Now that social media has made us all famous, it can be hard to say what fame actually means. Does it mean a lot of followers? A career doing things that are special, or at least things everyone cares about? Perhaps it’s about a kind of magnetism.
Or is it in fact simply the culture of fame—the things that float around it—that define it? That’s what I started thinking at the Balenciaga show on Saturday night, in which the fashion audience, usually in the position of judge and curator, was pretty brilliantly swapped into the role of star and then, just as quickly, lulled back into the thankless role of spectator. The evening began with an uncanny red carpet, with attendees doing a step-and-repeat in front of screaming photographers either on purpose or because they accidentally went the wrong way. It was a testament to creative director Demna Gvasalia’s ability to take the most banal archetypes and make you question their reality. It was really just like fame itself: sometimes you court it and sometimes a bunch of people just take photos of you looking stupid! There was a huge throng of French teenagers outside screaming, trying to tell the difference between faceless fashion editors and actual celebrities like Elliot Page and Offset and Cardi B; and once inside the Theatre du Chatelet, a Haussmann-era opera house, guests sunk down in their velvet chairs and looked up at the screen, where the red carpet scrum outside was being streamed. Suddenly, a classic Balenciaga looker in a hysterically-sized black gown appeared, and a number of attendees on the second and third tiers of the balcony, many of them Balenciaga employees, began screaming and clapping. Oh, we all realized at once. The red carpet procession was the show.
Some of these models were actual celebrities, while others, including many Balenciaga employees, were just treated like them, which made it pointless to tell the difference. It underscored the uncanny way that the red carpet has solidified into an industry unto itself: it is the show, it is the event. The award shows, dinners, and parties pale in significance to the confluence of power and the muscular messaging that happen when a celebrity puts on an outfit, takes a few steps, and then pauses and smiles and preens.
This is apparently a concept Gvasalia has wanted to do for a while now, but the timing—as well as the sheer monstrous energy around Balenciaga right now—says something interesting about where his ambitions lie. There are designers who tell us where to go, and designers who reflect the world back at us. Gvasalia, now in his sixth year at the house, does both. Just a few years ago, he was the white-hot guy who yanked luxury towards streetwear. He brought weirdness, hoodies, and ambiguity to the runway, and seemed to get off on unsettling average joes and titillating consumers with fancy Crocs and Ikea bags. But he’s begun something totally different over the past year or so—embracing Kim Kardashian as a vector for his vision, infiltrating the metaverse, making couture the center of his creative output, creating fashion performance art with Kanye West. And it’s an ambition so broad that only something truly populist, truly cross-generational, truly global in appeal could adequately convey.
Which is why the second half of the show was a special 10-minute Balenciaga-fied episode of The Simpsons.
After Gvasalia took a sort of bow in a blacked-out fit that recalled his Met Gala look, the lights went down and we were suddenly in Springfield. The short was jam-packed with fashion world deprecation, a rare thing in these self-serious fashion times (or actually ever). Homer forgets Marge’s birthday, so he steals a fashion magazine out from her arm as she naps and finds that she’s earmarked a Balenciaga dress: “Someday,” she’s written. After Homer composes a confusing email, some corporate type decides to send them a 19,000 euro dress. Homer agrees to let Marge wear it for just half an hour, after which she returns it with a note about how much wearing the dress around boring old Springfield meant to her: “I’ll always remember those 30 minutes of feeling special.” After Gvasalia reads the letter and weeps—“This is the saddest thing I’ve ever read, and I grew up in the Soviet Union!”—he exclaims, “This is exactly the type of woman I want to reach!” So he heads to “fashion-deprived Springfield” and stages a fashion show with the town’s citizens—the true normies who are in fact society’s greatest eccentrics, as both Balenciaga and The Simpsons have made history out of suggesting. When the lights went up back in Paris, the audience gave Gvasalia a standing ovation.
It was incredibly sweet, even heartwarming—shockingly so, for a designer whose work at Balenciaga often seems to confirm the bleak ugliness of contemporary life. (He seems to be in a new and exorbitantly tender place: he sent Cardi B a floral arrangement nearly the size of her, along with a Birkin bag.) But the clip also quite brilliantly, and very lovingly, suggested a wild new direction for Balenciaga: a newly inclusive, egalitarian approach to fashion being broadcast from the highest echelon of the industry.
Balenciaga minted its reputation by scooping up weirdos from art world-adjacent communities. If you live in New York, LA, or Berlin, you were always hearing that your cool writer or artist friend was doing some freelance project for the brand, and it quickly became beloved in particular by gallerists and fashion types who felt ambivalent about the obviousness of luxury fashion. Its specialty was a Jeff Koons-ian ability to sell incredibly expensive versions of totally normal, even archetypal things with a dubiously earnest smile. But sometimes around 2019—with the Spring 2020 show staged in an anonymized center of world power—the temper of its clothing began to shift to strange gowns and experimental suits. It became more formal, more glamorous, more freakish. The couture show in July was the apex of this new narrative, and Saturday evening’s collection (ostensibly Summer 2022) was jammed with lumpy and oversize tailoring, which now appears to be the central practice of the house. Its suits get weirder and more off, the jackets bigger and more wrong. Concurrently, the brand has suddenly begun dressing celebrities—everyone from Huppert and Kardashian to Michaela Coel and Justin Bieber. I can’t think of another brand that has that kind of red carpet range, except for Giorgio Armani’s hold on the industry back in the 1990s. But that was because Armani was a standard of muted allure, the perfect uniform for the insecure egos of Hollywood. Balenciaga, instead, thrives on celebrating its wearers’ oddities, draping Huppert in a velour tube instead of a feather boa, or plunking Page in monstrous gothic Crocs.