At Balenciaga, Gloss Kapitale

Demna uses money and kinky sex to sell a perfectly good suit.

Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photos: Balenciaga
Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photos: Balenciaga

Sunday on the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange, and the Balenciaga models are wearing bondage suits under their corporate suits and pussy-bow blouses. Not only do the gimp suits completely eradicate all forms of identity, the models’ mouths have been reduced to tiny blow holes and their huge fake eyelashes flutter out like weeds escaping a crack in the grimy sidewalk. It’s hilarious.

But sinister? Dystopian? Not really. It’s a fashion show set against one of the most familiar images in the world — the digital boards of the New York Stock Exchange. The winners and losers, accompanied just lately by standard images of grim-faced traders. And, as Demna, the creative director of Balenciaga, observed afterward in the backstage, “a show on Wall Street is sort of iconic.” Tell that to Oliver Stone, Martin Scorsese, and Mike Nichols, whose 1988 film “Working Girl,” with costumes by the great Ann Roth, could have been a cunning source for a Demna’s latest collection.

Although it was thrilling to visit the trading floor (it’s smaller than I had imagined), the show itself didn’t produce the charge or tension of some of Demna’s previous performances. I mean, for example, the fantastically original 2020 show about power dressing (set in a government-style assembly chamber); the wonderfully witty spring 2022 “Red Carpet” show, with a Balenciaga film by The Simpsons creators; and the truly disturbing fall 2022 show that recreated the image of people struggling against wind and snow in a vast, empty landscape. That show happened just after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and Demna spoke movingly about his family’s own experiences in his native Georgia. No other designer in recent times has expanded the possibilities of a fashion show — visually, emotionally — more than Demna. He has also redefined how to modernize a historic Paris couture house.

Photo: Balenciaga

But considering the reach of the power-dressing show, this one — the first New York presentation by the brand in roughly 20 years — felt more like capitalism lite. Topics like wealth and income inequality are surely ripe for the plucking, and, as Demna asserted — as countless artists and novelists have — money is the prime mover if not fetish. Here is Margaret Schlegel near the start of Howard’s End: “I began to think that the very soul of the world is economic, and that the lowest abyss is not the absence of love, but the absence of coin.” But Demna barely cracked the surface of his symbolic shell, the stock exchange, never mind tickled its soul. As for the complex sexual pleasures of a second skin or a masked face, many designers have gone there already — Margiela in 1995, McQueen in 2009, Jeremy Scott for Moschino (with black latex) as recently as 2018. Demna, who wore a latex hood to greet reporters and other guests, said the gimp suits “really helped me style this collection, because otherwise I would feel it was a bit too classic.” Indeed, when Anna Wintour came backstage, it seemed the most normal thing for an editor to buss a designer wearing a sex mask.

So I’m still waiting for a designer to unpack the money topic and make his or her audience truly uncomfortable.

The Balenciaga Garde-Robe collection. Photo: Balenciaga

The paradox of this collection is that the first 40 or so looks — most from a new division called Garde-Robe — were outstanding. As the name implies, they represented a wardrobe of classic tailored garments, including trouser suits, luxurious overcoats, a trench coat, and those silk “lady lawyer” blouses, now with a more exaggerated bow and shown with elegantly slim (but not prim) skirts, some in black leather. Even in the semi-darkness of the trading floor, with the black underpinnings, the quality of the materials and fit was plain to see. Images probably won’t do the quality justice.

Demna said the interest in his tailoring at his first haute couture show, last July, made it clear there was a void to fill at the brand for “upscale classic garments,” he put it. Made in France, Garde-Robe will be more expensive than Balenciaga’s other tailored ready to wear, though a rep could not say yet how much more. In any case, the silhouette is the sharp, slightly oversized one that Demna set down at Balenciaga, and continues to refine and refine. It’s a gorgeous look, and sexy in its own right, without the hokum. The accessories were in sync and also nicely weird, including molded, comically over-scaled black boots and derbies. Think blown-up Doc Martens. Or Elmer Fudd.

The rest of the collection was a collaboration with Adidas — track suits, hoodies, fat gym bags. Collaborations with sports brands are scarcely news, but the pieces were generally fine.

I’m eager to see Demna’s second couture collection, in early July. If the fabulous suiting in the first show inspired this latest addition to ready to wear, you can’t help wondering how it will affect his thinking — and modern sense of luxury — for the next couture round.

At Balenciaga, Gloss Kapitale