California in particular has been a recent focus for Balenciaga’s retail expansion — it doubled its presence on Rodeo Drive and debuted a two-story venue at South Coast Plaza — and that’s hardly a coincidence.
“It’s very important when you look at the perception that we all have of luxury, and the role played by the United States in particular in redefining luxury,” according to Balenciaga chief executive officer Cédric Charbit. “Balenciaga also makes this claim of redefining luxury, so we have this in common.”
Since Demna arrived at the creative helm of the Kering-owned house in 2015, and Charbit a year later, the brand has expanded its retail presence in America from 15 directly operated stores to more than 50 locations and counting, propelled by the Georgian designer’s creative daring, which ignited a luxury streetwear juggernaut — and made dark, oversize clothing and bulging footwear global signposts of alternative cool.
In an exclusive interview, Charbit elaborated on the rationale for its splashy L.A. event, which includes a pop-up couture store, and collaborations with jeweler Jacob & Co. and Erewhon Market, the exorbitant grocery store whose $22 smoothies surely have something in common with Balenciaga’s $925 towel skirts.
The exuberant, straight-shooting executive also recounted the brand’s complex year as it navigated its way back into the fashion spotlight after being rocked by the advertising campaign crisis at the end of 2022 over images that critics claimed promoted the exploitation of children.
Charbit came well prepared for the interview, and without any prompting spoke first about Balenciaga’s three-year partnership with the U.S.-based National Children’s Alliance that was formed following the advertising scandal.
The program involves training nearly 2,000 mental health professionals to support survivors of abuse; providing education to the French fashion company on child protection and ways to promote child safety and well-being, and raising public awareness of these issues.
“The start of the year was a great time to listen, learn and engage,” he said, lauding the NCA’s mindset of “helping people envision a better future compared to what they may have suffered.”
Balenciaga also constructed multiple guardrails to “empower and protect creativity,” with internal and external bodies charged with clearing content, providing assessments, background checks and the like.
“Creativity is the driving force of this brand and it is at the heart of our strategy, so it’s important to be vigilant,” Charbit explained in his minimalist, industrial-tinged office-cum-conference-room. “I think it’s very important in a brand like Balenciaga that creativity doesn’t take a break, doesn’t get stagnant, doesn’t get stuck and doesn’t get locked in.
“This is the heritage we have, and it’s important that Demna brings this creative value to life,” he stressed.
Charbit recounted the brand’s key events over the last 12 months, tantamount to a volume button steadily dialing up from inaudible.
After staging a low-key fall 2023 show in March that he later admitted was not to his liking, Demna doubled down on swagger for his cruise 2024 collection film and spring 2024 runway show during Paris Fashion Week, returning to voluptuous, dramatic silhouettes steeped in underground energy, all worn by his handpicked cast of fierce characters.
Celebrity shunning of the brand during this year’s Hollywood award season in the wake of the controversy yielded to Michelle Yeoh resplendent at last May’s Cannes Film Festival in an emerald green silk taffeta Balenciaga couture number with a matching stole; Nicole Kidman, Kim Kardashian and Isabelle Huppert wearing more of the brand’s screen-siren couture gowns at the Kering Foundation Caring for Women dinner in New York City in September, and finally in October, Beyoncé wrapping up her mammoth “Renaissance” world tour in a custom Balenciaga couture column sparkling with 8,000 rhinestones.
Yeoh was officially named a brand ambassador last month, and Balenciaga on Saturday added Kidman to its official roster, which also includes Huppert and Krit Amnuaydechkorn.
Balenciaga’s path back into the spotlight included a stop at May’s Met Gala, where it filled its table with young designers in lieu of movie stars, including Bianca Saunders, Raul Lopez of Luar, Svitlana Bevza and Elena Velez. “This moment of giveback was also important for us,” Charbit said. “You could see Demna at a great event, but also Balenciaga opening its platform to emerging talents.”
Meanwhile, Demna’s third couture show — Balenciaga shows couture only once a year — took place last July at the brand’s original Avenue George V couture salons, which had been doubled in size, signaling both “the expansion of the brand and our attachment to the couture, our origins,” Charbit said.
So consider the Los Angeles event Balenciaga’s boldest comeback affirmation of them all, staged in the most important luxury market in the world — and in a state that is at the apex of popular culture and new lifestyle trends.
“It’s a region which is very influential almost everywhere in the world, for the lifestyle, consumption patterns, art, music, entertainment, and also in the way we dress,” Charbit marveled.
Still, Balenciaga — which broke the mold last year when it opened a couture store on the Avenue George V selling Bang & Olufsen boomboxes for 8,500 euros alongside crinkled aluminum T-shirts and disquieting couture face shields — is importing the uniquely Parisian retail experience, French sales staff included, in a two-day takeover of the upper level of its new Rodeo Drive women’s store.
“It’s a way of engaging with our customers and taking a step towards them. I think it’s important to make a gesture,” Charbit said.
In the post-war period, legendary Spanish couturier Cristóbal Balenciaga famously dressed a host of famous American women in his architectural, exacting and yet forgiving brand of haute couture, including society figure Bunny Mellon, beauty entrepreneur Helena Rubenstein and actresses Ava Gardner, Grace Kelly and Elizabeth Taylor.
