Designer departs from storied house. Hasn’t Kering been there and done that recently, when it replaced Gucci’s Frida Giannini with Alessandro Michele? Yet here we go again, with Alexander Wang leaving Balenciaga after what seems like a truncated stay, despite completion of his three-year contract.
Whatever the reasons behind the split, it’s safe to assume that if both sides had been delighted with the relationship, they’d have found a way to continue on despite Wang’s understandable interest in building his own brand and seeking the revenue with which to do so. (WWD reported this week that he’s close to signing a deal with General Atlantic, the growth equity firm headed by William Ford.)
Wang is now on to the rest of his life and career, an extremely talented and still-young designer. He got a bit of a raw deal from the moment the ink was dry on his Balenciaga contract, not from Kering but from the legions of onlookers who opined about the gravitas of the house codes and whether a guy with a youth-oriented, street-centric aesthetic could rise to the occasion. Suddenly, Wang wasn’t a gifted, savvy designer who’d launched his brand within a strata that made sense for his audience, but a T-shirt designer, contemporary designer, insert-your-intentionally-derogatory-modifier designer daring to take on one of the most hallowed names of French fashion.
While Wang did indeed assume the mantle of Balenciaga, the codes that really mattered were those of Nicolas Ghesquière who, at the height of his tenure, returned the house from nowhere to the pinnacle of influence and importance. Yes, Ghesquière referenced the work of Cristóbal Balenciaga; it was fascinating to hear him discuss his applications. But except for a few overt cases (the hyper-sculpted fall 2006 collection) the customer wouldn’t necessarily make the connection or care. Ghesquière’s Balenciaga was about elevated, elegant rock-’n’-roll futurism — with an inventive handbag and sculptural shoes that had nothing to do with the house founder.
Balenciaga exists today as a fashion entity because of Ghesquière’s boldly modernist Lazarus act, not because there’d been a clamor to revive mid-century haute constructions. While I have no scientific verification, it’s safe to say that only a tiny percentage of designer customers today could state anything significant about the work of Cristóbal Balenciaga, and even less so the larger fashion-interested public. Of course, there are hyper-educated fashion purists out there, but hardly enough to support a house revival based on archival accuracy.
In fact, I would argue that while house codes can provide structure and grounding to a designer walking into a situation not his or her own, they don’t matter dramatically as a selling point. We want the clothes we want because we want them, not because they have a collar that related to one introduced in 1953. Exhibits A and B: Givenchy and Céline. The obvious antithetical argument is Chanel. But, under Karl Lagerfeld’s stewardship for so long, Chanel operates in a magical vacuum of its own. Who knows whether, had Alain Wertheimer made a different call 30-plus years ago, hiring a different designer (who likely would have been the first of several), the codes that Lagerfeld has invoked, profaned and ultimately modernized over the years would still scream fashion as they do now?
All of which will make this next Kering hire so interesting. Ghesquière (now creative director for Louis Vuitton) created a memorable aesthetic for Balenciaga. For whatever reason, Wang — who did very good work for the house — didn’t establish a look that resonated instantly. In that respect, he provided something of a palette-cleanser that may allow the next designer in to work more freely, beyond the shadow of Ghesquière.
Yet there are other shadows to negotiate. The fractured relationship with Wang aside, Kering has been on a provocative hiring joyride of late, enlisting the famous, Hedi Slimane at Saint Laurent, and the anonymous, Alessandro Michele at Gucci. So far, both have been wild successes.
Along with ample external appropriation, Slimane incorporates house codes, fiercely twisting elements of storied chic into gritty currency, appalling some observers while awing others. Whatever one’s take on his fashion — and he’s triggered updates on that age-old question of just what is fashion, anyway? — his Saint Laurent has become the darling of those retailers who have it and the holy grail (and envy) of those who don’t.
Light years from Slimane’s Saint Laurent, Michele has positioned his Gucci in fashion’s lyrical sphere. With just four collections — two men’s, two women’s and one of those, resort — he has spawned an utterly new, gentle look. While Michele has said he wants to incorporate elements of the Tom Ford Gucci codes into his work, so far, the two sensibilities couldn’t be further apart. One could argue that Ford’s aesthetic was based on sex and on telegraphing one’s sexuality through fashion, and that two decades later, Michele’s exploration of gender identity, particularly on the men’s side, furthers that discussion. But that’s an intellectual conversation (or, if you prefer, pseudo-intellectual; this is fashion). The fact is that the high heat of Ford’s Gucci and the gentility we’ve seen early on from Michele have little to do with each other. The one point of fusion: Ford struck a cultural nerve and exploded it into commercial success; Michele has found quick critical acclaim while playing to a larger cultural issue, with his first retail test in stores now.
Similarly, the Saint Laurent and Gucci of today share something intense: buzz. With Slimane having set the bar and Michele ascending to it immediately, instant, extreme buzz may be the norm — and perhaps the new must — for Kering hires. Wang didn’t create similar frenzy at Balenciaga. (His eponymous thrill factor remains in tact.) Whether that factored into his departure, who knows? It’s likely that his successor will have to deal with the shadows of Slimane and Michele, and their castings may prove more imposing than that of an intricately constructed cocoon coat.