“I want it to look cool and I want it to look elegant. Those are the most important qualities,” said designer Demna Gvasalia, talking about his new collection for Balenciaga, but he summed up the aesthetic of Paris fashion week.
The high-energy sportswear which dominated the catwalks last year is nowhere to be seen this season. Nor are the catwalks channelling trophy-wife luxury, hot-chick sex appeal, or boardroom power dressing. Cool and elegant grown-up chic is the only way to go.
The Sunday of Paris fashion week is the day which defines the season, thanks to a roll call of influential shows. Céline, whose stages at an indoor tennis club, is a must-see for the trail of references and new proportions that designer Phoebe Philo throws out on to her catwalk, aware that other designers will pick up on and follow them. Balenciaga, resurgent since last year’s appointment of Gvasalia from cult label Vetements, has recently established its Sunday morning slot as a hot ticket.
This Sunday, fashion’s power balance shifted. Balenciaga, which is owned by Kering, stepped up from being an appropriately cool support act to Céline, which is owned by rival group LVMH, to become the leader of the pack. The overarching trends of this season have already been influenced more by Balenciaga than any other label, and the company’s market-shopper, stripy Bazar totes have been all over the front row. With another collection packed with new ideas, Balenciaga confirmed itself as the name to watch.
The show opened with coats buttoned off-centre at one shoulder, an asymmetric riff on the “shrobing” trend for wearing your jacket pushed back off your shoulders which Balenciaga started last year. Backstage after the show, Gvasalia explained that he had been inspired by photos from the Balenciaga archives which showed models clutching their coats closed beneath their chin as if to keep out the cold. Inspiration by a gesture rather than a garment is symptomatic of how Gvasalia’s design methodology revolves around what he calls “the observation of social habits”. It is a generous-spirited approach to fashion, stamping the Balenciaga name not just onto expensive garments but onto shrobing and other styling tricks which a wider audience can copy for free. And one glance at the sheer volume of Balenciaga outfits worn by the fashion community proves that making the Balenciaga name central to the fashion conversation does wonders for sales.
The essential silhouette of the collection was made up of an airy coat or jacket gathered at one shoulder, worn with a silken, flippy below-the-knee skirt or slim-legged trousers, and stiletto heels. There were car wing mirrors repurposed as clutch bags – mirror on the outside, enough room inside the shell for keys and purse – and motocross jackets which referenced the motorcycle styling of the Nicolas Ghesquière era of the house. Dresses based on Cristobal Balenciaga’s original sketches, but reimagined for the present day in modern fabrics, will be made-to-order to celebrate the brand’s centenary.
Céline, meanwhile, is not content to stand still. This was the message of a show in which engineering, concealed underneath the catwalk, allowed each bank of seats to rotate and the audience to watch the catwalk as if from slow, minimalist carousels. If it was a comment about audience and perspective, it felt timely: having held a hardline purist approach to social media until now, the house of Céline has recently joined Instagram, and announced the launch of its e-commerce branch.
This show made a cool, crisp case for Céline’s mastery of a look which is interesting without being loud, and grown-up but never sedate. So a dress might have a long, elegant fluid skirt but countered by a neckline drawn horizontally along the collarbone, so the effect is more architecture practice than tea dance. Long, slim trousers were worn with oversized trench coats so fine as to be almost transparent. The overall effect was best summed up in two words: cool, and elegant.
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