Balenciaga's Alexander Wang brings American cool to haute couture house
As Balenciaga hosts its first show on the mainland, creative director Alexander Wang tells Jing Zhang about the challenge of weaving his brand of American cool into a storied haute couture house
A long stairway sweeps up to an imposing minimalist chapel with the word "Balenciaga" lit up above the entrance. After the audience sits down inside, a bevy of the industry's leading models walk the runway in a revised spring-summer 2014 showcase, featuring pieces from the Paris show as well as a capsule collection of 13 new designs for this Balenciaga China Edition event at the Chinese Academy of Oil Painting in Beijing.
The new pieces, by creative director Alexander Wang, include mesh cropped tops with a lacquered effect paired with basque-style shorts embroidered with foliage motifs. Six new black-and-white cocktail outfits were added, the dress that morphed into a cape, a baby doll robe and a skirt and top combination - all reflecting the strictness, purity and volume play of Cristóbal Balenciaga's original aesthetic but injected with Wang's signature sportiness and easy, urban chic.
The show, held on May 15, was short but contained a specific mash-up of commercially appealing looks from the season, with fresh ideas inspired by the original principles of the house interpreted by the talented young designer.
"It's the first time the brand has done an event in China, so I felt it was important to tell the story in chapters … and highlight and select the most significant parts of the story," says a smiling Wang from a suite in the Opposite House hotel in Sanlitun.
Staged on the grounds of the academy and curated by Wang, the China Edition Exhibition comprised more than 40 seminal archival pieces - Cristóbal Balenciaga's own designs - that marked the invention of several foundation ready-to-wear shapes, such as the designer's famous cocoon coat, the first high fashion trapeze baby doll dress, his tunic dress and deconstructed suiting.
"When people first look at what I've previously done and his [Balenciaga's] work, the parallels aren't obvious," says Wang. Although some critics lauded his first three collections for the label, others are still unsure. Much has been made of Wang's youth (he is only 30 years old), his Americanism and own label, which is rooted in a modern, androgynous, urban and, at times sporty, aesthetic. But dig deeper and there are unexpected links.
"What you have to look beyond is that, although Cristóbal's designs were so radical and directional, he was always interested in dressing women around him and on the street," says Wang.
"He was interested in giving women that liberty. Look at the way the body interacted with the clothes. His clothes weren't just meant to be in a museum, they were really meant to be worn. And when you think about the period and the way women dressed then, he really reflected their lifestyle."
For Wang, despite not having a haute couture background, Cristóbal Balenciaga's idea of wearability and freedom is "something that I relate to". Wang was surprised when he was tapped to take over the label after Nicholas Ghesquière's tenure ended. .
"I was quite satisfied with what I was doing, and so immersed in my own label. I said that if I was to do something else, it would have to be something completely different … and this was that. Balenciaga really opened up a mind space for me that was very liberating."
Fronting a couture house, founded by "the king of couturiers", is no easy task for a modern designer. For Wang, being able to work with "an archive, a history and heritage" was very appealing. He delved into the rich back catalogue of the founder's designs, but has added his own distinctive take to it.
His first season for the label (autumn-winter 2013) paid homage to the fundamentals of Cristóbal Balenciaga.
"We wanted to take the essence and filter it through the idea of creating a wardrobe," he says, "the form, the silhouette and certain ideas of austerity and purity."
"There were sports references, of course," he quips, "but done in a Balenciaga way, all hand-braided leather, circle skirts, these sheer whispering silhouettes of a sack dress with hand-pleated embroidered bodices underneath."
At the latest (autumn-winter 2014) womenswear show, Wang wanted to find a neat parallel between his own start in design, which was knitwear, and what he felt was absent in Balenciaga. The result: "innovative knitwear done in a very sculptural way with a lot of emphasis on silhouette and form".
There might be more similarities between Wang and Cristóbal Balenciaga than are initially apparent. Both designers focus heavily on the exploration of new fabrications and technical innovations. Balenciaga famously invented many of his own fabrics, and Wang has been at the forefront in this respect.
"In a certain sense everything has been done in terms of design … a silhouette is a silhouette, and where the newness comes from is the technology behind the textiles and fabrication. Its something that I've always enjoyed but might not have had the opportunity to do to the highest level of luxury."
Efforts to get Wang to define the identity of this new Balenciaga woman in a sound bite are likely to fail.
"I have to say though, I hate answering questions about 'who is this [Balenciaga] woman?' because the great thing about telling the story in Beijing today versus doing the show in Paris is that there isn't one type of woman," he says.
Wang does not design around a particular fictional muse, rather allowing the process and ideas to drive the evolution of a collection. The way people dress today is much more mixed, where high and low fashions are frequently found in the same outfit. And Wang celebrates this versatility in fashion, finding inspiration in the women around him who dress with fewer boundaries.
"It isn't just black and white. There are days when they want to wear T-shirts, others when they dress up - it is about that versatility and freedom. And that's part of our culture and society now … This idea of hierarchy and a class system is dated and that way of dressing is dated, to wear one brand or price point head-to-toe."
It's this fresh perspective that Wang is keen to bring to French high fashion. Of course, there may be some resistance, but there is no denying fashion is moving in this direction.
Although challenges are inevitable, Wang is in a highly enviable position. Apart from the Balenciaga role, he is one of America's leading names in fashion, front and centre in the band of New York designers making waves in the marketplace. His own lines (Alexander Wang and casual label T by Alexander Wang) and his accessories label are booming; and all this at the age of 30. How does he manage to do it all, especially working between Paris and New York, with additional shows, interviews and events in places like Beijing and Tokyo?
"Logistically, yes, it is hard to balance," he says. "I mean, with men's, women's, pre-collections and accessories, it is a lot and I think it's taught me so much about discipline and focus."
Being a hands-on designer and heavily involved in the entire brand experience, it can be hard for Wang to let some things go. "What I've learned and enjoyed about the whole process is that you can't just be isolated in the creative process. In today's industry and business - because it is a business at the end of the day - you have to interact, delegate and collaborate."