Balenciaga Basks in the Warm Glow of Celebrity Forgiveness

Almost exactly a year after setting off a flurry of public opprobrium with a holiday ad campaign that pictured children clutching what looked like B.D.S.M. teddy bears amid other adult paraphernalia — a snowballing crisis that took the company by surprise and sent sales into a nosedive — Balenciaga brought its fall 2024 show to a balmy boulevard in the Hancock Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. On Saturday, it unfurled like a palm tree-and-mansion-lined carpet just under the Hollywood sign.

Thus does a brand emerge from the cauldron of near-cancellation into the light. Not just that of the Los Angeles afternoon, but the warm glow of celebrity forgiveness.

Nicole Kidman, who had been unveiled the same day as the brand’s newest ambassador, arrived in a black tweed Balenciaga coat with a portrait neckline. Kim Kardashian was in the front row in a pair of lace tights and a formfitting T-shirt, toting a bag of flowers to give to Demna, Balenciaga’s mononymic designer. Cole Sprouse was there, wearing the latest Balenciaga piece to set social media howling: the “towel” skirt, which looks exactly like a bit of terry cloth tucked around the waist and costs $925. Cardi B walked in the show. (So did Brigitte Nielsen, the towering Danish actor, former Helmut Newton model and ex-wife of Sylvester Stallone.) You could see it all even if watching, as I did, on the livestream.

Forget making “just clothes,” as Demna had pledged in March in his first show after the scandal. Forget moving away from the Big Topics that had initially made him famous (war, climate change, social media fame), but that, he acknowledged, had started to overshadow the actual fashion. After tiptoeing back into a bit of showmanship in October with a “this is your life” collection modeled by, among others, his mother, his husband and his teachers, this was a return to full-on social commentary/viral extravaganza mode.

If the last time Demna brought a show to America, in May 2022, the site was New York, and the subject was Wall Street and its idolization of filthy lucre, this time the topic was L.A. culture, and all the La La Land characters and storytelling that entails.

“I wanted to go back to the, kind of, cinematic shows,” Demna said afterward, “because I think there is no point in just showing nice clothes.” Fair enough.

To that end, he said, he wanted to celebrate the city he had idolized growing up, first in the former Soviet Georgia and then as a refugee in Europe, with what was effectively a whistle-stop tour through the varieties of native dress that had formed the building blocks of his aesthetic.

Starting with the costumes of gym and wellness culture: baggy shorts and leggings with personal flotation device-size sneakers. Oh, and don’t forget those Juicy Couture-esque velour sweats, here cropped short on top and dropped low enough to show thongs on the bottom and paired with giant Ugg-like boots with nail heels. Bags were equally supersize.

There was grunge, courtesy of two-tone denim, plaid and giant T-shirts, one plastered atop the other like an apron. Also little bouclé suits for lunching with your agent at Spago or Cecconi’s or the Polo Lounge, and giant-size trouser suits, shirts not required. And a finale of red carpet extremes, including skinny jersey columns, asymmetric ruched velvets, opera coats geared toward entrance-making and one pristine, very Cristóbal-like white satin gown with a funnel neck so exaggerated it looked more like a portable face shield.

Most models clutched big Balenciaga coffee cups or gabbed into cellphones as they strolled. Some also toted the sort of absurd social media catnip accessory that has become Demna’s trademark, this time “paper” bags made to mimic grocery shopping bags from Erewhon, the ur-L.A. chain, with both logos on the front. (A special limited edition Erewhon juice, made with charcoal so it could be Balenciaga black, was also created for the occasion.) Others wore chunky diamond chains or nameplate necklaces, a collaboration with Jacob & Co.

Imagine a series of California clichés, distilled to their essence and regurgitated as Fashion somewhere in the liminal space between irony and homage to which Demna has laid claim, and you’ll get the idea. It was like a neon sign blaring: “Enough of that penitent, humble stuff.” I’m back!

He is, indeed. And it was fun to see, if a little facile in its reliance on stereotypes. Which is why, once all the glamour and fairy dust had dispersed, it was hard not to think: Coming back is one thing. Moving forward is another.

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