The vision of the company behind the “new era” of Balenciaga | BoF Professional, News and Insights

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 that designer Demna Gvasalia and the superstar social media had ignored the theme night, “In America: A Fashion Lexicon.”

On closer inspection, however, one could argue that Kardashian’s look followed the dress code to the letter: over her bodysuit, she was wearing a T-shirt (“What’s more American than that?” New York Creative Director Paul Cupo.). And Gvasalia’s decision to hide Kardashian’s face and cover her in black reduced her to a figure, a name, a signifier waiting to be activated – underscoring her role as one of the most powerful marketing vessels in the world. modern American fashion.

The movement was a hit. By covering her up, Gvasalia drew even more attention to one of the most famous women in the world and, by extension, Balenciaga. That observers perceive the look as both something and its opposite was typical of Gvasalia: her view of fashion is both luxury and the street; both one of the most simple and multi-layered proposals in fashion.

Since Vetements founder Gvasalia took over the creative direction of Balenciaga in 2015, followers of his vision have witnessed daring and persistent experiments with construction and silhouettes, with shows that have elevated and subverted dress codes. contemporaries while putting pressure on socio-political criticism.

“Just like that, Balenciaga is back,” wrote reviewer Cathy Horyn after seeing her debut line-up, which featured voluminous puffer jackets thrown over the shoulders like opera coats, updated skirts and an approach. at La Margiela to rework the found objects. like market bags and hippie dresses from thrift stores. Then there was the ominous palette of carnation pink, princess purple, and cadmium red, which, along with highlighter yellow, remain the brand’s signature colors.

CEO of Balenciaga, Cédric Charbit. Thomas Lohr for BoF.

In Gvasalia’s hands, Balenciaga – whose founder Cristobal is believed to have invented modern couture – then applied the house’s long tradition of experimenting with volumes to items like hoodies, jeans and oversized sneakers, deploying everyday pieces made up to the track -proportions ready. By planting the Balenciaga flag on the burgeoning categories of luxury streetwear and sneakers, and treating them as worthy of design attention (and consumer money) as stilettos or an evening dress, Gvasalia “has changed the trajectory of this brand in the long term,” CEO Cédric Charbit told BoF. “To redefine Balenciaga is to redefine luxury. “

But as the business grew, Gvasalia became better known as a merchandise and sneaker brand to many consumers, who encountered the brand mainly through logo t-shirts, sweatshirts. hoodies, caps and shoes “Triple S” and “Speed” which generated the sales. .

Despite the catwalks that evolved into couture with huge bell-shaped crinoline dresses and medieval armor leggings, the ubiquity of Balenciaga products – both on the street and tagged by hypebeasts on social media – risked dominating the brand’s fashion message. The aggressive marketing of sneakers by multi-brand e-merchants has certainly boosted sales but has added to the growing risk of dilution of the brand’s DNA.

“In luxury, the brand has to be bigger than any product,” said artistic director Fabien Baron. “It’s a pyramid. In order to widen at the base, you need to polish the top.

A recent communications campaign has helped rebalance the Balenciaga brand, ushering in what Charbit and Gvasalia call its “new era”. A successful couture collection, deeply rooted in the brand’s 104-year past, making iconic silhouettes relevant while elevating current iconic shapes like jeans, t-shirts and hoodies to the level of the sewing. 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.

Balenciaga Fall 2021 Haute Couture Looks.  Balenciaga.

Balenciaga Fall 2021 Haute Couture Looks. Balenciaga.

These measures have helped restore the primacy of Balenciaga’s high-quality heritage and forward-thinking creative message on its successful products. At the same time, a star-studded campaign starring Isabelle Huppert and Justin Bieber ensures that commercial items like her Runner sneakers and Hourglass handbags are never far from view.

“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 inside. ‘a restored 17th century hospital complex. “Very few brands have a high fashion positioning with the kind of archives and rich history that we have. It is important to celebrate it.