During the interview, Charbit read out a quote from Mellon’s biography, in which she lauds the founder’s understanding of luxury and simplicity with “profound sensitivity. His evening dresses and coats were indescribably fascinating; his daytime designs perfectly adapted to the life of his clients.”
“I really like to make the link and the parallel to what Demna does today,” Charbit said. “Demna has succeeded in the transcription of this incredible and impressive heritage and he does it with so much strength.”
Frequently during the interview the executive returned to speaking excitedly about the creative work of Demna, who returned his focus in 2023 to making clothes after detours into pop culture with his bespoke episode of “The Simpsons,” over-the-top runway sets like his “mud show” for spring 2023, and projects with controversial celebrities.
“I watch him with a lot of attention and interest, and I found this year particularly strong creatively,” he said. “It was an opportunity to see to what extent he has a strong and determining vision for fashion in general.”
In disclosing its third-quarter results at the end of October, Balenciaga’s parent, Kering, said the brand’s growth was “mixed” across the regions, but “booming” in Asia. Sales at the French group’s “other houses” division, also home to Alexander McQueen, Brioni and Boucheron, fell 19 percent on a reported basis and 15 percent underlying.
“The brand is coming back in 2024,” Jean-Marc Duplaix, Kering’s deputy CEO in charge of operations and finance, said at the time regarding Balenciaga. “Brand appreciation is currently very high, very strong and we’ll resume our communication initiatives next year. We haven’t been pushing so much on the open-to-buy this year, but we are planning for a rebound depending on market conditions.”
Bernstein analysts estimate revenues at Balenciaga totaled about 2.5 billion euros last year.
In the interview, Charbit declined to discuss figures, but spoke freely about Balenciaga’s robust business in China, and strong consumer reaction to its spring 2024 show last October, at which Demna paraded his widest shoulders, biggest sneakers and handbags weighed down with more hardware than the Paris footbridges plagued with “love locks.”
Charbit noted that certain items were available for purchase on its website immediately after that show and sold out “in seconds,” signaling the brand’s vitality. These included Cargo sneakers, among the largest styles Demna has made to date.
Late last month, Balenciaga launched a skiwear collection. “That is also a great success in stores and worldwide,” Charbit said.
In a similar vein, products featured in its current “It’s Different” campaign — winking to Apple’s iconic advertising in the ’90s — have been stoking high sell-throughs, according to the company. Other wry slogans in the campaign include “No blabla” and “Probably not what you’re looking for” beside blunt pack shots of unusual shoes, and puffed-up bags and coats.
Some of the bags, clothes and collaborations from the fall 2024 runway outing on Saturday will also be available for immediate purchase or preorder. These include supersized Cagole totes, 10XL sneakers, plus jerseys bearing the phrase No Logo in Old English script.
“It’s a way to celebrate the brand and we see that there is a lot of interest from people for products they immediately want to wear,” Charbit said about the show.
“The fall 2024 collection is my interpretation of L.A.’s fashion codes and a celebration of the American style of dressing that is felt all across the world,” Demna said. “The best place to do this is obviously Los Angeles — a city where many modern fashion references originate from.”
The CEO argued that American clients relate intensely to Balenciaga’s ethos, from the founding couturier toiling to create garments that suited the figure and lifestyle of his clients to Demna’s edgy, uncompromising designs that “have the ability to reveal and transform the wearer.”
“I have the impression that people who choose us want and expect us to help them reveal their true selves and transform them into the person they feel they are,” he mused. “Balenciaga allows everyone to express their difference, to transform into themselves. I think that’s an interesting proposition in luxury in particular.”
After his spring 2024 show in Paris, Demna took a not-so-veiled swipe at the quiet luxury trend and fashion conformity in general. He told reporters backstage: “I don’t believe in a perfect, polished, beige angora world.”
Charbit noted that American customers were the first to respond to Balenciaga’s leather handbags, starting with the Le Cagole and Hourglass models, and now the Rodeo with its “open flap” design, accruing long waitlists, and the softly padded Monaco bag in high demand in South Korea and America.
He described a fascination with the unique ways American shops, from the “very pragmatic customer expectation” of the founder’s clients to the diverse public Balenciaga welcomes in its Los Angeles venues, which include a Beverly Center store that doubled in size earlier this year: local fashionistas, tourists from across America, international visitors, celebrities and stylists.
That mix has impacted the design of its stores, the size of its fitting rooms, and the cultural knowledge of its associates.
“Our culture and our brand are mixed,” Charbit said. “We sell to some of the most iconic and well-known men and women in the world, but also the most discreet ones who understand Demna’s vision, so history repeats itself.”
Musing on Balenciaga’s future prospects, Charbit said, “Nothing is insurmountable.…The pressure on luxury in general should encourage us to surpass ourselves and not limit ourselves. I see opportunities for the house in many markets where the brand is currently performing extraordinarily well, but also in regions offering strong potential in the medium and long term. The United States is one of them.”
He argued the brand has made progress this year in terms of brand perception, brand visibility, brand endorsement, brand creativity and brand desirability. “I think we’ve done a good job, and the brand went really far.”
He also allowed, “We still have a lot to do.
“I think we have to think long term and know how to invest with a long-term vision, especially for us, with more than 100 years of history,” he said. “Balenciaga is not a start-up.…We need to think about actions that will project us into the future.”