Balenciaga turns heads from models row with car mat skirts

Fiachra GIBBONS
The Celine collection was a highlight of Sunday's shows

Paris fashion's trendsetter of the moment Demna Gvasalia spun heads yet again Sunday with a Balenciaga show that featured car mat skirts.

With the brand mired in a row over the alleged mistreatment of more than 150 models at the casting for the show, the Georgian wunderkind brought the spotlight back on the clothes with a string of cheeky and breathtaking innovations.

Having caused a sensation last year with his trench coats and jackets pulled down off the shoulder -- worn most memorably by Kim Kardashian the night she was tied up and robbed in Paris -- the young designer has given the venerable aristocratic label a second almighty yank.

This time as well as wrap-around skirts inspired by rubber car mats, Gvasalia gave his coats another violent tug, pulling their right side up over the left shoulder.

The effect both startled and delighted critics, with Vogue declaring within minutes that he had brought the label's "legacy forward with audacity and wit".

Gvasalia included a series of spectacular, floatily oversized ball gowns at the end of the show, the first couture dresses the brand has shown since the twilight years of its founder Cristobal Balenciaga in the late 1960s.

The 35-year-old told the legendary Vogue critic Suzy Menkes backstage that he only finished the dresses at the last minute, having studied photographs of classic Balenciaga gowns once worn by European royalty.

"They are all made by hand. The pieces all came together yesterday, like it happens in couture, last minute, because there were so many people working on them," Gvasalia said.

"They were all lying like corpses on these tables in the atelier, which was quite an amazing experience."

- Rearview mirror bags -

New York Times critic Vanessa Friedman gave the collection her imprimatur, calling the dresses "cool couture" while suggesting they just might be the thing to wear to the Big Apple's party of the year.

"Someone should wear this to the Met Gala," she tweeted, a reference to the Metropolitan Museum of Art's annual star-studded benefit.

The iconoclastic designer's rearview mirror clutch bags -- the second part of his car theme -- also turned heads, and could yet prove to be the next Gvasalia object of desire for fashionistas.

Whether they should be taken as some ironic commentary on what has been a torrid week for the label is open to conjecture.

But the brand will be grateful for the distraction the show has brought to its troubles off the runway.

Balenciaga was forced to sack two casting directors earlier this week over claims of alleged "sadistic" treatment of scores of models who were forced for wait hours in an airless stairway during a "cattle call" casting at its headquarters.

Several told AFP that the door was closed on them and they were left in dark.

While the brand apologised to the models, the sacked casting agent denied Friday that she had been at fault and turned the blame back on the label.

- 'Make fashion diverse again' -

Last year Gvasalia -- who also heads the uber-hip Vetements brand -- faced criticism for failing to use a single black model in his shows up to then.

The designer, who counts black rap stars including Kanye West among his biggest fans and clients, had said he got his ideas from travelling on the metro through one of the French capital's most ethnically diverse neighbourhoods.

However, Gvasalia used five black models and four Asians among the 47 who walked in his jokily-billed "intimate" Balenciaga show Sunday in a cavernous Paris convention centre.

Even so, a model had protested outside the show with a placard that read: "Make fashion diverse again. Women's rights are human rights. More ethnic models."

Gvasalia's immense influence on the current fashion scene was there to see in French label Celine autumn-winter collection, another highlight of Sunday's shows.

While there was plenty of the label's trademark modernist chic tailoring, models carried blanket-towels similar to ones that appeared in Balenciaga's menswear show in January, and one man's style shirt and skirt combination was a clear nod to the young pretender.

Given that Celine's designer Phoebe Philo is herself a huge influencer of high street trends, that is quite a compliment.

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