Robin Givhan, The Washington Post’s Pulitzer-winning fashion critic, is covering Paris Fashion Week. Read her Fashion Week stories as she makes her way from runway to runway, and follow her on Twitter: @robingivhan.
PARIS — Balmain makes an audience gape.
The French fashion house is always ostentatious and sometimes vulgar. It feeds a voracious appetite for attention. It is anti-intellectual. Antagonistic. Emotional. It is shocking. It is perfect for this era of social media, which means it is powerfully, undeniably relevant.
It used to be that the most jarring runway shows here were those by designers who considered themselves part of the avant-garde. They worked predominantly in shades of black. They were fond of unfinished hems, flaps and folds that looked like vestigial appendages and an overall mood of dishevelment.
There are still designers who work in that vernacular and what they do is often bracing and inspiring. But their work is long-form poetry. Balmain is prose in 140 characters.
For spring 2016, Rick Owens’s presentation of his nontraditional collection made the audience gasp.
His women walked out swathed in silk clouds that floated around their body. Many of the models carried another woman strapped to their back. Sometimes their load was nestled next to their body like a child, sometimes it was draped over their shoulders like a wounded warrior, sometimes it was hanging upside down like a ghastly burden.
It was a show about women supporting, nurturing and enduring. The choreography underscored that message but often distracted from the clothes themselves. Who could notice a frock when one woman’s crotch was floating inches away from another woman’s head? But within that tension and discombobulation was a thoughtful vision. It gave one pause.
Yang Li most certainly made folks nod their head in approval with his hard-edged romanticism that becomes ever more eloquent with each passing season. His dresses float in contrast to the aggressive tailoring of a jacket. Florals peak from under an austere black gown. The lines and subtle details appeal to the intellect.
But only on rare occasions are their designs shocking.
Balmain leaves audiences in an open-mouthed stare.
Designer Olivier Rousteing, who unveiled his spring 2016 collection for Balmain on Thursday afternoon, has committed the brand to proportions rooted in the 1980s: strong shoulders, wide belts and big jewelry. The color combinations — butterscotch, pine green, black and tomato red — call to mind the ungainly hues of the 1970s, the dark recesses of paneled rec rooms and wet bars. Other designers mine those decades, but Rousteing does so in a manner that capitalizes on the era’s middle-brow, mass culture. Rousteing’s aesthetic is more “Dynasty” than Christian Lacroix. His nods to the ’70s do not bow down to the sensual majesty of Halston and Studio 54. They are a bit more bridge-and-tunnel.
Balmain may not appeal to one’s sense of elegance, but then who are you — the Establishment, the aesthetes, the snobs — to judge?
Rousteing is a fashion democrat, even when he’s designing clothes most easily afforded by an oligarch or a Kardashian/Jenner/West. Kris Jenner, by the way, arrived promptly and was seated in his front row alongside Jada Pinkett Smith, Travis Scott and Joe Jonas.
Rousteing’s spring collection was born out of nostalgia. He looked back on his eight seasons at the creative helm of Balmain as he worked on a one-time collaboration with H&M. That fast fashion collection, which launches Nov. 5, is inspired by highlights from the Balmain archive.
In his show notes, Rousteing noted that diving through his own brief history at the house highlighted how “our hard work over the past four years has resulted in the construction of a unique Balmain DNA.”
In particular, Balmain has developed a trademark for cacophonous color combinations, ostentatious embellishments, dramatic lines and outre proportions that often make his willowy models look lumpy. Big.
Fashion would call them fat. Your next-door neighbor would call them normal.
In short, the clothes often look deliberately off. They refuse to be restrained or elegant. They are clothes that demand attention; they are in service to the notion that unless one is being talked about, noticed and photographed — one does not exist.
Or in the parlance of social media: Until it has been Instagrammed, it didn’t happen.
About his runway show, Rousteing wrote: “This 15 minute presentation is designed to create strong impressions and reactions.”
But “it’s during the upcoming six months when the designs will truly make their mark,” he continued. “Social media’s embrace of Balmain will provide us with daily reminders of the excitement of those who have found a new way to bypass traditional gatekeepers.” And understand this, these clothes look better in photographs than they do in reality. Which in these digital times is all too often the point. Of everything.
Rousteing’s runway show is not about clothes or concepts. It is orchestrated to attract a million social media hits. It doesn’t matter whether the clothes are judged attractive or profoundly ugly by the professionals — the gatekeepers — in the room. The ultimate audience is those people — particularly those young aspirational customers — whose understanding of designer fashion, luxury and style has been shaped not by seeing couture craftsmanship up close but by the images of celebrities on the red carpet, the postings of celebrities on Instagram, the website advertising of luxury brands, the hyper-reality of the Kardashians and the all-the-world’s-a-stage existence of Rihanna who Rousteing happens to adore.
These clothes are not meant to be subtle because subtlety isn’t a strong suit of Twitter. Balmain has 193,000 followers on Twitter, 2.3 million on Instagram. Other brands have significant followers, too, but Balmain speaks to them — always and sometimes exclusively.
This spring’s dresses with their thick lattice work make skinny models look like they have significant derrieres. Tut-tut, say the fashion professionals. Meanwhile, out in the real world: Does this Balmain dress make my butt look big? Yes, yes it does. Gloriously, wondrously big.
Rousteing champions diversity. He casts a multi-ethnic runway show. He uses a range of races in his advertising. He embraces more curvaceous silhouettes. And he allows that a dress can still be declared sexy and hot even if it doesn’t make you look like a gazelle.
On today’s runways, it is more shocking to see a buxom model strutting down the runway in a gleefully ostentatious, vaguely coarse, burnt orange ruffled gown than it is to see an upside down model in a black dress that floats around her body like a thunderstorm. One appeals to base human appetites; the other speaks to intellectual curiosity. Social media prefers a feeding frenzy.
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