A tale of two worlds at Balenciaga and Valentino.

The stark contrast between Balenciaga and Valentino and their Spring Summer 2023 collections was almost Shakespearean in their difference. In fact, you could almost hear the prologue: Two households, both alike in dignity, in fair Paris we lay our scene…

Image: Balenciaga.

From mud-packed stadium that poignantly resembled a war zone to the lightness of simplification that reinforces beauty in the real world – you could not put the references of creative directors Demna and Pierpaolo Piccioli further apart on the spectrum of experiences if you tried. While unintentional – who knows what conversations designers have on Signal or Telegram – both collections offered a powerful insight into the cultural landscape that is either affecting us or inspiring us, depending on your stance.

Image: Balenciaga.

For Demna at Balenciaga, the personal has become an archive to excavate. The sight of models – including friend and collaborator Ye (Kanye West) – trudging through mountains of mud and dirty water (the set was created by Spanish artist Santiago Sierra) was a clear message of his own world experience escaping war as a child that’s currently mirrored in the events in Ukraine today. The show was a continuance of his last epic, set in a snow field. Because after the snow, comes the mud.

Image: Balenciaga.

The clothes at Balenciaga reflected this too. Ye’s militant march dressed in head to toe tactical gear lead the charge, and what came next was both equally blunt. Models with bruised faces wore shredded denim; everything was treated to look filthy, beaten, pre-worn like it had been walking these muddy planes for weeks. If you thought it was grim, that could be because there are definitely areas of life that are grim right now. Global inflation, over-consumption, rising poverty while wealth skyrockets in the pockets of the few.

Demna himself, however, considers himself an optimist but one who is struggling to remain so given the current state of things. But it was there, if simply through the fact that these models could be seen as survivors.

Image: Valentino

Pierpaolo Piccioli at Valentino was much more obvious about his optimism. Dubbed unboxing, Piccioli delivered a collection that was looked to simplifying; to streamlining, to subtracting the unnecessary while retaining the Maison’s familiar codes for glamour.

Tailoring was softened, tweaked by pleating to give its usual crispness a more fluid finish. Like it had just come out of the box – an allusion, maybe, to the collection’s title of Unboxing?

Image: Valentino.

Where last season of Valentino the brightness of fuchsia was the cornerstone, the colour palette this time veered towards neutrals that were lifted by almost neon accents. Chocolate, black, beige – but paired back to the point that stripping away parts of the clothing became the details that elevated them. A sheer vest under a blazer, or switching the sleeves on a cotton for chiffon. A monogram also entered the conversation at Valentino in relaxed and athletic oversized T-shirts and shorts, anoraks.

Image: Valentino.

One thing that Valentino does well is glamour with a capital G. This collection, with its more casual elements, suggests that even in the most off-hand encounters, we can still seek out beauty form and function.