PARIS — Chinese clients were unable to travel to Paris for Balenciaga’s triumphant return to haute couture in July, so the house instead brought its most exclusive creations to Shanghai for a five-day event that kicked off on Friday.
It marks the first time that Balenciaga has staged an event in Mainland China, and also the first time the couture collection has been shown outside of Paris, reflecting the strategic importance of the territory, where Balenciaga has 39 stores and a cult following among fashion-conscious consumers, according to chief executive officer Cédric Charbit.
“It’s a strong signal,” he told WWD in an exclusive interview. “The influence of China is everywhere — aesthetically, economically, culturally and in fashion — so it was important for us to be present in this market with the top of the pyramid in terms of Balenciaga’s offer.”
The brand is riding high after registering a daily record for sales worldwide last Monday for the launch of its Hacker Project, featuring pieces that reinterpret the codes of fellow Kering-owned brand Gucci. The capsule collection was sold in 14 pop-ups in Mainland China, logging strong sales in Beijing, Chengdu and Wuhan.
Due to the ongoing travel restrictions linked to the coronavirus pandemic, neither Charbit nor creative director Demna Gvasalia were able to attend the couture presentation at the Tank Shanghai museum.
“As China isn’t able to travel to Europe, either, I felt it was our duty to bring the Balenciaga 50th couture collection there,” the designer, who has announced he wants to be known by his first name only, said in a statement.
“I’m proud to share with China this very important moment celebrating the culture, craftsmanship and heritage of Balenciaga in an exhibition featuring my first couture collection,” he added.
Charbit noted that with less than 15 years’ presence in the market, Balenciaga is a relative newcomer to China, meaning that its communications have focused mainly on the artistic vision of Demna, who arrived in late 2015.
Now the brand is ready to talk about its 104-year history. The invitation-only museum exhibition included an environment inspired by Balenciaga’s recently restored historic couture salon and atelier at 10 Avenue George V in Paris: think beige drapes, pale carpet and sculptural furniture.
In a dramatic circular showroom space, 18 looks from the collection presented in July were displayed alongside an outfit created exclusively for the event. A further 11 looks could be found in a bespoke dressing suite consisting of a salon for clients to view pieces; a walled-off podium for taking measurements, and a changing area.
“The set design is highly experiential and immersive, very monumental and spectacular, yet also highly intimate,” said Charbit. “The importance of Balenciaga in China is such today that it’s important to view the brand afresh within its global context, encompassing both the contemporary aspect, and also our origins.”
While he declined to disclose figures, the executive indicated the Chinese market is on fire.
“It’s the country that’s seen the strongest growth at Balenciaga since my arrival,” said Charbit, who took over in 2016. “It’s a leading market both in terms of size and revenues, but also from a qualitative perspective. Our community is extremely sophisticated. It’s the country that has the highest share of ready-to-wear.”
Accordingly, Balenciaga chose China to unveil the first store worldwide featuring its new retail concept. The two-story flagship at the IAPM mall in Shanghai, spanning more than 7,500 square feet, carries women’s and men’s ready-to-wear, accessories, footwear and children’s clothes.
“It’s our biggest store in China,” said Charbit, who praised his local teams for their capacity to execute the most advanced aspects of the brand’s strategy.
“This concept is very interesting because it’s both extremely raw, and at the same time very luxurious,” he said of the store design, which blends raw concrete, exposed ceilings and fluorescent strip lighting with sleek display units and a striking red installation by artist Pia Camil.
“Since Demna and I arrived, I’ve seen Chinese audiences connect instantly to his creative vision. I’ve found it outstanding to see the level of sophistication of the clientele, their connection to the ready-to-wear, and their response to the unconventional and unique side of our creative proposition,” he added. “The performance of Balenciaga in China is dazzling.”
Having increased its store network from seven to 39 in five years, the brand will now focus on honing its presence by optimizing the size and location of its boutiques. With a two-day couture preview, and three days of fittings with one-on-one appointments, the Shanghai event is designed to deepen the brand’s relationship with its top customers.
Charbit said the women’s and men’s haute couture collection, the first since founder Cristóbal Balenciaga retired 53 years ago, immediately resonated with the brand’s clients worldwide.
“We’ve seen extremely strong interest from both men and women of all ages, and quite unexpectedly, both a classic couture clientele but also celebrities and collectors,” he said. “People are interested in our heritage and craftsmanship but also in the fact that this comeback is historic, so anyone who’s interested in fashion and its history understands the importance of this presentation.”
The Balenciaga couture team in Paris trained experts in Shanghai to take clients’ measurements and explain the history of each outfit. “It’s extraordinary what you can pass on remotely. Everything was done by video call,” Charbit said. “The know-how and the capacity to understand each other was quite natural.”