Balenciaga has just taken over the top position as the world’s hottest ranking brand. Demna, its celebrated creative director, speaks to Pamela Golbin about his first Haute Couture collection for the iconic fashion house, Cristobal the man, and Mark Borthwick’s striking portfolio of images.
Pamela Golbin - When I discovered Mark Borthwick’s photographs of your first Couture collection for the house of Balenciaga, I couldn’t help but think of the stark black and white copy- right photos that Cristobal had taken of his designs. In contrast, Mark’s images are not only deeply emotive but also expose and reveal the spiritual soul of the garments.
Demna - When I saw the pictures weeks after he took them, I was struck by Mark’s magic. He brings so much emotion into a still image. There are so few artists who can capture it the way he does. Couture was a very emotional project for me and Mark’s pictures were really a bonus, a cherry on the top. He had taken these for fun and as often happens whenever you have fun, it’s the best outcome. With Mark, it’s the same. I was really enchanted to see this series.
It was the opposite of what I was trying to do with the collection which was all about clothes. I was really putting dressmaking on a pedestal in a way. This is my definition of beauty and elegance. This is my connection to Cristobal Balenciaga’s heritage. I found Mark’s images to be really beautiful because it was no longer about couture. It was no longer about those pieces. It was just about a visual that actually captivates you.
PG: What is the importance of emotion in fashion today?
D: I am still struggling to personally express my emotions. And I think my work is the easiest platform for me through which I can express my emotional state. But when I look at this collection, it was purely emotional because I didn’t have any constraints. I didn’t have deadlines. I didn’t have budgets. I didn’t have anyone to please. It was just about me and my love of fashion. I felt that most people who experienced the collection could feel this emotion. I didn’t verbalize anything, but it was certainly present because I believe in energy being captured, even in garments.
PG: It was one of those magical moments.
D: Yeah, I think so. I think emotion is part of that magic.
PG: It’s always been important for you to make the distinction between clothes and fashion, so much so that you named your own brand Vêtements, the French word for clothes. How do you define the difference between them?
D: Well, I mean, it’s two very different things. I don’t really care about fashion. But I love and I care so much about clothes and how they can transform you, how they can give you confidence, how they can really have a psychological impact on your being, which fashion cannot do. Fashion is about trends and belonging to a certain circle of ‘I’ve got this, I’ve got that’. It’s identification.
I’m interested in clothing that changes your mindset, which happened to me during the corona lockdown. Personally, the first weeks I was being a couch potato, wearing pyjamas, and not really caring about my appearance at all because I was at home alone with my husband. I started to get really depressive. I was like, ‘Oh, God, what’s the point of it? I wake up, I have my breakfast, I stay in the same space.’ I quickly realized I needed to dress up. That was my therapy. I was like, ‘Lockdown or not, I’m going to make myself looks for the entire week’. I was doing this personal fashion show. I started to wear high heels, quite eccentric looks sometimes that I would never wear out but I felt really happy. Being at home in this terrible period, clothes had a powerful impact on me, on my psyche. They really helped me to stay sane and also made me realize how much I love clothes.
PG: Could you say that clothes are fashion, but without an agenda?
D: Yeah, of course. I mean, fashion has so many agendas maybe this is the reason why the whole fashion concept is really annoying. Clothes don’t need fashion.
PG: Now that you have reintroduced couture after 53 years, the fashion brand of Balenciaga is once again a fashion house and Cristobal is now part of the narrative. DG: Yeah. Obviously, at Balenciaga, I’m aware of the fact that I’m in a house that carries the name of someone else, and that carries an amazing century old heritage. Subconsciously, I actually went to Balenciaga knowing that one day I would probably do couture. Suddenly it made a lot of sense, as you said, Balenciaga almost legitimately became again the house that it used to be. Somehow deep inside of me, I always wanted to do it, but I didn’t dare to until quite recently. I’m not trying to be Cristobal in 2021 or to channel him in any way. It is my Demna story at Balenciaga. I see my vision for the house as a pyramid. There are the sneakers, T-shirts, and merchandising, and then there are the conceptual garments. Couture is a completely different dimension, and it’s really at top of the pyramid infusing the rest of my vision for Balenciaga.
PG: How has the process of your first Couture collection changed you?
D: For the first time since I started working in Fashion, I felt liberated. I felt at peace with the whole industry as well, because at that moment, I realized I didn’t have to fight anymore. Well, of course I do but the difference being that I don’t need to prove anything to myself anymore. Couture, for me, has been a tool to manifest who I am as a designer, not the ‘hoodie guy who does street wear’, but somebody who really understands and elaborates the craftsmanship behind dressmaking.
PG: Do you consider yourself a dressmaker or designer?
D: I’ve always considered myself as a dressmaker more than a designer, which I find a very diminutive way to call this job. Couture saved my excitement and my hunger for this profession and suddenly opened a new door for me as a creative. I’m also inspired to grow and to learn. The moment when I’ll feel like, ‘Okay, I’ve done my best now’, that’s exactly when I shouldn’t do it anymore. Couture made me realize how much is out there that I don’t know. That triggers all this excitement in me that will bring a lot of, I hope, good new ideas out there.
PG: Karl Lagerfeld once described couture as orthopedics for the imperfect body.
D: Exactly. It’s almost like you’re a plastic surgeon, but you don’t have to cut bodies, you cut fabric instead. You alter the posture and the silhouette through the fabric that is on the body. Usually, facelifts make everybody look the same. But with couture, it’s the opposite. It’s like you adapt to that person and make that person be unique.
PG: In the collection, I was surprised that you chose to include Cristobal’s 1968 wedding dress.
D: I was surprised, too! I suffered a lot because it was the most technically complicated garment for me. This was the exact garment through which I learned to let go. We had the original dress from the archives that we looked at and studied it to make it better, more modern, more minimal. For two months, I tried desperately to change it. I put myself through such a struggle and dared enough to assume that I could do it better. Finally at one point, I understood that my strength as a designer in this process, was to let it go. It gave me in- credible freedom. I came to terms with the idea that Cristobal Balenciaga did it the best way, even if it was half a century ago. Ending with this iconic wedding dress was very much a hundred percent tribute to the master class that Cristobal left the fashion history. This dress was a manifestation of Balenciaga’s genius and my thank you, way, to Cristobal.