Drumroll, please. The moment everyone's been waiting for all season finally arrived this morning. Alexander Wang made his Balenciaga debut in the house's intimate salons on the Avenue George V. The TV crews weren't quite as thick as they were at Raf Simons' first couture show for Dior last July, but they were a significant presence nonetheless—a reminder that fashion is a story of national consequence in France. Inside, the atmosphere was more subdued, but that seemed quite intentional. At a preview yesterday, Wang confirmed what the show venue suggested: "I'm going back to the roots, identifying the codes of the house, and translating them into a functioning, full wardrobe," he said.
A modest plan, perhaps, but no simple task. Plenty have wondered if Wang was up to the challenge of Balenciaga, asking what a twenty-nine-year-old New York-based maker of elevated street wear could bring to the table at one of fashion's most vaunted couture houses. Dior, remember, called Balenciaga "the master of us all." Wang didn't come unprepared. Despite a tight time frame—according to the press office, he began working on this collection in January—the designer has clearly made a study of the brand's archives. The show felt true to Cristóbal's lines. Cocoon coats, jackets with rounded volumes, petal skirts, molded peplums, bracelet sleeves—they all made respectful appearances here.
Wang's runway was faux marble, and it became one of the show's ongoing tropes—a paean, apparently, to the sculptural quality of Cristóbal Balenciaga's clothes, not to mention the monolithic legacy. A marble print first showed up as the lining of elegant tops that spilled open at the back, then as a motif on a bullion-embroidered dress and tailleurs as elaborately embellished as couture, and finally as intarsias on looks that felt the most evocative of Wang's own house style: tiny shaved fox jackets worn with high-waisted velvet lace pants. Shoes with deep toe cleavage and skinny T-straps also reproduced the pattern. Those heels looked a little clumsy, but his first bag, a box clutch with a silver frame handle, was more promising.
Some in the audience said Wang's collection didn't have the shock of the new that even Nicolas Ghesquière's earliest shows for the label did. That may well be true. But if the silhouettes hewed closely to the house's rigorous lines, Wang fused technology and technique to come up with compelling new textiles. The cracked, paint-spackled mohair knits were some of the best things on the catwalk; they made for a nice metaphor, too, about the promise of a young designer ready to break with the past when the time's right.
At the end, Wang came out for his bow in a brisk walk rather than the headlong rush that's become a feature of his New York shows. It seemed an acknowledgment of sorts that the task of helming this historic house is more of a marathon than a sprint. It would be good to see some more of his own personality in the mix next time, but all in all, this was a sure-footed start.