At this year’s Design Miami, the design fair that runs in tandem with Art Basel Miami, you’ll find a huge sofa, big enough for at least three ravers (to sprawl out during a K-hole comedown) or two gallerists (to perch on while debating late capitalism). The sofa is upholstered in transparent vinyl and stuffed with clothing printed with a brand name that has come to work like a siren call in the art world: BALENCIAGA.
The sofa was created in collaboration with the brand at the impetus of the designer and architect Harry Nuriev, the Russian-born founder of Crosby Studios, which has been based out of New York for the past two years. “I guess this sofa is the pure result of my dream a few years ago,” Nuriev said in a phone interview last week. “I dreamed about creating this sofa for so long.”
Indeed, this isn’t Nuriev’s first Balenciaga rodeo. At last year’s fair, he showed a wooden air conditioner, a swivel chair, lace curtains, a coat tree, and the kind of baffling corporate copy machine that infuriates office workers the world over—each reading “BALENCIAGA.” (Both the air conditioner and copy machine were carved out of wood, and were in fact bureaus rather than office machinery.) It wasn’t an official collaboration, Nuriev said—the house gave him permission to use the logo, but the pieces were not commercially produced. Instead, the tableau was an office cum living room: a bold and uncanny gesture that made an unreadable judgment on the aesthetics of corporate offices and Soviet Russian homes. In other words: very Balenciaga.
Balenciaga, Nuriev said reverently, “shows things that are pretty standard in a new way. They give basic shapes new life.” He recalled a visit a few years ago to the brand’s Paris store to see the Fall 2017 collection, inspired by mid-priced cars: Rubber floor mats became pencil skirts, seat-belt buckles became dangly earrings, and side mirrors became minaudières. “I held this car-mirror bag and I thought, ‘Oh, my God, this is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever held in my hands.’ ” Contemporary art usually commands a price that is prohibitive even to the respectably paid creative cognoscenti, but “this thing you can actually buy,” Nuriev said. The $2,400 price tag on the bag was minuscule compared to the price of an artwork, “and it’s truly a piece of art.” It set him off on the years-long journey that came to full fruition with the sofa. “I was just craving to combine my DNA and the DNA of the Balenciaga house.”
This won’t be the only place at Basel that visitors will see Balenciaga. Its shoes will be on the feet of the fair’s shoppers—who prefer the sleek sock sneaker to the hyped Triple S, for what it’s worth—and on their backs, in the form of oversize blazers and crushed velvet minidresses, and in the crooks of their arms. Nuriev, it will be apparent to anyone who has visited a contemporary art fair over the past few years, is not the only person in the art world who feels Balenciaga is akin to art. In an era when fashion’s courting of the art world remains unsteady—particularly in the eyes of young artists, who are still wary of selling out—Balenciaga has become a wardrobe, a partner, and a source of fascination and inspiration to artists, gallerists, and buyers.
This has been a part of its identity since Demna Gvasalia joined as creative director in 2015, making painter Eliza Douglas its de facto house muse, casting her as a model in nearly all of its shows. Its Spring 2020 show, staged in Paris in October, included as models the performance artist Antti Kettunen, architect Neda Brady, and collector Karen Boros. Almost every collection, lookbook, Instagram post, fashion show, and advertising campaign has been touched by the hand of a critically acclaimed visual artist, either in a formal collaboration, as in Jon Rafman’s immersive video tunnel for the Spring 2019 show, or in a more behind-the-scenes work for social-media content, like Diamond Stingily’s “Winter 18” video, or even variations on the house’s logo. When an artist works with Balenciaga, they and their gallery often actually brag about it, rather than shrugging it off as a big paycheck, the reaction fashion collaborations often elicit. Plus, artists love to wear it—photographer Collier Schorr, painter Emily Sundblad, and conceptual artist Anicka Yi are often seen in it.
So how did one of the biggest luxury fashion houses in the world—its sales surpassed one billion euros this year—become one of the most prized names in the art world?
Carly Busta, an aggregating Truman Capote for the Berlin scene who runs New Models, a kind of Drudge Report for the art world, said in an interview earlier this fall that Balenciaga pulls its talent from a creative class, often Berlin-based, that has more crossover with the art world than the fashion world. “You go to a Buchholz party”—the cerebral, blue-chip German gallery—“and it’s the same people who are walking in the Balenciaga show.” In other words: “There’s so much crossover that it feels like the art world and Balenciaga are a part of the same conversation.”
That comes from Balenciaga’s decision to approach the art world not necessarily with humility—which in the fashion world often perverts itself into condescension—but with a respect for its collaborators. “I could tell from the get-go that they weren’t trying to be super controlling about what was created and how it looked,” said Tabor Robak, the artist who created a project for Balenciaga this past fall based on some of his previous work, using a video-game engine to generate a “cyberpunk cityscape from various futuristic buildings,” covered in countless versions of the house’s logo as signage. “There’s this postmodern aesthetic” that Balenciaga understands, Robak said, “where [you’re] looking at exactly what’s ‘now’ but also at the past, at history, and trying to do both things at the same time. And along with that comes a level of research. In my little bit of time with them, I could tell that they had a very strong research and development team. They’re really putting a lot of work into forecasting where they want to go.”
