Balenciaga is the paragon of luxury, subversion and originality. Founded by Spanish-born Cristóbal Balenciaga in 1937, the iconic French fashion house redefined the concept of modernity and quiet elegance. The brand’s reputation for uncompromising standards and revolutionary silhouettes lives on today under the creative direction of Alexander Wang. When Wang took the helm in December 2012, the world waited excitedly to see how he would reinterpret the codes of the storied Parisian label. He has more than risen to the occasion, proving he can deftly honor rich heritage while projecting a distinct and innovative style all his own.
Our attention was piqued by the pivotal role jewelry played in the formation and power of Balenciaga’s Fall/Winter ’15 collection. At the heart of this concept is “The Heirloom of Today,” embodied in a bejeweled stick pin that serves as an opulent symbol of unity. One pole is an homage to heritage with the initials “CB” set in rhinestone and pearl. The other is a sharp point puncturing the past and breaking into the future, a symbol of the house’s forward-thinking mentality.
The Stone Set is honored to share an exclusive and up-close look at the season’s beautifully crafted jewelry alongside an intimate conversation with Alexander Wang. The Creative Director shares his philosophy about the role jewelry plays in dressing, how it preserves the heritage of the house, and his approach to modernizing heirlooms. – Jenna Fain and Emerald Carroll for The Stone Set
The Stone Set: What inspires and informs your jewelry design for Balenciaga?
Alexander Wang: I consider jewelry to be miniature pieces of sculpture. A great piece of jewelry can embody an entire universe and tie together all of the themes in a collection. You also have a lot of room to play with jewelry design at Balenciaga because of the diverse history in each tiny object. And I love that jewelry is worn on an everyday basis, it’s a kind of personal luxury that nearly everyone can access and create stories with.
One of the first pieces I introduced at the start (Fall-Winter 2013) was a simple bow bracelet in either gold or silver-toned brass. That was my personal way of tying the history of the House together with my own aesthetic and the future of the House. We then expanded the idea to also include “Maillon” links in modern chokers and on the ready-to-wear, bags and shoes.
I think you can also recognize my personal interest in industrial and interior design in the ideas and materials, too. For Spring (2015) we designed bracelets that were based on bicycle chain links, and constructed in a similar way. I love how they give a solid, masculine contrast to the delicate embroideries of the collection. We’ve decided to continue those bracelets as well – the more I see them I think they’re perfect for the woman who still wears her father’s heirloom watch every day as a functional jewel – that kind of “un-precious” attitude, someone who loves playing with contrasts.
We try to experiment and have fun with the jewelry – for Pre-Fall we made these “zig-zag” earrings in brass that almost like a line drawing. Those were inspired by vintage Tangle Toys – more by their organic form and fluid movement – it’s was a surprising starting point but one that I was immediately attracted to.
TSS: How do you synchronize the jewelry with the apparel and other accessories?
AW: It depends each season but in general you go on all fronts simultaneously. At the beginning you’re working with a few starting points and ideas and playing with new ideas and at the end you see how each piece in the puzzle comes together.
The process evolves organically and the jewelry is integral in conveying the feeling and ideas in every collection – jewelry is not just the punctuation mark at the end of a story.
For Fall (2015) the rhinestone jewelry is the center of the collection and was the starting point. The collection was about creating heirlooms for today: paying homage to the heritage of the House but also to what’s modern and new. I loved the idea of heirlooms, something that is precious but also how it evolves over time. Like when a piece of jewelry is passed from mother to daughter each generation changes the original meaning, they wear it in a different context, with their own aesthetic. I had this vision of a woman styling a rhinestone brooch but with a t-shirt and jeans, or to clasp a wrap skirt, or wearing classical pearl earrings but in multiples – playing around with individuality, being really free about wearing it every day instead of “only on special occasions.”
When the rhinestone jewels are paired with the ready-to-wear – that’s when the dualities between old and new, street and couture, sharpen into focus. There’s a very beautiful stick pin in hand-carved mother-of-pearl that clasps jackets or skirts together; there is an ornate “CB” rhinestone pin that opens the show on a folded, angular version of the Cristóbal Balenciaga “Cocoon” coat.
We wanted to contrast the classical jacquards and tweeds in the clothes with something that felt industrial, so we used a lot of metal embroideries like staples, o-rings, steel crate patterns, buckles and “razor blades”: everyday bits but transformed into jacket collars or necklaces, a kind of jewelry built into the clothes themselves.
And then we pushed the contrasts in the collection even further in the shoes, a mix between the “Staple” detail on more masculine lug-sole boots and the rhinestone clips on ladylike “X-ray” kitten heels.
TSS: What role does the Balenciaga archive play in your design process? How do you celebrate the heritage of the house? How do you envision the jewelry continuing to evolve at Balenciaga?
AW: With each season I think my relationship to the archives evolves. At the beginning it was a completely new way of working and a new challenge. It’s always an important dialogue with the heritage and DNA of the House. Over time I’ve started unearthing more obscure chapters in the archives, pieces that are lesser-known or forgotten symbols that could still resonate today. With time I’ve also tried to introduce new, personal strands into the House codes, like knitwear, which is how I started out. Or new symbols, like a Lily of the Valley bulb, which we made in natural pearl for the Fall earrings, and which is the base of the new B. fragrance.
In the entire process of creating Fall, I started to think of the stick pin as a symbol of my own relationship to Balenciaga. On one end are all of the historic signs of the house – “CB,” crowns, classic rhinestone and pearl. There is the pointed end of the pin, for me always pointing towards the future, what’s next. And then there’s always a through-line of innovation. It’s a constant dialogue between the two poles – that’s what moves everything forward. – Alexander Wang
PHOTO CREDITS: Alexander Wang portrait: Steven Klein courtesy of Balenciaga | Jewelry detail photography: Emerald Carroll | Runway photography courtesy of Balencaiga