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Will Balenciaga make Beliebers of us all?

30 July 2021

Introducing Rakewell, Apollo’s wandering eye on the art world. Look out for regular posts taking a rakish perspective on art and museum stories.

’Tis the season when the prototypes of clothes first seen on catwalks in winter or spring get translated into glossy fall campaigns for outfits that your roving correspondent might, let’s pretend, actually wear. Although that’s not really true any more. With large gatherings out of the question, fashion houses have been making films of their collections instead and, in the case of Balenciaga, video games. In December 2020, Balenciaga released its Fall 2021 ready-to-wear collection in the form of a game called Afterworld: The Age of Tomorrow, in which, after choosing a role to adopt, you pass through a massive concrete Balenciaga store and encounter characters wearing pieces from said collection. There was also a mock-up of a catwalk show in VR, available here for those without an Oculus Rift headset to hand. The clothes themselves are a surprisingly successful meeting of street wear, which creative director Demna Gvasalia has a background in, with the unusual volumes for which the fashion house is famous: think padded anoraks with a hint of leg-of-mutton in the sleeve, a tightly tied trench coat that hangs loosely off the shoulder, flowing knee-length dresses beefed up with bulky rucksacks – all accessorised for the most part with chevalier boots and menacingly pointy metallic shoes.

Portrait of Henry VIII (1536/37), Hans Holbein.

Portrait of Henry VIII (1536/37), Hans Holbein. Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

So it came as something of a shock to this dedicated follower of fashion when Balenciaga released images of the Fall 2021 campaign on Instagram this week. Who better than Isabelle Huppert to carry off the trench coat? But what on earth is Justin Bieber doing here? And why has Rakewell, after more a decade of blissful ignorance, been forced to recognise the Canadian singer? (We hear he’s changed a lot.) What next? Being able to pick out more than one Kardashian from a line-up? Still, while your correspondent resents this belated brush with the aspects of pop culture they’d rather ignore, Bieber’s padded shoulders and general demeanour can’t help reminding them of some other famous power stances from art history (and history history). Fittingly, Balenciaga’s ‘catwalk’ show ended with a ‘model’ wearing a suit of armour. The great fashion photographer Bill Cunningham once said that ‘Fashion is the armour to survive the reality of everyday life.’ Rakewell couldn’t agree more. Is it time to become a Belieber?

Got a story for Rakewell? Get in touch at rakewell@apollomag.com or via @Rakewelltweets.