Streetwear, couture and very bankable: under Gvasalia and Charbit, sales have exploded. The group (whose other brands include Gucci, Bottega Veneta and Saint Laurent) does not distribute revenue for Balenciaga, but in 2019, Chairman and CEO François-Henri Pinault congratulated the brand for crossing the billion mark. euros of annual turnover. Its turnover has since exceeded 1.5 billion euros, according to market sources, meaning that Balenciaga has overtaken Bottega Veneta to become the group’s third brand.

The pandemic has hardly slowed down Balenciaga. Even though revenues in the broader luxury sector fell 23% in 2020, according to consultancy firm Bain, a white-hot brand image, e-commerce know-how and acceleration of the Insecurity in the wider fashion market has helped Balenciaga drive both sales growth and improved margins. for the full year.

Sales are now roughly three-thirds apart between handbags, shoes and apparel, while the split between women’s and men’s clothing is around 50-50, according to Charbit. That same breakdown might suggest a womenswear and bags company weaker than many of its large-scale luxury peers, but it’s a balance Charbit advocates as “healthy and consistent for a modern luxury brand.”

“We have seen an explosion in demand for this brand across all categories,” said Sam Lobban, senior vice president of design and new concepts at Nordstrom. Track and Triple S styles have settled into the business alongside the sock-like Speed ​​sneakers, while a “massive rise” in the Hourglass bag has reduced the emphasis on “City motorcycle bags. “and” Neo City “(descendants of the Lariat style that led the business for more than a decade after being introduced by former creative director Nicolas Ghesquière in 2001).

The new location of the Balenciaga store on Bond Street in London.  Getty Images.

Balenciaga’s new store on Bond Street in London. Getty Images.

As it enters its ‘new era’, Balenciaga has not only invested in couture and red carpet marketing, but also in expanding its retail presence, targeting larger stores and more visible, including openings on Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles, IAPM in Shanghai, the Design District in Miami and Sloane Street in London. A three-story London megastore is currently under construction on a main stretch of New Bond Street.

The brand has also improved its internet marketing, adding to clever campaigns – including parodies of celebrities hiding from paparazzi or dystopian TV news – which have long been a hallmark of the brand.

When physical parades were put on hold due to the pandemic, a viral web video took over, followed by an entire collection released via a video game last December. This fall, the brand took a deeper dive into the metaverse, teaming up with Epic Games’ Fortnite to bring gamers a collection of virtual looks that can be purchased in the hit game. “The way they’ve built all of these touchpoints is really pretty impressive,” Lobban said.

While the Met Gala had lifted the research on Balenciaga, Google Trends shows that the launch of Fortnite resulted in a much more dramatic surge.

Skins from Balenciaga's Fortnite collaboration.  Courtesy.

Skins from Balenciaga’s Fortnite collaboration. Courtesy.

Even before the pandemic scuttled several seasons of traditional in-person catwalks, sending Kering colleagues like Gucci, Bottega Veneta and Saint Laurent to experiment with new rhythms and formats, Balenciaga had played with how and when to present their collections. The brand has often shown men and women together, combining the pre-collections with the main season or reversing when the collections were presented.

Going forward, the brand plans to distribute communications investments more evenly across four key ready-to-wear moments during the year, avoiding the long-standing industry flaw that commercial collections are arriving. in May and December should be smaller and less creative than defined. for delivery in February and July.

“There’s been such a big gap between the pre-collections – where you just spin it on a cyclorama backdrop and send the lookbook to Vogue Runway – and the multi-million dollar runway collection where you really get started. It’s not cool, ”Charbit said.

With fashion editors, buyers and celebrity guests here in Paris for the first in-person ready-to-wear week since March 2020, the Balenciaga runway is set to be one of the most anticipated events of the season as the brand aims to continue its success. haute couture show and Met Gala winner on the red carpet. The house remained silent on the details of the event which was to take place on Saturday evening at the Théâtre du Châtelet. “Expect the unexpected,” Charbit said.

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