As the impending apocalypse casts a long shadow over the popular imagination, and our election stumbles closer to its conclusion, the eyes of many are fixed on the figures of power that runs the world around us. Candidates take the stage to thousands of cheering people while billionaires post selfies from private jets, pumping tons of toxic gas into the atmosphere over oceans littered with celebrities on yachts. And the most talked-about show in America, Succession, concerns the fucked-up interior lives of our media industry’s many billionaires.
Enter Denma Gvasalia, who showed Balenciaga’s Spring 2020 collection on a mock U.N. stage. Long curtains in a royal blue bled into the floor while models marched down a spiraling, sinister runway. As Gvasalia’s show notes explained, they were architects, gallerists, doctors, mechanical engineers, private equity associates, stylists, and lawyers. His focus? “Power dressing and fashion uniforms.”
The first thing that struck me were the shoes—long held by my mother as your best estimation of a person. Men in bulky slip-ons opened the show, mock-United Nations I.D.s flopping against disheveled black suits. Women in modest boots and angular smock dresses (with pockets, because they’re professionals) carried briefcases, hair slicked and expressions hidden behind uncomfortably rectangular shades.
Gallerists and stylists were shown in Balenciaga’s signature thigh high heel—a comment on their function in popularizing that trend. I was also struck by his vision of utilitarian work uniforms for mechanical engineers and construction workers. A denim co-ord with a thick soled leather boot could easily be seen on just about anyone. A subtle reminder that an outfit once seen as “working class” has equal power on a runway as silks and furs do.
And while it is never explicitly mentioned in either the show notes or Gvasalia’s post-show interviews, our ecological crisis was translated via sporty water shoes, neoprene-looking wetsuits, and a print made from mock magazines with names like “Good Vibes only.” One headline read: “Love, honor, and respect Mother Earth.” Another begged: “Make the world a better place!” Heavy handed, perhaps, but a nice juxtaposition against the dour, political ensemble that preceded the dress. (And, as a noted gossip myself, celebrities’ power over fashion and politics is undeniable. But again—a little heavy handed!)
As for accessories, Gvasalia paired Balenciaga’s signature crocodile purse with his expected outlandishness. Instead of luxury Ikea sacks or literal shopping bags, the runway was graced with Hello Kitty. Yep! Gvasalia, fashion oracle and beloved it-kid for the new generation, sent politician’s wives and doomsday ready architects toting Hello Kitty branded purses past Vogue editors, marketing executives, and retail buyers.
The collection also posits that symbols of power, and their influence over our everyday wear, extends to cosmetics. After the show, Gvasalia explained that the mid-section featured “women politicians” and “campaign dresses.” It was a direct reference to our fixation on the way powerful women clothe themselves, but he smartly contrasted this with models outfitted with Instagram-ready prosthetics: pumped up lips and bulging cheekbones. (Ironically, Bella Hadid, a poster child for this look, walked the show without them.)
In her review for Vogue, critic Sarah Mower asked why the “avatars” of the Dynasty-era “oil rich couture patrons” were “stalking the halls of power” with boxy shoulders and pussy-bows in Gvasalia’s United Nations assembly. The answer, to me, seems clear. Why not include the wives of billionaires in your orgy of power symbolism? The Real Housewives, an incredibly influential reality show franchise that has spanned the breadth of America’s wealth for over a decade, is predicated on those very women. I’d also argue that modern gallerists, stylists, and editors would once be “oil rich couture patrons” in a different economic landscape.
Workwear moved into boxy blouses and bulging suits. Gargantuan puffer jackets dwarfed expressionless models. Even the more traditional dresses—billowing sleeves, ruffles and frills, slick sheathes—were heightened by his tailoring and elevated proportions, especially for those representing the truly powerful: the one percent. I was acutely aware of my own anxiety growing as the shoulders broadened, proportions warped, and booming synth and sinister march progressed around the hypnotic spiraling runway.
That dreadful feeling then climaxed in one of fashion’s most haunting moment in years. Young women, with buzzcuts and demure lobs, wore skintight velvet gowns that rapidly expanded near the waist. Gvasalia explained that they were an evolution of Cristobal Balenciaga’s ball gowns made popular in Spain back when the house first started. But instead of luxurious palaces with dresses gilded of the finest materials a couturier could offer, these were punishingly severe fascist uniforms for the millennial aristocrat. A fitting look, I think, for the end of the world!