Nuriev agreed. Gvasalia’s team, he said, “is very different” than those at other fashion companies. “They are very advanced and cool. It’s not necessarily that they don’t follow the standards—they follow them, but in a very smart way. That art element in their DNA is not something they just bring as the marketing. They’re really passionate about it.”
And when friends of artists and gallerists are working with or even for Balenciaga, there’s a sort of network effect. “People want to wear each other’s ‘merch,’ ” Busta said, adding, “It’s a kind of capitalist realism.”
(Balenciaga’s associations with the art world have also made it a consistently rich topic for the brainy fringes of the fashion world. So embedded in the art industry and creative class is Balenciaga that one writer who’s written about the brand’s aesthetic subversion said they no longer felt comfortable discussing the brand as they are now employed by them.)
Balenciaga isn’t the first fashion house to embed itself in the art world. Prada has long been a go-to for those who admire Miuccia Prada’s noetic approach to fashion theory, and that brand of course has its own art museum. Some two decades after Martin himself began creating them, the Margiela blazer remains the gold standard of the gallerist uniform, at least in New York. And Helmut Lang worked with Jenny Holzer not simply as a collaborator but something like a true design partner. In the ’80s, Comme des Garçons was a uniform for artists and gallerists alike, combining a new thirst for the abstract with the New York zeal for black. (The outliers for that period are Armani fanatic Larry Gagosian and Mary Boone, whose arsenal of Chanel suits helped her burnish her reputation as one of the first blue-chip mega-dealers. Their wardrobes spoke the lingua franca of the go-go decade’s obscenely monied collectors.)
But Balenciaga, artists and arbiters say, approaches fashion more like the art world approaches its own craft. “Luxury is really embarrassing,” Busta said. The idea of artists—many of whom take as their subject the dislocating qualities of late capitalism—wearing an earnestly luxurious brand seems ridiculous at a moment when no one trusts money or power. Balenciaga’s clothing—which is often compared to (or derided as) “memes” online—demonstrates a knowledge of that tension, “so you can LARP as part of the precariat by wearing Balenciaga, which makes it look like you’re just a cool kid who’s mixing the codes.” The house systematically unpacks and recomodifies fashion itself: “Balenciaga has reframed luxury as knowledge of the codes, as opposed to just these cheating, Trump-era ideas of what something luxurious looks like.”
At that point, Busta’s boyfriend, Lil Internet, who owns an eponymous branding agency, jumped on the phone to chime in. “The common trope of wealth is like, burning money,” Lil Internet, who also goes by Julian, said. “Throwing money away. And it’s like, you’re spending thousands of dollars on an outfit that everyone knows is Balenciaga but codes as like a guy who sells like, bootleg sunglasses in a subway station.”
Fashion designers plunder archetypes that “are somehow in everyone’s collective unconscious,” he continued: the Spring 2020 show examine what global and corporatized power looks with suited-up bureaucrats in a United Nations setting that was, ironically, vague enough to be understood to a global audience. Balenciaga seems to see fashion as a system to engage with, explore, challenge, and subvert, rather than as a luxury niche of consumer culture that drives trends. The “problematic” realities that the typical fashion brand overlooks or excuses become influences and codes for Balenciaga. Think of the time they put the logo of their parent company, Kering, on a sweatshirt. “Most luxury brands just translate wealth into beauty and power directly,” he added. Balenciaga, instead, mines the way luxury has been conflated with power and money—the undeniable seduction of the beauty of an object, of wealth, and of status that fashion can trick people into believing is accessible to everyone.
The tension inherent to visual art’s dual role as an object of critical or subversive meaning and a luxury good has been explored for centuries; Balenciaga is just applying that to fashion. Part of why its production of fashion “memes,” like Ikea bags, platform Crocs, and bootcut jeans, continue to mesmerize people inside and outside of the fashion world is because by embracing the tension, they can offer these products without reducing the ideas behind them to an obvious statement or a moral judgment, both of which fashion encourages but the visual art world works against. A $2,145 Balenciaga take on the Ikea bag is not a celebration or condemnation of discount furniture, or fashion appropriation, but a reflection of the culture that encourages those kinds of interpretations.
A common refrain on social media when a new “meme” drops is whether or not Balenciaga is “trolling us.” But in fact each new item, working as both a sendup and a savvy acknowledgment of fashion as a machine for appropriation, and an insatiable, eternal quest for novelty, is an embodiment of the very system of fashion. The result is that, for example, when one of the most famous models in the world, Bella Hadid, walked amid gallerists, collectors, and artists in the Spring 2020 “power”-themed show, it was one of the social media “moments” that fashion houses chase—and a knowing subversion of the stunt casting that has defined the past several seasons of shows (including Balenciaga’s!). As visual art often does, Balenciaga exaggerates habits to make them legible as such, but it resists singular interpretation or even the mere titillation of self-contradiction.
The common interpretation of Balenciaga's products as mere “memes,” then, seems somewhat misguided—most of visual culture over the past five years has been memes, after all. If one reads their work as a long term project of embodying fashion as a cultural phenomenon that craves newness and thrives on the absurd, the house has succeeded. And now, anyway, Balenciaga appears to have moved on to something else—which many fashion insiders describe as a new “obsession” with tailoring, but is perhaps better understood as a menacing observation that power and wealth have become the same thing.
But of course, as Busta observed, “Fashion is best when you can’t quite name it. And once you can, then it’s dead.”