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Balenciaga AW23
Courtesy of Balenciaga

Out of the darkness, into the light: Demna strips it back at Balenciaga

The designer debuted an AW23 collection that did away with the dark excess of recent seasons – here’s everything you need to know

In his eight years at the helm of the Parisian house, Demna turned Balenciaga into a bonafide juggernaut of a brand. Each show was bigger, wilder, and more sensational than the last, each collection bolder, brasher, and emblazoned with ever more bolshy logos. Early on in his tenure, the Georgian designer set out to blur the lines between fashion and entertainment, taking the concept over the finish line when he debuted his SS23 collection on the red carpet leading up to his show venue, and premiered a special episode of The Simpsons in which an animated version of himself landed in Springfield to kit Marge out in full custom couture.

Demna was no longer just offering up entertainment, he was the entertainment, and while he’d always made brilliant clothes, the collections themselves almost became secondary to whatever spectacle he’d dreamt up that season. And then, as we all know, the Balenciaga juggernaut shuddered to a halt in late 2023, with Demna retreating back to do some deep thinking on what fashion means to him and the message he wants to put out into the world. Today, we got our first glimpse of what that looked like. Here’s everything you need to know from the front lines of the most anticipated show on the AW23 Paris Fashion Week calendar. 


When the physical invites for the show arrived earlier this week, people put two and two together and, as became apparent today, came up with five. Taking the form of a flimsy piece of pattern cutting paper etched with the components needed to make an actual jacket, many believed the show would take place in an intimate salon-style space, perhaps behind the closed doors of Balenciaga HQ. With the actual address kept under wraps until close to the last minute, it transpired that Demna was actually taking us deep underground and into the bowels of the Carrousel Du Louvre – a dimly lit shopping mall situated underneath the iconic landmark lined with stores selling clothes, homeware and your typical Parisian tourist tat. This, at least, felt like business as usual – after all, Demna staged a show inside a McDonald’s while still leading Vetements, and took Balenciaga to the New York Stock Exchange in 2022. But that, we found out, was where the similarities ended.


After dragging the fashion crowd into the eye of a vicious snowstorm and the pungent depths of a gloopy mud pit in recent seasons, it was no surprise that this time around there was little fanfare or pomp when it came to the showspace. Instead, sombre simplicity was key, with guests filing into an understated square box plastered with muslin toile fabric. The runway was a soft cream carpet, while seating took the form of the black stacking chairs you’d likely find in an office or a school. Notably, there was none of the chaos that often pervades a Balenciaga show, with celebrities like brand-devotee and former couture model Kim Kardashian nowhere to be found. With Demna telling Vogue his focus was shifting back to the clothes themselves in a recent interview, all evidence pointed to this being a very serious fashion show, and a far cry from what came before. 


Don’t think that we’ll have an understated season and Demna will come back all guns blazing with a massive blowout concept show. Detailing his time spent reassessing his position at the helm of Balenciaga, and more broadly his relationship with the fashion industry in general, the designer explained he had “instinctively” returned to sitting down at a sewing machine and actually making clothes. “It reminded me once again of its amazing power to make me feel happy and truly express myself,” he wrote in his show notes. “This is why fashion to me can no longer be seen as entertainment, but rather as the art of making clothes.”

This statement from Demna speaks to a wider vibe shift happening in fashion right now, as gimmicks are largely being left behind. Both the AW23 men’s and women’s shows suggested a return to slicker dressing, with sleek tailoring and actually wearable, practical clothes rising off the runways in all four fashion capitals. With Demna one of the pioneers pushing fashion over the ledge and into the entertainment realm in the first place, it’s quite the 360 to a few years later suggest that era is done with – the question is, will the industry follow?


One thing about Demna is that, for all the bells and whistles and wild concepts he’s put forward at Balenciaga, his clothes have long spoken for themselves. His first collection for the house, which was shown in an understated space similar to the one we stepped into today, and featured a killer line-up of utilitarian coats, sleek tailoring, and offbeat accents was one of my favourites of his ever, his technical skill and affinity for functional luxury setting him far apart from his contemporaries. 

Today, he took it back to the simplicity of some of his earliest collections. There were no mud splatters, no tattered, ravaged hems, and few of the bolshy logos that keep his clothes flying off shelves the world over. Instead it was about quiet sophistication, underpinned by the subversive unease – a feeling that something was a bit ‘off’ – that made his stuff so great in the first place. Out first were big, oversized tailored coats, their gargantuan shoulders swallowing up the models, as well as louche, wide, double-legged trousers, and boxy, timeless blazers, all in a palette of black, before that all made way for inky blue denim jackets and slouchy, floor-sweeping jeans. 

Soon, more colour was introduced, as Demna reimagined his sharp pagoda-shouldered dresses, pleats cascading out from the waist and swirling around the legs, this time around in muted florals and abstract prints. Hoodies were transformed into formal wear, with one black version updated with the addition of a prissy pussybow, while a series of zip-up jersey styles were padded and puffed up, alluding to the idea of protection. The show closed with a series of showstopping, red carpet-ready gowns, dripping in crystals and beads, which felt more akin to his couture line than what we’ve seen recently. Demna wasn’t reinventing the wheel here, and plenty of what came down the runway was ideas we’d seen from him before – but this was no bad thing.

In fashion, which feeds on the new and exciting at whatever cost, it seemed he got sucked into going bigger, harder, more conceptual at every subsequent show. How do you go from having Kanye West wading through a mud pit or starring in an episode of The Simpsons to presenting your collection in a traditional fashion show format even if you wanted to when legions of Balenciaga fans around the world are waiting to see what you’re going to do next? As Demna detailed in an interview backstage post-show, the last few months were unsurprisingly a difficult period of reflection and recalibration, with the show feeling like something of a palate cleanser – a fresh start, at least when it came to the clothes, that the designer perhaps didn’t even realise he wanted or needed.