The Incredible Disappearing Dress


The Balenciaga couture show opened with a meditation and ended with a storm cloud — one designed to disappear. That’s either a statement of faith in the future or a lot of hot air. Maybe both.

In place of the usual finale wedding gown, Demna, the brand’s mononymous designer, offered up 47 meters (155 feet) of the kind of black nylon normally used inside ball gowns wound round and round the model’s head and body like mist, with neither seams nor fastenings.

“Thirty minutes before the show, the dress didn’t exist,” Demna said backstage. After the show, it wouldn’t either. When you are talking about couture, where the hours of handwork that go into a piece contribute to what is often an outrageous price, and the result is meant to last forever, that’s blasphemy of the highest kind.

It’s also the next step in Demna’s quest to upend the hierarchy of value — what is precious, what is elegant, what is worth keeping (why you keep it) — and challenge the luxury status quo.

Before the disappearing dress, for example, there was a white evening gown made from old plastic bags that had been melted to create a sort of shiny dégradé effect, and one made of gold foil, scrunched around the body. Before those there were classic Balenciaga columns for society swans pieced together from strips of upcycled sweatshirts and soccer jerseys. And before that there were oversize concert Tees and sweatshirts that were actually hand-painted oils by the artist Abdelhak Benallou, featuring images of members of the Balenciaga atelier as a heavy metal band and lined — like the denim jackets — in thick Italian scuba satin to preserve their cocooning volumes.

Couture has always been about what’s on the inside, and invention, but this was taking it to the extreme: in silhouette and theory.

“Nobody really needs couture, to be honest,” Demna said. “To me, it’s an experience of clothes” — the ordering in the atelier, the handwork, the secret knowledge — “and I wanted to bring it even further to this idea.” Instead of Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame, think of it as 15 minutes of fashion.

He was leaning into the concept that getting dressed is essentially, as he put it, “a performance.” And in the case of the ephemeral look, one that got awfully close to “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” That doesn’t make it any less entertaining or thought-provoking. Especially amid collections where performance of all sorts has been something of a trend.

It was there at Iris van Herpen, where the designer suspended her models in the middle of enormous plaster-covered canvases that she then hung on a wall next to additional artworks, turning the people into a living series of bas reliefs in organza, silk and lace and redefining the whole concept of wearable art.

There at Viktor&Rolf, where Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren, the harlequins of fashion, engaged in their usual game of performance art, this time revisiting their 1998 show “Atomic Bomb” and transforming the human body into a variety of geometric compositions using what looked like very fancy nursery school building blocks. And it was the subtext of Giorgio Armani’s 89 variations on velvet and pearls at Armani Privé.

Well, what else are you going to wear to the theater?

Maybe one of the many 1950s-inspired sheaths at Schiaparelli, where Daniel Roseberry turned away from what he called his “meme-weaver” approach (remember the robot baby in his spring show, or the life-size animal heads of an earlier collection?), as well as the crutch of his signature gilded body parts, in favor of a focus on shape and suggestion. Shoulders were broad, skirts narrow, the effect often magnetic.

“The risk for me is there’s nothing here that’s meant to break the internet,” Mr. Roseberry said. (In fact, he forbade his team’s members from looking at their phones when they designed the collection.) The reward was more intimate drama.

A pale pink silk corset dress offered a play on Schiaparelli’s famous stiletto hat of 1937 (it was a Salvador Dalí collaboration), this time with a shoe cupping each breast, the heel like a warning spike about getting too close — except you couldn’t really tell what they were until you got close. A pair of black tuxedo pants was topped with a befeathered white shirt, like Odette and Odile in a single outfit.

Still, no one addressed the subject of the role that clothes play in the performance of self quite as cleverly as Nicolas Di Felice, the artistic director of Courrèges, in his guest designer spot at Jean Paul Gaultier.

Rather than offer up his own “best of” parade of Gaultierisms (cone bras and tattoo shirts and marinières) like some of the guest stars who came before, he said in a preview that he instead had decided to focus on the more abstract question of what he thought made Gaultier special: That, in putting all sorts of bodies and individuals on his runways, the designer had offered a place and a means to “be who you are, and show who you are, and reveal who you are.”

In Mr. Di Felice’s case, that would be a very talented designer.

On the base of a rectangle and a corset (itself one of Mr. Gaultier’s signature garments; Madonna, anyone?), and with only hook and eye closures for both fitting and decoration, he built a carefully calibrated treatise in cloth on how we use clothes to reveal, or disguise, ourselves.

From the first look, an all-enveloping coat that swallowed the head, he slowly peeled away the layers, stripping off a slice of material here and replacing it with lace; dropping the shoulders there, so the torso of a slip dress puddled around the waist to expose the inner boning; undoing the hooks at a seam, to show a slice of skin. The metal closures glinted like diamanté under the lights, the last sleight of hand in a magic show in (yes) 15 minutes and about not just dress, but inner life. Presto, change-o.



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