Talk about range: Balenciaga’s Demna, who ditched his surname in 2021, debuted the house’s first couture collection in more than half a century last July, parading it in a hushed salon on the Avenue George V in Paris. A few months later, unveiling his spring 2022 ready-to-wear, he appeared as a character in a bespoke episode of “The Simpsons” that had the fashion crowd in stitches.
“Off we go to the style deprived,” cartoon Demna declared before flying to Springfield to invite the whole town to model his out-there clothes on a Paris runway.
One of fashion’s consummate showmen, capable of gripping runway spectacles, he adapted swimmingly to filmed and digital formats, swinging from CGI-created clones of his fetish model Eliza Douglas for the resort 2022 season to a purposely grainy and lo-fi film by Harmony Korine for fall 2022 meant to suggest a lost Balenciaga show by Demna in the 1990s.
Besides heating up Balenciaga with his supersized silhouettes and underground energy, he’s also emerged as one of fashion’s deepest thinkers and most adroit commentators. His Red Carpet Collection and his Met Gala triumph — covering every buttock and cheekbone of Kim Kardashian West with black hoodie jersey — were studies into the meaning of celebrity, voyeurism and privacy at a time when almost everything is broadcast on social media.
The clones collection posed the question: Are we all sheep, carrying the same bag and wearing the same shoes? The 1990s collection, which looked very of-the-now, asked: Does fashion even change that much?
Needless to say, Demna was always there at the cutting edge of the zeitgeist in 2021, teaming up with his Kering stablemate Alessandro Michele of Gucci to “hack” each others’ collections, in lieu of an ordinary collaboration, and dressing up characters in Fortnite with Balenciaga “skins,” putting the brand in pole position for the headlong dive into the metaverse.
Would it surprise you to know that Demna had the whole year mapped out creatively long before the clock struck midnight on Dec. 31, 2020?
In an interview, the designer reflected on his big year, shared insights into his working methods, and teased a new product introduction:
WWD: Resuming couture at Balenciaga was historic, headline news. How is couture impacting your design work?
Demna: Launching couture made me realize how important it is to have time to make good fashion, to make good clothes. It’s really the importance of time that ready-to-wear simply does not allow us to have anymore. I realize that I need to reduce my ready-to-wear collections in order to have more time on specific products, to have more fitting time, more time as a designer working on adjusting the armholes, thinking about details, fabrics, finishings and all that.
Also, on a personal level, for the first time in years, I really felt absolute confidence in myself. I think it really helped me to gain insights into my own vision and realize, yes, I love it. That’s exactly what I want to do. With couture, I suddenly realized I’m enjoying. I’m not actually fighting and going against the current. I’m doing something I love.
WWD: On the other end of the spectrum, you went for something extremely accessible, “The Simpsons.” Why?
Demna: I always try to find new areas for my vision to manifest and express itself. I had planned this out earlier…it’s something that was part of my long-term narrative in terms of what I wanted to show. I knew that couture was coming in July, which was a very emotional, very serious, very silent moment for me. And then I thought, what comes after that in terms of brand expression needs to be a bit more pop culture and fun and funny, but at the same time, conceptual.
WWD: Hence your Red Carpet Collection, and the spectacle built around “The Simpsons,” staged like a glitzy film premiere.
Demna: With couture, I opened myself and Balenciaga up to the idea of working more with celebrities, and being more out-there somehow. I needed to highlight that question I have about what celebrity means today. It was letting my cast, my models, my assistants, my designers, people from my team, for three seconds to have that celebrity moment. It was playing with those ideas and pop culture in general.
My challenge is always to nourish my audience, the people who follow what I do at Balenciaga, who buy our products and who understand the mind-set that I’m trying to bring. The next time always has to be different, exciting, unexpected — and fun.
WWD: You experimented a lot with brand communication in 2021, including initiatives without any products, like the “feel good” video for winter 2021, showing adorable baby animals, dramatic skies and people hugging. What’s the thinking behind this?
Demna: During this pandemic, we had to face the reality of not being able to do things the way we used to, which is interesting because it brings us out of this comfort zone. Why is it that whenever we come out with a video or a still image, it’s always about the product? That feel-good video, for example, was one of the things where I was, like, “Let’s just not put products in it, let’s just put the message.” It’s also part of the narrative, to bring the message to your audience that corresponds to the vision, which is not necessarily boots, or sneakers or a coat. And the feel-good video just felt so right in that very moment.
Some people didn’t even notice there was no product, because it was such a different format. It was easy and it made people smile. And I think that’s what fashion sometimes forgets about.
