Balenciaga’s trashed sneakers divide opinion and tap into fashion history

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Fashion house Balenciaga has released a new pair of sneakers. That in and of itself isn’t unusual – sneakers are big business at Balenciaga, forming a major part of a brand now estimated to be worth $2.3 billion in revenue. But this new style – dubbed the “Paris” – sparked anger across the internet, as many things do today.

The anger was not sparked by the price of the sneakers (which range from £350 to £1,290), nor by the rarity (a relatively wide choice is available), but rather by a limited edition version which has been personalized to look annihilated, shredded, stained and graffitied by artist Léopold Duchemin, and imaged to promote the shoes. “[He] used a multitude of knives, scissors, perforated paper for texture,” a Balenciaga rep said. “For the color, he used tea, wood putty, shoe polish and floor polish.” The result is dubbed “Full Destroyed”, and while the other “Paris” sneakers in the range are lightly scuffed, 100 limited-edition pairs have been heavily distressed.

“Part of me is totally offended,” Green Carpet Challenge founder and sustainability champion Livia Firth wrote alongside a photo of the shoes on her Instagram feed. “Buying something so wrecked is beyond offensive to people I’ve met who wore shoes like these because they couldn’t even afford basic meals. She followed up with a question: “On the other side, what is Balenciaga trying to say?” His comments reflect a larger discourse around these sneakers. “I can find them for free in the trash,” it read. “Controversy. The goal is to spark discussion.” A press release from Balenciaga suggested that the ripped shoes are meant to feel like they’ll be worn for a lifetime.

But what’s new? Fashion has flirted with destruction for decades, if not centuries, with the most obvious example being punk. An early version is slashing, the rich decoration of 15th and 16th century court costumes inspired in part by slashed garments. And along the same lines, high fashion has often, controversially, imitated the clothing of the less fortunate. Marie Antoinette famously dressed as a milkmaid in filmy white muslin at the twilight of the Ancien Régime, angering the impoverished population of France. In the 20th century, Gabrielle Chanel’s simple jersey dresses – the material taken from fishermen’s uniforms – were derided as “luxury poverty” by her rival Paul Poiret. But Chanel’s elevation of simplicity is a little different from wearisome looking worn-in clothes.

There are a few early examples of this spirit – in 1938 Elsa Schiaparelli printed a dress with torn flesh, for example, and applied a matching veil to flaps of fabric that might have been cracks in the material. And in the 1970s, influenced by punk, Zandra Rhodes created dresses cut and held together with beaded safety pins. But it wasn’t until the 1980s that haute couture really decided to unravel. Perhaps because the economy was booming, and because fashion often reacts against the status quo. Punk was a subculture: haute couture of the late 1970s, on the whole, was rich and rich, sparked by Yves Saint Laurent’s opulent “Ballet Russes” haute couture collection of 1976, filled furs, rich satins and brocades.

Balenciaga Paris High Top Trainers in White Cotton and Rubber Fully Destroyed, £1,290, balenciaga.com

A challenge was launched by Rei Kawakubo who, in 1982 under her brand Comme des Garçons, presented a collection of black mesh pockmarked with holes in Paris. She called the sweaters “lace” – because really, what is lace, apart from a fabric with holes? and they were created, she said, by loosening the screws of the knitting machines that made the pieces, so the machines couldn’t quite do their job. work. They were all the rage: critics dubbed them “post atomic” or “chic Hiroshima”. Similar names have been used for the work of Vivienne Westwood. The “Bag Lady” look was a prime descriptor.

This influenced subsequent generations who shredded their designer jeans and, of course, there was Martin Margiela, who created sweaters made from old socks as well as garments with frayed seams and undone hems. This is what fashion came to call “deconstruction” but dubbed, at the time, “destroy mode”. Later, this joined the co-option of grunge by fashion. Since then, fashion has not stopped: Alber Elbaz has a habit of letting the unfinished hemlines unfold poetically in his work for Lanvin; Karl Lagerfeld created a 2011 Chanel collection with jackets that looked moth-eaten; Rick Owens’ signature is a grizzled leather jacket that looks like it’s been boiled and pre-pilled knitwear. Some wearing methods are controversial – sandblasting, used to quickly and economically damage consumer denim, has been banned in many countries due to the risk of silicosis for garment workers.

Rick Owens Womenswear SS/22 at Paris Fashion Week © Getty Images

John Galliano’s controversial Christian Dior collection in 2000, inspired by the homeless in Paris © AFP via Getty Images

Destruction is one thing, but misery is another. There’s a leap between a frayed hem and, seemingly on purpose, the sticking together of clothes worn by the homeless or poor. In January 2000, John Galliano presented a haute couture collection for the house of Christian Dior which sparked protests. His inspiration was, he says, the homeless people he saw on his morning jogs along the Seine, as well as the “rag balls” of the 19th century, when high society perversely dressed in cotton clothing. shreds specially created by the couturiers of the time. Galliano’s collection included chiffon dresses with delightfully hand-ripped hems and sashes that hung trash, including stuffed mice and whiskey bottles.

Homeless rights groups demonstrated outside Dior’s headquarters – riot police were called – and after rebuttals and claims of creative freedom, the house was forced to issue an apology. It was an early example of the cancel culture we know so well today. This collection, however, always filtered into Galliano’s Dior Fall/Winter 2000 ready-to-wear collection: a print derived from newspaper articles was worn by Sarah Jessica Parker on sex and the city.

It’s also, honestly, a trend. As in the 1980s, fashion in general has shifted towards acts of desecration in the pursuit of cool – stroll down any busy street and the kind of ripped jeans last seen on the likes of Bros and New Kids On The Block seems to be reappearing, alongside chewed-up “vintage” t-shirts and worn-out sneakers. The Balenciaga sneakers are just the most extreme example of a general change – which is why it’s interesting that they have drawn such extreme reactions. How scary, indeed, is too scary? Maybe it’s just a matter of taste.

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