Balenciaga has made its much anticipated return to haute couture.

The French luxury fashion brand has just unveiled its latest fashion show at Paris Couture Week — its first one to present haute couture since its founder Cristóbal Balenciaga closed his eponymous Maison 53 years ago.

The Spanish designer was a giant in the world of haute couture; he was the couturier’s couturier, declared by Christian Dior to be the “conductor” of the other fashion designers in Paris including Hubert de Givenchy and André Courrèges, both of whom he mentored.

It’s that legacy that Demna Gvasalia, Balenciaga’s creative director, sought to highlight in his first haute couture collection for Fall/Winter 2021. “A lot of people don’t even know that Balenciaga is a 100-plus-year-old couture brand,” said the Georgian designer. “They think it’s a brand that started with the Triple S sneaker. So in a way, it’s kind of educational, but also putting in the spotlight what is the most important thing about fashion, and to me couture is the purest expression of that.”

Below, discover what went down at Gvasalia’s Paris Couture Week debut.

The show was held in Balenciaga’s restored couture salons

(Photo credit: @hamishbowles / Instagram)

A historic show deserves a historic address. Balenciaga held its couture presentation in the salons along 10 Avenue George V, which had been closed for more than half a century after its founder retired in 1968. The fashion brand had restored the hallowed salons to how they had looked when Balenciaga first opened his Maison in 1937. The space featured the original elevator and stairs that used to serve couture clients like Bunny Mellon, Babe Paley and Pauline de Rothschild, and it even came “complete with water damage and flaking plasterwork”, according to Hamish Bowles.

Adding to the revered atmosphere was the fact that Gvasalia’s haute couture presentation was held in complete silence — a nod to how Balenciaga had worked on and presented his own collections. “His spirit is somewhere in these walls,” said Gvasalia. “It’s the decay that I always find very beautiful, much more beautiful than something new and freshly made.”

Kanye West was on the front row

(Photo credit: @VVFriedman / Twitter)

Kanye West, a fan of Gvasalia since the designer’s Vetements days, was one of the many famous figures that sat on the front row of the fashion show. The rapper arrived in an outfit that was enough to distract the other guests from the show, including a black version of his sold-out Yeezy x Gap puffer jacket, a pair of Yeezy Foam Runners, and a full face mask. He rubbed shoulders with Formula One race-car driver Lewis Hamilton, as well as supermodel Bella Hadid who had flown in from the Cannes Film Festival. Of course, Anna Wintour was also there to witness the biggest show of the week, and she showed her support by wearing a custom floral dress from the Gucci x Balenciaga collaboration unveiled earlier this year.

The casting was unlike anything seen in couture before

Once again, Gvasalia championed unconventional beauty and diversity through the models that were cast in his show. Instead of a line-up of white women, the show included models across different races, ages and genders, each holding a numbered placard in yet another nod to couture traditions. Most notably, Ella Emhoff, the stepdaughter of US Vice President Kamala Harris, also walked the runway, embodying Gvasalia’s idea of the modern couture client.

“I don’t like standardised beauty in general,” said the designer. “Wearing those kinds of clothes is very new for most of these people, because they have their own style and attitude. But somehow, it gave them this posture that is built-in. And this is what couture does.” You can expect Balenciaga to stick to its unique casting for its future haute couture presentations, which it plans to hold only once a year instead of twice.

The collection riffed on Balenciaga classics…

Fashion enthusiasts would be quick to spot Balenciaga’s signature shapes across Gvasalia’s collection. Many of the looks echoed the master couturier’s iconic creations, from the balloon dress to the cocoon coat. There was also clear references to the immaculate, all-black tailoring that Balenciaga championed during his reign in Paris. A handful models also wore wide-brimmed black hats made by British milliner Philip Treacy. “Hats are very important to the heritage of Balenciaga,” noted Gvasalia. “For almost every collection, every silhouette he would have a hat.”

Cape coats and evening gowns aside, the most exciting pieces from Gvasalia’s haute couture offerings were undoubtedly the wedding dresses. The closing look featured a long, translucent veil and simple yet sculptural white dress — a dead ringer for Balenciaga’s 1967 wedding gown.

… With a modern twist

“I didn’t want it to be a tribute or look only like an homage to the heritage, because that would mean that I stay only in the past,” said Gvasalia about his haute couture debut. That explained some of the surprises on the runway, such as a heavily embellished gown whose voluminous skirt opened up at the back to reveal a practical pair of pants, or the otherwise everyday denim ensembles that were made from couture-level materials such as hand-loomed Japanese denim and real silver buttons.

The feathered coat above, for example, also reflected the sustainable ethos of fashion today. Instead of using fur, feathers, or alternatives made of plastic fibres, Gvasalia instead used silk thread embroidery to mirror those textures that are so familiar to haute couture. “That’s what couture is for me,” he said. “It’s taking a mundane type of product out of the contemporary fashion wardrobe and making it special, doing that through the material, through craftsmanship, through construction, through the silhouette and all of that.”

Header photo credit: Balenciaga

Pameyla Cambe
Senior Writer
Pameyla Cambe is a fashion and jewellery writer who believes that style and substance shouldn't be mutually exclusive. She makes sense of the world through Gothic novels, horror films and music. Lots of music.