Returning to "the art of making clothes" was Demna's pledge in his show notes for the Balenciaga Fall 23 Haute Couture collection. In recent seasons, he's traded his showmanship and shock-inducing collections for a more sober approach to design as a commitment to Cristobal Balenciaga's legacy. More than any other collection, couture (which Demna only recently reintroduced at the House) has always felt closest to Cristobal's vision, trading elaborate sets in chaotic locations for the austere walls of Balenciaga HQ, returning to the roots of couture.
For Fall 23 Haute Couture, the same sentiment applied. Since the House's couture atelier lay dormant for some 50 years, Demna's revival of the craft, initially, was heavily sprinkled with "Demna-isms". There were neoprene catsuits and glossy black face shields and a surplus of celebrity runway appearances. Here, celebrities were swapped out for "OG" supermodels like Amber Valetta and Natasha Poly. Demna even brought back Danielle Slavik, who was a house model for Balenciaga from 1964-68, opening in a black gown with pearls strung across the chest that was plucked from the archives.
Next came a procession of severely tailored dresses, skirt-suits, and coats, all with plunging sweetheart necklines and open shoulders. They arrived in blacks, reds, Yves Klein Blue. Then came a very Demna take on "everyday" couture. Slouchy acid wash canvas jeans were accompanied with puffer jackets and floor-sweeping coats and scarfs that looked like they had gotten wet and frozen into obscure shapes in the cold.
In a further exploration of Trompe-l'œil, fringed dresses revealed, upon a closer look, that they were actually unravelling, before the final ballgowns advanced through the room. Some gave the effect of bolts of fabric twisted around the body leaving extravagant trains, reminding us of the way we used to create "dresses" out of sheets in our childhood bedrooms. Others offered high glamour, in chainmail and woven lurex and rhinestones and feathers, while elsewhere, a series of bubble-skirted gowns doubled down on drama in lace and sequins and, finally, in what appeared to be ribbed metal. It was a take on a panoply, and one that immediately evoked Joan of Arc, with elbow pads and convex shoulders and a full breast plate.
While it is still unknown what this rather dramatic U-turn away from the things that have made Demna's tenure at Balenciaga so successful will mean long-term for the House, for now, it feels as though his return to roots is well balanced. One cannot argue that highlighting the skill of an atelier is necessarily a bad move, after all.