The LED video installation for the Balenciaga Spring/Summer 2019 collection was directed by artist Jon Rafman. (Jonas Gustavsson/MCV Photo for The Washington Post)
Fashion critic

PARIS — What made the Balenciaga presentation so powerful and unforgettable was its willingness to reach out toward the future. Nothing about creative director Demna Gvasalia’s work felt static or complacent. It was urgent, impatient and searching.

The sense that one was hurtling toward something new, and perhaps even a little scary, was underscored by the setting: an immersive video installation by the artist Jon Rafman. It began with the dreaded blue screen of death — that pure field of cobalt blue that signals a massive computer failure. It dissolved into a swirling, hypnotic digital ocean that gave the audience the sensation of whizzing through space, through an abstract digital universe. The video transformed into a strangely captivating fiery hell and then into a post-apocalyptic urban environment and finally into a gorgeous kaleidoscope of color and pattern.


A model walks through a Jon Rafman video installation at the Balenciaga Spring/Summer 2019 fashion show. (Jonas Gustavsson/MCV Photo for The Washington Post)

The video was impressionistic, only hinting at landscapes and buildings and leaving one with the dizzying sensation of having traveled in both distance and time. When it all came to a halt, one needed a moment to regain one’s balance to remember that, ah, yes, we are still here in this production studio on the outskirts of Paris. It is a sunny Sunday afternoon. We are still here in 2018.

The elsewhere had been so captivating.

[Robin Givhan at Paris Fashion Week: full coverage]

It had been filled with exactingly-molded shoulders on dresses and coats that gave the torso a squared-off silhouette. These are more than just a complicated 1980s-retread shoulder pad. Gvasalia used foam pads shaped through 3-D printing to extend the shoulder smoothly and elegantly. Thanks to this precise calibration, they don’t make the wearer look like Frankenstein’s monster but instead evoke a digital-age professional heading to a next generation WeWork space, with robot baristas and dehydrated vegan muffins.


Balenciaga Spring/Summer 2019 collection (Jonas Gustavsson/MCV Photo for The Washington Post)

Balenciaga Spring/Summer 2019 collection (Jonas Gustavsson/MCV Photo for The Washington Post)

Balenciaga Spring/Summer 2019 collection (Jonas Gustavsson/MCV Photo for The Washington Post)

Gvasalia crafted slip dresses that hang from the body like a protective tube. They glittered under the lights, not like some spangled sequin concoction but as if lit from within, like thousands of iPhones glowing in a darkened stadium. They were cocktail dresses in the traditional sense, but for a cocktail party where the highballs and martinis should have plumes of dry ice vapor wafting from them.


Balenciaga Spring/Summer 2019 collection (Jonas Gustavsson/MCV Photo for The Washington Post)

Balenciaga Spring/Summer 2019 collection (Jonas Gustavsson/MCV Photo for The Washington Post)

This was a graceful and polished collection. It was still filled with eccentric characters and ground-level views of life. But that vision was now situated in the streetscapes of megacities and futuristic space colonies. At times, the backdrop stirred a sense of optimism. At others, it suggested a world in which we have lost the fight against climate change, where we’re living in a maelstrom of heat while the ground beneath us heaves and convulses.

Still, this is not a dark or pessimistic collection. It’s full of elegance and sophistication, thanks to beautifully draped jewel-tone skirts and oversize blouses that form a cocoon around the body. There’s humor in prints featuring giant dice, and ease in shirts that hang from the body with the looseness of a pajama top.


Balenciaga Spring/Summer 2019 collection (Jonas Gustavsson/MCV Photo for The Washington Post)

Balenciaga Spring/Summer 2019 collection (Jonas Gustavsson/MCV Photo for The Washington Post)

Balenciaga Spring/Summer 2019 collection (Jonas Gustavsson/MCV Photo for The Washington Post)

Balenciaga Spring/Summer 2019 collection (Jonas Gustavsson/MCV Photo for The Washington Post)

Balenciaga Spring/Summer 2019 collection (Jonas Gustavsson/MCV Photo for The Washington Post)

Balenciaga Spring/Summer 2019 collection (Jonas Gustavsson/MCV Photo for The Washington Post)

One of the great challenges in fashion is to craft a collection that looks forward to the unknown rather than back toward the familiar. But that is also one of fashion’s primary roles. We do not dress the way our grandparents or even our parents did. We can’t. Our lives move faster; they are more global; they are increasingly frictionless.


Balenciaga Spring/Summer 2019 collection (Jonas Gustavsson/MCV Photo for The Washington Post)

Gvasalia is working on our future wardrobe. One that situates us within our digital universe and our changing planet and that makes the most of our advancing technology. But he is also working to make sure that our clothes maintain a bit of sensuality and grace — just to remind us of what it means to be human.

ALSO AT PARIS FASHION WEEK:

Lobsters, pineapples, sailboats and straitjackets: Thom Browne’s vision of preppy gone mad

From Junya Watanabe and Altuzarra, two radically different visions of romance

On the Comme des Garçons runway, pregnancy as metaphor

A provocative designer has just blown up a 70-year-old brand. But to what end?

What we talk about when we talk about ‘effortless chic’

These glittery, chainmailed, mismatched clothes are difficult — but so worth it

Apocalyptic looks for your 2018 mood, from Rick Owens

Gender-blurring made as awkward as possible at Maison Margiela — but why?

What exactly is Saint Laurent saying about female sexuality and empowerment here?

Marine Serre is a name you’ll want to remember

‘Outside there is a war,’ so Dior and Gucci offer the fashion equivalent of self-care