WWD: Over the past year, your collection reveals stretched from lo-fi with the lost VHS tape by Harmony Korine, to a cutting-edge video game, “Afterworld: The Age of Tomorrow.” How far ahead do you map all this out?
Demna: The video game and “The Simpsons” project, I discussed this with [Balenciaga chief executive officer] Cédric [Charbit] in March 2020, just when the pandemic was starting and I realized I would need to come up with other ways of showing the collections in the future.
For a lot of these projects, you need more than three, five or six months to make, like for “Afterworld,” it took us almost nine months to make the video game, and “The Simpsons” was also quite unpredictable. So I do have a tendency to start doing my projects in advance. For example, next year is fully planned out.
Of course, there are always surprises and I like to surprise. There’s always space for that. But there is a core. There is a destination, I need to have that. Otherwise, it’s like sitting in a taxi and not knowing where you are heading. That would be weird.
But when it comes to my collections, they just evolved gradually. It’s an evolution. I think the tracksuit jacket I made in my last collection was better than the one before because you keep working on products that are close to your aesthetic and you keep evolving them into a better version. It’s like an iPhone. I don’t know if the iPhone 13 is much better than iPhone 12, but it’s still a little bit better for sure.
WWD: You made quite the splash at the Met Gala by masking yourself and Kim Kardashian West. What was the thinking behind this?
Demna: Does it really mean privacy when I put a mask on my face? Maybe if I do that, yes. But when a celebrity does it, somebody like Kim? The whole Met thing went ballistic, and Halloween was full of costumes that mimicked that. I found it quite interesting the effect it can have. Maybe it wasn’t Kim; maybe it was her body double. Nobody, apart from me, is 100 percent sure. You don’t even need to see the face, because sometimes your body, your shape, your silhouette can be more of a brand than the actual face, and I find that really fascinating from an anthropological point of view.
WWD: How was it for you, being on the beige carpet at the Met?
Demna: It’s like the opposite of my comfort zone. I felt really like I was on a different planet. The mask was really a kind of a shield between me and whatever was happening around, so I could pretend it’s almost not me, because I felt so uncomfortable there. At the same time, I couldn’t see much, and that made me less anxious. It really helped me to survive it in some way.
WWD: There’s a big show-business part of Balenciaga, yet behind the scenes you continue to quietly expand the product universe. What’s next up your extra-long sleeve?
Demna: The fashion segment is really important and has been from the beginning of my chapter at Balenciaga. As a designer, in general, the fashion part is a very important part because I love fashion, I love using fashion to stand out, to be different, to have my own identity. But sometimes it can be quite extreme, it’s definitely not for everyone.
Then there are commercial products that are easy. I call them merch products, you know — T-shirts and sneakers and things like that.
But then there is this other part of clothing that I always love and I actually come from there. You know, the first piece that I really made myself with my hands was a single-breasted, tailored jacket for men. I really come from tailoring in terms of my fashion education, more than from deconstruction, and I kind of miss that a bit. So what’s coming next is this idea of a very classic wardrobe that has no season, is kind of timeless, and in terms of quality is much more elevated than the fashion part, but obviously not as crazy elevated as couture.
I realized I’m missing a layer in my vision for Balenciaga and in the range of products that I do, and that is basically a classic wardrobe. It’s really like a wardrobe in its most classic, sartorial elevated way. Obviously, I do play slightly with fit and proportion, but in a very different way than what we usually do in seasonal collections. So this is one of the main things that I started working on this year, apart from the launch of couture, which is going to be released sometime next year. I’m very excited about that part, which is a very new language in my aesthetic that I don’t think people really are aware of yet.
WWD: Designers find their rewards in many places: press acclaim, business success, cultural relevancy or just seeing people wear their clothes. What drives Demna in this business?
Demna: Every morning, I go into my dressing room and ask myself, “What’s the fashion today? What is it about? What is going to make me feel good today in accordance to my mood, the silhouette and all that?” So this is probably my relationship with fashion, actually really defining my identity in some way.
But I have to say, recently I have noticed something, and maybe this is actually what really drives me rather than being self-centered in the morning about what I’m going to wear.
I saw some kids skating on the streets here in Zurich. The way they were dressed, they looked like me 15 to 20 years ago, in terms of silhouette, in terms of super-long sleeves, an outline that is very specific to me. And those kids were not wearing any of my clothes. There were no brands really. Today, this is almost the style of a generation somehow. It’s not even fashion anymore, it’s just style. I brought something into a mainstream and it actually doesn’t even belong to me anymore. But it’s out there and it lives on its own life on those kids.
Those kinds of things really drive me and make me want to go further, get more out of my comfort zone and do things that end up on other people, somewhere out there. I don’t even know them. Maybe I’ll never see them. But it just becomes this style.