PARIS — I sniffed the candle for quite some time, spinning the mirrored jar in my hands and tilting my head, as if inhaling from different angles would yield new discoveries.
I looked for scents I’d read about earlier that day, in a Balenciaga press release about the candle. The list included “hints of burnt incense, tobacco smoke, warm skin, old paper, tanned leather, old wool, delicate silks, exotic furs, oaks, and even the oiled metal of sewing machines”—all scents apparently emanating from the walls of the Balenciaga fashion house. in Paris, the archive and possessions of its founder, Cristóbal Balenciaga. Together they were intended to evoke “a place of historical interest”.
I can’t tell if the candle smelled like the warm skin of Mr. Balenciaga, who died in 1972. A shop assistant stood by and watched my nostrils flare up as I tried to come to a conclusion beyond “leathery,” “a little spicy.” ‘ and ‘pleasant’.
I put the candle back on the shelf. She closed the tinted glass door in front of it.
The store had only been open for a day and this candle was the first piece of inventory I touched. The fragrance was originally created to be distributed at last summer’s couture show, Balenciaga’s first in 53 years. Following on from the second couture 2.0 show, the house decided to open a couture store. That was something that didn’t strictly exist until now.
In Paris, only a small number of fashion houses are officially designated to create haute couture collections – clothes made to order for a select group of customers. Nothing in fashion is more exclusive than couture. These pieces take hundreds or thousands of hours to produce, mostly by hand, and cost five or six figures to buy.
But shopping for couture is an experience shrouded in mystery, held in salons behind closed doors for the privacy of those with enough wealth and power to expect it.
Balenciaga, the disruptor of high fashion – now a pop culture channel with its cartoons and Crocs, led by creative director Demna – wanted to try something new. It wanted a shop with walk-in hours, where the garments from the couture shows could be tried on, adjusted and bought on the spot.
“Right now, even if people can afford couture, they can’t find it,” said Cédric Charbit, Balenciaga’s CEO, adding that couture was a “meaningful part of the business” without revealing exactly how meaningful it was.
“It is a gateway to couture, the missing link between reality and the dreams of couture,” said Mr Charbit of the new store. “The idea that it is only for an elite is no longer valid. We need something transparent, something inclusive’ – a stunning concept in the context of clothing that can cost as much as a down payment on a house.
As with any disturbance, there were some hitches to overcome. According to the brand, the store was open by appointment on Mondays and Saturdays and welcomed walk-in shoppers the rest of the week.
Tried to walk in on a late Thursday afternoon without an appointment and was initially turned away, saying the shop was not free at the time. (Twenty minutes later I was allowed in, accompanied by a member of Balenciaga’s PR team.)
The store has separate entrances for women’s and men’s clothing, a distinction that seemed archaic given the gender fluidity that is now common in fashion, and which Balenciaga has further advocated. At last week’s show, an androgynous model sported the penultimate, hyper-femme look: a taffy-pink taffeta dress with a skirt so large it wouldn’t fit through the doorways where the show was held.
That space, upstairs from the new couture store, was a replica of Cristóbal Balenciaga’s all-white salon — a tribute to the house’s past. But downstairs, the new store is coolly futuristic: all dark-tinted glass, drab curtains and concrete, with black leather ottomans that appear sculpted with wrinkles. The architectural design was conceived by Sub, a studio founded by Niklas Bildstein Zaar and Andrea Faraguna, in a long-term collaboration with Demna.
About a dozen couture pieces hung in every sex shop, along with a few that hadn’t made it to the runway (including a crystal-encrusted blazer on the women’s side). There was a selection of shoes and bags (super-tall boots, sparkly heart-shaped clutches) and limited edition items sold only in this store. Like two porcelain sculptures modeled after looks from the first couture show – the Balenciaga versions of Precious Moments figurines, although they are over a foot tall and cost 15,000 euros (currently about the same in US dollars).
Two prominent accessories from last week’s runway show were also on sale: the aluminum Bluetooth speaker handbags (surprisingly heavy, $8,500) and the reflective face shields (surprisingly light, $5,500). By the store’s second business day, the alien-esque masks were already sold out in size medium (a quantity of five, according to one seller).
In the cavernous dressing room—almost as big as the shops—I tried on two pieces from the recent show. The first was an oversized red T-shirt layered over a pink T-shirt. It had a crushed effect, like hardened papier-mâché, but embedded in pliable metal that allowed the wearer to mold the seam into various shapes. It was a strange sensation to wear something that I was supposed to mold and transform, rather than something that was meant to mold or transform me.
I looked at the price tag, which had no logo or barcodes, just the style handwritten in calligraphy: ‘wrinkled aluminum T-shirt’, 7,500 euros. (I was told that Demna had worn a similar style earlier that day.)
The other piece was a long trench coat, upcycled from belts. Thousands had gathered from Parisian vintage stores to make the jacket, plus a leather dress, pants and jacket in the collection. I had learned the price of the jacket before I dared to wrap myself in it: 50,000 euros.
This was more than a year’s average rent in Manhattan. It was way more than I made in my freshman year in journalism. I pointed that out to the nice, energetic salesperson who helped me. He attributed it to different scales of life.
“I have clients who say, ‘OK, I’ll take’ this oneI take this oneI take this one† Hurry up, driver wait,’ he said. ‘But you do that yourself, if you go shopping or whatever, to Zara. It’s just different.”
And to play the game of justifying a large purchase using a cost-per-wear calculation – with couture? “You’re ruining it because it’s the idea,” he said. “It’s more than a piece of clothing.”
It occurred to me that’s why I picked up the candle when I walked into the store, before reaching for something else. At 350 euros (or 200 for a travel size), it was one of the few items in the store that I could reasonably take home with me.
It was also mainly an idea.
Vanessa Friedman contributed reporting.