Over the last century, the fashion industry has constructed an elaborate armature for delivering its messages to buyers, from ethereal brand-based approaches like the lookbook, photo shoot, or red carpet celebrity placement, to more traditionally commercial ventures like the “pop up,” “concept,” and “flagship” stores. Demna Gvasalia is attempting to turn these systems back upon themselves. There is something deeply reminiscent of The Emperor’s New Clothes about his work: poking fun at the po-faced sincerity of mega-brands and the mega-industry that is contemporary global fashion.
The argument being made is that criticality in the work raises awareness and stimulates action in the viewer. This reasoning was rejected by art theorist Jacques Rancière, who says that to simply make a viewer more aware of a condition does not automatically lead to their increased agency. In other words, when you look at Jeff Koons’ balloon animal sculptures, you can see his critique of our infantilized society. However, you do not exit through the gift shop and then seek to overturn these forces that are compelling you into a lifelong condition of kidulthood. You just nod your head. An over-reliance on irony always exposes the same problem: ironic people cannot explain clearly what they actually believe. They rely on complicity from their audience not to challenge them.
The strength of the irony in the Balenciaga store does kind of make you ask: why do we even still have flagship stores? I think I get what Demna is trying to do, but isn’t it kind of an expensive joke? Of course, Balenciaga is struggling with the same problems facing many other industries: how do we justify the expense of so many physical stores in such prime real estate locations? The general approach has been to try and improve the shopping “experience,” either through exciting pseudo-cultural programs, or bonus perks like classy champagne served in private booths, or simply cultivating desire through scarcity, as with a high turnover of limited-edition collaboration products. Nonetheless, physical shopping feels increasingly lackluster and flat.