“People arelike, ‘How are you going to do the next one? Aren’t you so drained?’”Wang said, repeating a question he’s heard often since presenting hisfall collection in New York. “I’m just like, ‘No, I’m just so excited,you know!’”
And why not? Fashion’s latest boy-wonder appointmenthas on his side youth, a well of natural enthusiasm and the thrillinevitable in a new adventure, an all-eyes-on-him one at that.Balenciaga’s recently installed creative director spoke to WWD Wednesdaymorning, the day before presenting his debut collection for the house,in which he began to etch the “landscape” of his Balenciaga. If, as thehouse publicist Lionel Vermeil maintained, this was Wang’s prologue,those who expect to follow the story should note two clear points: Wangresearched well, and, at least this first time out, created a look forBalenciaga distinct from that of his signature label.
On thesecond point, while the Alexander Wang aesthetic is very much of thestreet with the inherent casualness thus suggested, for Balenciaga, thedesigner went decidedly more dressed up. These clothes were of the chicPower Lady sort, pulled-together and polished with an attitude ofsensual authority and clear nods to midcentury couture.
Butthen, Wang started from the premise of “really wanting to pay homage toCristóbal. I went back and, you know, started with the archives andrevisiting the clothes and what I thought was integral to the DNA.”
Thattranslated into a mostly black lineup cut with plenty of curvature, inrounded shoulders, sac backs and looks from Balenciaga’s apron weddingdresses; Wang turned the concept around, translating the apron shapeinto cutaway jackets. Not all such moves were intentionally derivative.The first looks out, including a sturdy black coat with fur sleeves,featured rounded back yokes arrived at accidentally during a fitting.“We were pinning the fabric back and I loved the drape, so we worked itinto the sleeve,” Wang said.
He lightened the lineup with flashesof white in shirts worn with lean skirts and some terrific knits with acrackled texture inspired by marble, a theme repeated more obviously inswirling prints and velvet burnouts, and in short, puffed-up minkjackets that looked terrific over skinny pants.
Perhaps mostsurprising, and happily so, this collection didn’t hit you in the facewith the overt commercial mandate that many have assumed was behindWang’s appointment; rather it felt smart, accomplished and welldesigned. As for its retro quotient — probably inevitable, given thecircumstances — Wang delivered it deftly and well. But based on his bodyof work in New York, it’s hard to imagine him embracing obvious retroover the long haul; he may feel compelled to inject a grittier currencygoing forward. Nor did the show offer the heady thrill of NicolasGhesquière’s best work, the brilliance of which brought the house fromdecades of dormancy back into the forefront of fashion until thedesigner’s tenure there started to sour. But for a collection not aminute more than two months in the making from first glimmer to runway,it made for an impressive start.
Certainly the pressures wereconsiderable for several reasons, including the reputation of hispredecessor as one of current fashion’s greatest talents. “Of course,[Ghesquière’s work] is a big part of the brand, of where it’s been. Butin terms of the actual pieces that I looked at, I didn’t look at any ofNicolas’,” Wang said. He did identify clear points of connection whenexamining the archives. “I didn’t even realize certain pieces wereoriginally from Cristóbal,” Wang noted. “Going through [archival] piecesI was like, ‘Wow, look at this seam’ or this back or something likethat. That’s where it originated. For me, someone from my generationwould probably not have put the two and two together. You would probablyknow [the element of design as being] from Nicolas. Going back to that[the discovery], it was really a big, kind of inspirational moment forme.”
Wang savored his research, from which he distilled his takeon the house founder’s ethos, which he described as, “Cristóbal’s beliefin having the body feel very free and always having movement.” Wang wastaken with how different Balenciaga’s clothes looked from variousangles. “[He created] that interaction [with the body]; you have thebell shape, the satellite fit and there was a different silhouette fromevery angle. So we started there, with all the clothes having thisswinging movement, things that felt very dynamic.”
Wang hasdelighted as well in the resources and technologies available to him,exhibited in, for example, the material he used for the pants he pairedwith his furs: velvet bonded to foam and then laser-cut andreembroidered.
A levelheaded sort who in a few short years hasbuilt his namesake house into a successful brand with globaldistribution, Wang transported his cool-headed approach to Paris. Askedabout essential aesthetic delineation between Alexander Wang andBalenciaga, he admits to a process that is incomplete but necessary. “Ican’t say that I have it all figured out,” he said. “On my iPhone I keeplists and lists — just thoughts and key words of things I have to do toseparate the two worlds. I think in time it will become more clear.Yes, definitely, it was something that is very important for me todifferentiate.”
He is already crystal clear on one point: Hisrole as creative director of Balenciaga is to fuel the commercial ship.He picks one of his runway bags — a small, structured shape with ahalf-moon top-handle and metal feet “that look like ice-skating shoes”and follows immediately with, “and here’s the commercial version.” (Ithas a shoulder strap.) His runway shoes ranged from flats to stilettoscut to show toe cleavage.
“Right off the bat, it wasn’t like myfirst meetings were just on designing the collection,” Wang explained.He recalled a discussion with chief executive officer Isabelle Guichot“to kind of understand what’s very important for business and where weneeded to go…I was meeting with the merchandising teams; I was meetingthe handbags teams, the commercial teams and all of that.”
“Allof that” seems not to unnerve him. Nor does his sudden stewardship ofone of the most revered creative legacies in fashion. “I would be lyingif I said I wasn’t [intimidated initially],” Wang acknowledged. “I mean,those were the hardest weeks of my life — going into this before it wasannounced.
“Then at a certain point it was just like, you knowwhat? You have to stop thinking about it and focus on the work,” hecontinued. “You can’t think about it as fear. You have to think about itas a choice. And that is something that is just going to take you anddrive you. At that point I just blocked it out of my mind.”
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