to give the illusion of armoured shoulders on dense embroidery-textured coats, while shielding the neck in protective cocoons on voluminous gowns and puffers; and in the form of dramatic Vs to elegantly frame the décolletage across trenches, jackets and day dresses.

Oversized outerwear emerged as a Gvasalia trademark, with the extension of vibrant terrycloth wrap coats and stoles in super-luxe fabrications, recalling the robes and duvets we’ve been sporting in the comforts of our home, to make the case towards the beauty of the mundane. Elsewhere, casual dress was re-contextualised to bespoke tailoring in tracksuits, tops and hoodies through couture-level techniques that imbued the garments with little more than meets the eye.

Hand-embroidered C.B. initials showed up on silk ties, poplin shirts and leather gloves, in tribute to details of Mr. Balenciaga’s personal style. To close off the show, Gvasalia also paid homage through direct references of the founder’s iconic designs with pieces including a pink floral-embroidered gown inspired by an original archive made for Jacqueline Kennedy; a handprinted polka-dot chiffon number with each circle matched exactly to the original; a trompe l’oeil gown in silver silk jacquard with opera gloves; and for the couture finale tradition: a heart-stopping veiled bridal take of one of Balenciaga’s last designs.

Check out every look from Balenciaga’s 50th couture collection here

What to expect and where to watch the show

Text: July 6 2021

A collective gasp was heard around the world when Balenciaga’s Instagram account was found mysteriously wiped bare last week. What? Why? And right before its buzzy couture comeback? While the answer remains to be known and their next post to be seen, all eyes are on the Paris-based luxury house this week as artistic director Demna Gvasali unveils Balenciaga’s first couture collection in over half a century.

Come July 7, amidst the return of in-person couture displays, the brand will be opening the doors to a fully restored version of the original atelier to present an in-person show at their historic 10 Avenue George V location. The OG made-to-measure salon was suddenly shuttered by Spanish founder Cristobal Balenciaga himself the year after his final couture collection, a moment in time that sent shockwaves across the industry. Highly revered by the likes of Dior, Chanel and Givenchy, the master of silhouette, construction and drape was one of the best couturiers in the game and known for his innovative, architectural creations that pushed the very fabrics of fashion.

Since his arrival in 2015, Gvasali, who is also co-founder of Vetements, has been steadily reviving the founder’s iconic couture silhouettes through Cristobal-worthy creations for Balenciaga’s collections, from AW18‘s curvy padded-hip jackets to the structured, sculptural gowns that closed his SS20 runway. As for the upcoming one, a new teaser released by the brand reveals a peek of new creations in the studio interlaced against black and white moments and photographs from the archives.

If there’s anything to be gleaned from the clip, it’s that Balenciaga’s 50th couture collection will certainly be a full-circle moment not to be missed.

Edit: Missed the show? Watch it again below. 

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