This past July, Balenciaga hosted a banquet honoring Demna, its artistic director of seven years, in the same neo-Classical house near the Place de la Concorde where coronation balls for Emperor Napoleon I and King Charles X were formerly held. The French fashion house founded in 1917 by Cristóbal Balenciaga, the Spanish designer whose bubble hemlines, sack dresses, and cocoon coats offered an adventurous postwar alternative to Christian Dior’s hyper-feminine New Look of the late 1940s, had hosted the 41-year-old Georgian designer’s second couture collection earlier that day. Now, the actor Alexa Demie was chatting with reality star and real estate agent Christine Quinn, whose Balenciaga handbag, one of only 20 in existence, was also a Bang & Olufsen speaker, in the grand reception room of the recently restored 18th-century Hôtel de la Marine. Kim Kardashian, the brand’s most devoted and well-known customer, was posing in one of the designer’s tinted polyurethane bags. The supermodels Naomi Campbell and Bella Hadid, the actor Michelle Yeoh, the rapper Offset, the country music star Keith Urban, and his wife, the actress Nicole Kidman, who had just walked her first runway show in a silver-coated silk taffeta gown with a long train knotted at the hip, were all seated at a long banquet table with Demna. Demna has always surrounded herself with a circle of confidants to help him deal with his sometimes extreme social anxiety at such events. This includes her husband, the musician and composer Lock Gomez, well known by his stage name, BFRND, whom she met online in 2016 and wed in 2017.
Balenciaga hired Demna in 2015 with the express purpose of reviving the urgency of the clothing. He was not an obvious choice as the next in line to the legendary tailor once referred to by Dior as “the master of us all” and by Coco Chanel as “a couturier in the truest sense of the word” in addition to being a more direct successor to the urbane, forward-thinking French Belgian designer Nicolas Ghesquière, who spent 15 years running the company before leaving in 2012. In his spring 1967 collection, which featured a bridal dress kept together by a single seam, Cristóbal Balenciaga, a perfectionist determined to achieve sculptural purity through minimum construction, came closest to attaining his goal. Demna, who has piercings in both ears and has a headbanger-like appearance, appeared to have just left a Rammstein concert as she walked onto fashion’s biggest stage wearing tattered jeans and worn-out band t-shirts.
However, since joining Balenciaga, Demna has emerged as one of his generation’s most fascinating designers, if not its most significant. He can’t introduce a pair of shoes without them turning into a Cardi B song, which is unusual in a sector where strategy teams struggle to get people talking about their brands. What’s more impressive, though, is how deftly he has combed through the archives, reinterpreting Cristóbal’s classic silhouettes with reverence and cheek, fusing house codes with streetwear fashion tenets, and creating designer clothing out of materials like nylon and denim in addition to satin and velvet. His contributions to the brand have run the gamut from subtle homage (his fall 2016 debut featured a two-button gray flannel jacket that flared at the hips, a subtle take on the iconic Balenciaga bell shape of the 1950s) to histrionic (for spring 2020, he took the construction to its extreme, exaggerating the form so that models in matching gold and silver lamé gowns resembled a pair of Hershey’s Kisses on creat).
Despite his desire to withdraw at times, Demna has discovered that people are looking at him more and more. He also remembers his predecessor in similar manner: Despite his best efforts to maintain his incognito, Balenciaga the man rose to prominence as an international fashion icon in the 1940s and 1950s. According to Mary Blume, author of “The Master of Us All: Balenciaga, His Workrooms, His World” (2013), “Nobody knew how tall he was, if he was skinny or overweight. He wasn’t regarded to be one individual, but rather a group of designers by a few French journalists. And the reason why is just that he didn’t show up. Demna and Kardashian attended the Met Gala in 2021 while wearing identical black cloth face veils.
Many people believed that it was Kanye West, Kim Kardashian’s then-estranged husband, even though his attendance was intended to announce his debut as an industry figure. However, the mask had at least two benefits: it helped him to relax and kept the cameras from taking pictures of him that weren’t flattering. “I’ve always had a problem with myself in the mirror,” says Demna, whose somewhat stern features — pale skin, strong nose — are softened by his hazel eyes and a warm smile. He’s decided to wear one ever since anytime he has to have his picture taken.