PARIS — The Alexander Wang era at Balenciaga is gathering steam.
Coming off a year of accelerating double-digit growth, the French house with roots in Spain is to officially christen its first boutique in its spiritual homeland this month — and later this year start moving into a spectacular new home: Parent Kering’s forthcoming headquarters in a complex boasting a series of 17th-century stone buildings in cross formations.
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“I feel we’re already a globally recognized house, and a top luxury leader. We’re well on our way,” an upbeat Wang told WWD ahead of his Balenciaga show here tonight.
In separate interviews, Wang and Balenciaga chief executive officer Isabelle Guichot unfurled a host of development plans, citing men’s wear and knitwear among chief growth opportunities.
Wang and Guichot are slated to attend an opening event for the 1,500-square-foot Madrid store on March 13. “We’ve always been a little bit shy in that country,” the ceo acknowledged.
In fact, it was Wang who got a bee in his bonnet about Spain. Founding couturier Cristóbal Balenciaga opened his first boutique in Madrid in 1933, making Wang’s retail statement — with the marble-heavy concept done in collaboration with Ryan Korban — a significant homecoming.
Guichot said the minute the hoarding went up, she received a call from the founder’s nephew, Agustín Medina, asking: “When is it opening?”
The company was also flooded with applications in a country where unemployment remains at almost 24 percent, leaving it spoiled for choice for sales associates.
In 2017, Balenciaga is to celebrate its centenary, an occasion the Prado plans to mark with a major exhibition. “So it’s a very good moment to come to Spain,” said Guichot, noting the brand is currently present in the country via select distribution and that the boutique would “catalyze the presence of the brand.”
Shortly after New York-based Wang was named creative director at the house, succeeding Nicolas Ghesquière, the American designer traveled with his team to Getaria, the seaside birthplace of Cristóbal Balenciaga, where the rugged landscape was a fount of inspiration — for example, spawning the founder’s iconic fisherman hats.
Wang also visited the Getaria Museum and Cristóbal’s home to understand the impulses that fed the late couturier, who closed his house in 1968 and died in 1972.
Wang insisted Balenciaga should open a flagship in Spain as it is integral to its “heritage and legacy,” he said. “It’s a beautiful store, and there’s a lot of natural light. It culminates with a small room at the back with a little courtyard section.”
Discussing some of the behind-the-scenes work, Wang initially plunged himself into the house’s patrimony to understand its heritage and legacy. “It was important for me at the beginning to explore the archive. Now it’s time to write the next chapter of the story and get into what the brand stands for today and make it a top leader in luxury,” Wang said.
A more “irreverent approach” to luxury for a new generation is part of his prescription. “I also feel it has a subversive elegance I like to bring to each collection…a more casual way to wear precious things,” he explained.
Beyond his runway shows and pre-collections, Wang delved into a range of categories — jewelry, scarves, eyewear and leather goods among them — to bolster “anchor products,” balance out the offer, and ensure coherence across the brand. He also spied an opportunity with fur, introducing a capsule range for pre-fall, and expanded the footwear category to a “full lifestyle offer” spanning sneakers, sandals and espadrilles in addition to dressier shoes.
Given how integral knitwear is to Wang’s signature business, with his T by Alexander Wang subbrand dedicated to slouchy knitwear, tapered track pants and the like, expanding Balenciaga’s offer was a no-brainer.
“I started in knitwear, so it’s something I’m really passionate about and something that was not really part of the house archives,” he said, noting the category would be “not only driven by runway concepts” but include a “rollover program of diverse bodies the house can establish.
“The core offering of the knitwear has expanded tremendously and it’s something we’ve seen great results in,” Wang added.
Guichot said the double-digit gains last year were fueled by “almost all categories, from retail and a very healthy wholesale business.” Balenciaga counts about 500 wholesale doors in the world.
More than half of company revenues now stem from directly owned retail, a threshold reached last year, when it closed out the calendar with about 90 freestanding stores and shop in shops — a quantum leap from the three stores it had seven years ago.
“It’s been a change of business model for the brand,” said Guichot, a methodical executive with a fun-loving streak.
“We’re becoming a player in women’s footwear,” according to Guichot, also trumpeting progress in the leather goods category, building beyond historic “pillars” like the motorcycle bag, which was launched 15 years ago.
“It’s still a very important product,” she said, while trumpeting traction with newer styles like the Cable, Le Dix and Nude bags.
Besides knitwear, the men’s wear offers expansion potential. The fall collection, unveiled in Paris last January, pointed to a more sophisticated and “elevated” approach that reflects a “better balance” of tailoring and casualwear.
“We’ve found our positioning in men’s: It shows in the figures, and it shows in the perception,” Guichot said.
Balenciaga counts a dedicated men’s store in Paris, another in New York and several in Japan, and the executive hinted at a further rollout.
The brand added about 10 stores in 2014, and also has a program of refurbishments, enlargements and relocations. Guichot said its retail is now “entering a phase where it’s more tactical.” Key openings this year include a boutique in Florence.
Dressing celebrities is another strategic focus for the brand, with recent credits including Julianne Moore at the “Hunger Games” premiere in London in November, and Felicity Jones and Naomi Watts at the SAG Awards last January.
“We have a special red-carpet team,” Wang said. “We’re developing one-of-a-kind, special pieces.”
Guichot declined to give figures but said the “company is profitable.”
Market sources estimate the brand generates revenues north of 350 million euros, or $391.5 million at current exchange rates.
Meanwhile, the move to Laennec telegraphs its importance to Kering — and it was a natural fit as most of the company was already located on the Left Bank, offices scattered on streets in the vicinity of its Rue Cassette showroom, once the site of its fashion shows.
About 250 employees are to be based at the new complex, including the design studio, atelier and showrooms, making it “an important company project,” according to Guichot. “The place is quite unique in Paris.”
As for Wang, who has been designing his office at Laennec, Guichot said, “I think he’s settled.”