When the music started, the room went black and the first figure came storming out, marching around the big open square while overhead, white lights began to strobe. It was as though this mysterious woman had emerged from the pitch black of a storm and was only briefly illuminated through flashes of lightning. She was wearing a charcoal gray shirt with lean trousers and a matching blazer with the most extraordinary shoulders — shoulders that one should really pause a moment to consider.
This season has been filled with big broad shoulders taken straight from the 1980s, along with hefty shoulder pads that tend to make a woman look as though she is perpetually tense and hunched. Balenciaga’s Demna Gvasalia offered bold shoulders that sit up like cathedral arches. High, but not too high. They don’t extend the shoulders outward; they define them upward. They give the wearer a powerful, authoritative silhouette but in a new way, in a non-linebacker way.
The shoulder silhouette is different from what came before.
Don’t underestimate that. Most people can’t resist the past. Even if the past was awful, it’s an awful with which they’re familiar rather than one that’s freshly baked. In these times, looking back has become irresistible. The tendency is to see the past through the distortion of nostalgia and recall it as better, easier, safer and simpler. The past is not just poetry, it’s also political strategy and public policy. The past can be dangerous.
Even if people who aren’t aiming to relive the past, and turn to it as a guide for fixing the problems of the present, they can get stuck there. Doomed to apply the same solutions that didn’t work the first time. We settle into our mistakes instead of clawing our way out of them.
Designers mine the past for inspiration and find themselves reinventing instead of inventing. They give customers the same thing only a little bit different. And mostly, customers say thank you because the future can look weird and unsettling at first glance.
The harder stance is one that’s forward-facing. Not simply because it requires a vivid imagination to envision a different kind of shoulder or neckline, but because it takes courage to consider that the future could be hard. It may not be the future that we want. But the optimist will reassure us that we can adapt to it. We’ll find our way through.
As the first group of models in Gvasalia’s co-ed show walked through the white light storm, their determined stride took them around the room, and we followed them into an imagined future full of more surprising silhouettes. Sweater and shirt necklines looked as though they had been suspended from an internal wire. The back panels of puffer jackets were pinched and folded to push the shoulders slightly forward. Other jackets moved the shoulder line back, as if the coat was forever in that precarious state of being shrugged off.
The shapes were extravagant, and so were the colors. Models wore head-to-toe searing red, exuberant fuchsia and teal, as well as the attention-grabbing florescent glow of the gilets jaunes — the yellow vest protest movement. The collection was layered and rich in ideas, proposals and experiments. It blended elements of high design with the beautiful realities of the street. Bosses and workers. The atelier and the conveyor belt. Gvasalia offered serious critiques of consumerism with a wink; he delighted in the mundane; he revered the exceptional.
Branded crossbody bags held elegant water bottles; shopping bags were transformed into durable leather bags. Track pants and T-shirts were given as much respect as a tailored suit or beautifully cut dress. They may be for different occasions and send different messages, but who’s to say which carries more value.
Looking forward takes courage, because it means focusing on the unknown, and that’s even more difficult when that unknown may very well be uncomfortable, possibly unpleasant and a little bit scary. At Balenciaga, Gvasalia leans forward. All of his proposals may not take hold. The market might reject some or all of them. Many of the coats could swallow a woman whole. But even so, he will have left us with something instructive: The future should not look like the past.
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