PARIS – When Kim Kardashian West arrived at the 2021 Met Gala wearing a black Balenciaga bodysuit and dress covering every inch of her figure – including her very famous face – some onlookers were quick to suggest designer Demna Gvasalia and the superstar social media ignored the evening. theme, “In America: A Fashion Lexicon.”
On closer inspection, however, you could tell that Kardashian’s look followed the dress code to the letter: over her bodysuit, she wore a T-shirt (“What could be more American than that?” asked New York-based creative director Paul Cupo. ). And Gvasalia’s decision to hide Kardashian’s face and cover her in black has reduced her to a silhouette, a name, a signifier waiting to be activated – underscoring her role as one of the most powerful marketing vessels of modern American fashion.
The move was a coup. By covering it up, Gvasalia brought even more attention to one of the world’s most famous women and, by extension, Balenciaga. That observers perceive the look as both something and its opposite was typical of Gvasalia: her vision of fashion is both luxury and street; both one of the simplest and most multi-layered proposals in fashion.
Since Vetements founder Gvasalia took over as creative helm at Balenciaga in 2015, followers of his vision have witnessed a bold and persistent experimentation with construction and silhouettes, with spectacles that have elevated and subverted contemporary dress codes while lobbying socio-political criticism.
“Just like that, Balenciaga is back,” wrote critic Cathy Horyn after seeing her debut range, which introduced chunky puffer jackets thrown over the shoulders like opera coats, updated skirts and an approach to Margiela type to rework found objects. like market bags and thrift store hippie dresses. Then there was the sinister palette of carnation pink, princess purple and cadmium red, which alongside highlighter yellow remain the brand’s signature colors.
In Gvasalia’s hands, Balenciaga – whose founder, Cristobal, is said to have invented modern couture – then applied the house’s long tradition of experimenting with volume to items like oversized hoodies, jeans and sneakers, rolling out composed everyday pieces to the runway -ready proportions. By planting the Balenciaga flag on the burgeoning categories of streetwear and luxury sneakers, and treating them as worthy of design attention (and consumer dollars) as stilettos or a party dress. , Gvasalia “has changed the trajectory of this brand in the long term,” Chief Chief Executive Officer Cédric Charbit told BoF. “To redefine Balenciaga is to help redefine luxury.”
But as the company grew, Gvasalia became better known as a merchandise and sneaker brand to many consumers, who encountered the label primarily through logo t-shirts, sweatshirts hoodies, caps and “Triple S” and “Speed” shoes that were driving sales. .
Despite runways that evolved into couture with huge bell-shaped crinoline dresses and leggings of medieval armor, the ubiquity of Balenciaga’s products – both on the streets and tagged by hypebeasts on social media social – risked dominating the brand’s fashion message. The aggressive marketing of sneakers by multi-brand e-retailers has certainly boosted sales but added to the growing risk of dilution of the brand’s DNA.
“In luxury, the brand must be bigger than any product,” said artistic director Fabien Baron. “It’s a pyramid. To widen at the base, you need to polish the top.
A recent communication campaign helped rebalance the Balenciaga brand, ushering in what Charbit and Gvasalia call its “new era”. A best-selling couture collection drawn from the brand’s 104-year history, making iconic silhouettes relevant while elevating its current iconic shapes like jeans, t-shirts and hoodies to couture level. This was followed by a return to the red carpet, where Balenciaga dressed stars at the Cannes Film Festival and the Met Gala (including Rihanna, Tracee Ellis Ross and Micaela Cole in addition to Kardashian) for the first time in five years.
These changes have helped restore the primacy of Balenciaga’s high-quality heritage and avant-garde creative message to its successful products. Meanwhile, a star-studded campaign with Isabelle Huppert and Justin Bieber ensures that commercial items like her Runner sneakers and Hourglass handbags are never far from sight.
