You’ve seen them. Brazenly protruding as their straight-faced wearers circumnavigated their way around the artificial snow mountain of graffitis spelling “THINK BIG”, “40 Rue de Sevres”, and most notably “FW 2018 Balenciaga”, less than a fortnight ago.

You might even be able to trace them back to their inaugural outing under creative director Demna Gvasalia. Their bulging arch was part of Gvasalia’s opening grey skirt suit look for his first collection for the house, unabashedly heralding the arrival of the irreverent insurgent. The Balenciaga hips are truly quite something.

Their alien-like silhouette was a jarring contrast to what the mega French maison of couture roots — or heck, the entirety of commercial fashion — was accustomed to. Yet, they didn’t exactly appear without solid footing either. There’s more to the Balenciaga hips than meets the eye.

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Cristóbal Balenciaga’s 1954 skirt suit vs. Demna Gvasalia’s first look for Balenciaga, Fall 2016. (Images, left to right: Victoria and Albert Museum, Vogue)

Cristóbal Balenciaga, the OG hip exaggerator

Cristóbal Balenciaga was the couture perfectionist who revolutionised clothing into an art of architectural dressing. He was your favourite designers’ favourite designer — Christian Dior dubbed him “the master of us all”, Coco Chanel revered him as “the only real designer”,  Hubert de Givenchy was his protégé — the Margiela of his time, if you will.

The late Spanish designer constantly tested the limits of fabrics, becoming renowned for his multifarious way of moulding them. They’d cocoon, envelope, balloon — anything he touched bent according to his whim. Victoria and Albert Museum’s 2017 blockbuster exhibit Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion paid testament to that. It delved into his fixation with the post-Christian Dior New Look silhouette, displaying his unconventional experiments on the hourglass look.

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Cristóbal Balenciaga’s satin and lace evening dress and bolero, 1947. (Image: Balenciaga)

Rosette Hargrove, a correspondent for the Newspaper Enterprise Association, famously remarked of his avant-garde approach: “Rounded hips, in fact, are fast showing promise of becoming one of the canons of 1939 beauty, rather than the defect women have striven so hard to eliminate these past years. Balenciaga had at least three of his mannequins wearing boned corsets. These simply took inches off their waists and made their hips bulge somewhat disconcertingly to the eyes of the unprepared onlookers.”

Balenciaga’s investigation of the stuck-out hip can be found periodically interspersed within the archives — seen in the ’40s, the ’60s and the ’70s. It was as if Balenciaga couldn’t shake off his obsession with the exaggerated form, continuing to reinvent it every decade or so until his passing in 1972. Little did he know, his obsession would continue to live on.

The hip, as seen by Nicolas Ghesquière and Alexander Wang

Before the iconoclast Gvasalia, there was Nicolas Ghesquière. The former creative director — who led the house for 15 remarkable years before moving to his current post in Louis Vuitton — translated the famed Balenciaga hips into his own belled curve. They were explored in his Fall 2001 double-breasted black blazer; Spring 2003 athleisure-prophetic scuba dress; Spring 2008 sculpted floral foil dresses, to name but a few.

Then there was Alexander Wang. Ghesquière’s abrupt exit in 2013 ushered the young American designer’s entrance. During his brief stint for the house, Wang was handed the baton and he, too, did his take on the nipped-in waist, bulged-out hip via Fall 2015’s polished silk skirts and peplum jacquard tops. Alas, his ambitious offerings of six seasons fell flat in the market, not fulfilling the lucrative prospect his own personal line promised to reflect at the maison. So it was out with Wang, parent company Kering decided.

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Left to right: Nicolas Ghesquiére’s Fall and Alexander Wang’s Fall 2015 collections. (Image: Vogue)

Introducing, Demna’s digital tailoring

Spoiler: Ousting Wang turned out to be Kering’s best decision. In came Demna Gvasalia, who along with his design collective at Vetements was fashion’s buzziest and most exciting enfant terrible. Everyone was excited. Industry insiders were excited. Sales people were definitely excited. This was the creative, and euro-spouting, breakthrough Balenciaga was looking for.

After examining the Balenciaga archive for six months, the creative director asserted at the time: “How do you persuade a woman to wear a two-piece suit who is not the German Chancellor?” His answer came in his debut proposition of the hip for Fall 2016. He offered them in the form of excellent tailoring, with shoulders perched slightly forwards, and a trim waist which then swelled over the hips, courtesy of OTT padding.

His irreverent play on Cristóbal’s codes followed through the ensuing seasons to critical acclaim. Gvasalia delivered lycra pantashoes (an acknowledged portmanteau of pants and shoes), fluoro puffer jackets slipped just right off the shoulders, kitschy shopper bags, plastic-sliced denim jackets, car wing mirrors as clutches, and the bizarre list goes on.

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The new seamless, 3D-printed Balenciaga hips, perfected by Demna Gvasalia for Fall 2018.

With every collection he showed, Gvasalia’s ingeniously surreal vision became clearer. But it wasn’t until the recent Fall 2018 show that Demna Gvasalia opted to take the plunge with technology. He tabled digital tailoring.

A maelstrom of curvaceous outerwear marched into view, hips first. This time, their otherworldly bloat was smoother, more defined. Thanks to 3D-printing, they were seamless, literally. Albeit not the first to utilise the high-tech advancement — there were Iris Van Herpen’s extraterrestrial gowns and Chanel’s Fall 2015 tweed couture suits — Gvasalia’s had to be the most commercially convincing.

How exactly did he execute it? In the polymath’s own words: “For the first time, I did digital fittings on a laptop. We 3D-scanned bodies and then we altered the shapes in files, 3D-printed them and actually made moulds. The tailoring part that you see is all printed. There are only two seams on the side and the arm hole. There are no darts, there is no construction, and it’s only one layer of fabric.”

We might just be looking at the clothing of the future.

(Main and featured images: Alessandro Garofalo)