Cosmonauts and seventies Formica. Packaging and food boxes. Synthetic foam and plywood. Sleeping bags and biscuits. "I was working on something domestic. Casual things mixed with classic. And a kind of rigidity," said Nicolas Ghesquière, listing some of the extraordinary imagery and manipulations of materials and color that went into Balenciaga's computer-age vision of couture.
Geometric, collaged, stiff yet rounded, and composed of zones of matte and shine, with cashmere dimpled to look like industrial foam and fur shaved into quilting, the components of the first coats alone were difficult enough to absorb at a glance. Then there were the shoes: block-heeled loafers and brogues with the soles encased in chunks of plastic. The fact that his work defies easy categorization—and there is so much in it that reminds the brain of things it's seen before, but isn't quite like them at all—is the hallmark of Ghesquière's complex methodology. It takes innovation to a place where "knitwear" turns into molded shifts and bunchily belted tops laid out in blocks of oddly bright colors—pale blue, tangerine, brown, and aqua—or is micro-padded in geometric patterns that might have originated in bubble wrap. It makes delicate "lace" dresses out of machine-perforated fabric, trimmed with embroidery ("like French biscuits!" Ghesquière laughed). It pushes silhouettes to do unfamiliar things: creating "wings" in the backs of dresses, or making triangular paper-printed tops that unfurl with a zipper in the front of skinny-legged salopettes.
This is fashion by a unique originator who sources all his ideas in the industrial, scientific, computer-generated possibilities of the twenty-first century. In different hands, it could be a predictable route to sci-fi fantasy or clichéd presentiments of a futuristic dystopia—but that is exactly what Balenciaga isn't. The aesthetic Ghesquière has launched with the aid of new machinery and haute traditional needlework techniques is recognizably Parisian, chic, optimistic, and of today. Some might call him out on the issue of wearability in certain areas, but fashion desperately needs experimenting talents like his to push things forward—and he did that with extraordinary skill today.