“We want to be clearer that Balenciaga is both streetwear and couture,” said Charbit, speaking from his office at the brand’s Paris headquarters, which shares a campus with owner Kering in a restored hospital complex. of the 17th century. “Very few brands have a high fashion positioning with the kind of archives and rich history that we have. It’s important to celebrate that.”
Streetwear, couture and ultra-bankable: under Gvasalia and Charbit, sales have exploded. The group (whose other brands include Gucci, Bottega Veneta and Saint Laurent) does not detail Balenciaga’s revenues, but in 2019 Chairman and CEO François-Henri Pinault praised the brand for crossing the billion-euro mark. annual sales. Its turnover has since exceeded 1.5 billion euros, according to market sources, which means that Balenciaga has overtaken Bottega Veneta to become the group’s third brand.
The pandemic has hardly slowed Balenciaga down. Even as revenues in the wider luxury sector fell 23% in 2020, according to consultancy Bain, white-hot branding, e-commerce know-how and accelerating precariousness in the broader fashion market have helped Balenciaga drive both sales growth and improved margins. for the full year.
Sales are now roughly split in thirds between handbags, shoes and apparel, while the split between womenswear and menswear is about 50-50, according to Charbit. That same breakdown might suggest weaker activity in womenswear and bags than many of its large-scale luxury peers, but it’s a balance that Charbit defends as “healthy and cohesive for a modern luxury brand.”
“We’ve seen an explosion in demand for this brand across all categories,” said Sam Lobban, Nordstrom’s senior vice president of design and new concepts. Track and Triple S styles took hold in the business alongside sock-like Speed sneakers, while a “massive rise” in the Hourglass bag reduced focus on “City” motorcycle bags. and “Neo City” (descendants of the Lariat style that has driven the company for over a decade after being introduced by former creative director Nicolas Ghesquière in 2001).
As it enters its “new era”, Balenciaga has not only invested in couture and red carpet marketing, but in expanding its retail footprint, targeting larger and more visible stores, including including openings at Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles, IAPM in Shanghai. , Miami’s Design District and Sloane Street in London. A three-storey megastore in London is currently under construction on a prime stretch of New Bond Street.
The brand has also stepped up its internet marketing, adding to the clever campaigns – including parodies of celebrities hiding from the paparazzi or dystopian newscasts – that have long been the brand’s hallmark.
When physical shows were suspended due to the pandemic, a viral web video took over, followed by an entire collection released via video game last December. This fall, the brand delved deeper into the metaverse, teaming up with Epic Games’ Fortnite to bring players a collection of virtual looks that can be purchased in the hit game. “The way they’ve built all of these touchpoints is really quite impressive,” Lobban said.
While the Met Gala had revived Balenciaga’s research, Google Trends shows that the launch of Fortnite leads to a much more dramatic increase.
Even before the pandemic scuttled several seasons of traditional in-person shows, sending stablemates of Kering like Gucci, Bottega Veneta and Saint Laurent to experiment with new rhythms and formats, Balenciaga had been toying with how and when to present its collections. The brand often featured men and women together, combining the pre-collections with the main season or reversing when the collections were shown.
Going forward, the brand plans to spread communication investments more evenly across four key ready-to-wear moments of the year, avoiding the industry’s long-standing default that trade collections arriving in May and December should be smaller and less creative than those set. for delivery in February and July.
“There’s been such a big gap between the pre-collections – where you just shoot against a cyclorama backdrop and send the lookbook to Vogue Runway – and the multi-million dollar catwalk collection where you really get into it. It’s not cool,” Charbit said.
With fashion editors, buyers and celebrities invited here to Paris for the first in-person ready-to-wear week since March 2020, Balenciaga’s show is set to be one of the most anticipated events of the season as the brand is aiming to continue its hit high fashion runway and Met Gala exit that won the red carpet. The house has been mostly silent on the details of the event which will take place on Saturday evening at the Théâtre du Châtelet. “Expect the unexpected,” Charbit said.
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