Musical Chairs

Can Alexander Wang Sell Street Style At Balenciaga?

As rumors fly that Balenciaga has hired Alexander Wang, Robin Givhan asks: What would the street-savvy designer bring to the fashion house?

UPDATE: Balenciaga confirmed the appointment in a statement via Twitter on Monday morning: "Official: Balenciaga appoints Alexander Wang Creative Director of the Balenciaga fashion house."

One of the earliest collections that designer Alexander Wang put on the runway after launching his brand in 2007 looked to have been inspired by an old-fashioned walk of shame--that bleary-eyed, crack-of-dawn march home after a night of debauchery. In his fall 2008 collection, Wang was exceptionally skilled at conjuring up the mood and the attitude of the morning-after stroll with his models dressed in ripped black stockings and their eyes rimmed in smudges of kohl. The audience could almost smell the stale beer and cigarette smoke leaching from their skin. The collection would have been comical had it not been so spot-on in its assessment of a particular kind of self-consciously cool city dweller who has somehow managed to avoid being labeled a cliché.

That collection helped to propel Wang into the category of rising design star. And in short order, he was lavished with awards from the Council of Fashion Designers of America, snapped up by retailers such as Barneys New York and cheered on by groupies.

Unlike other young designers, Wang did not set his early sights on the tippy-tippy top of the ready-to-wear business, a rarified world that evokes significant glamour but produces relatively modest sales. Instead, Wang aimed at a less expensive, younger market, which was receptive to his oversized t-shirts, skinny silhouettes and urban slacker sensibility. He was also quick to add accessories to his brand, recognizing that the most lucrative aspect of the fashion world is handbags and shoes. These decisions have indicated that Wang, 28, is a savvy businessman and marketer. Indeed, Wang’s philosophy was so mass that former employees filed a lawsuit claiming that his New York factory violated state labor laws and was, in fact, a sweatshop-- accusations that he denied. The suit was later settled.

Now, all indications are that Wang has been hired as the next designer at the French fashion house Balenciaga. He had been the rumored front-runner in a guessing game that had briefly--and incorrectly--declared Christopher Kane the winner.

What exactly would PPR, the parent company of Balenciaga, be getting with Wang-- a designer whose most memorable garment is a T-shirt with just the right degree of slouch?

Wang would replace designer Nicolas Ghesquière, whose departure was announced in early November. Ghesquière will surely be remembered for taking a label that had all but fallen into commercial obscurity and transforming it into an influential brand that has led the way in carving out a contemporary point-of-view that is respectful of the past but not reliant upon it. The collections that he sent down his runway each season in Paris seemed to be drawn from an expansive imagination--a pastiche of ideas influenced by experience, research and possibility. His clothes changed the look of the street; they didn’t merely validate what was already there.

From his arrival in 1995, Ghesquière helped the brand to grow thanks to the popularity of accessories and its various pre-collections, although it never had the commercial appeal of other PPR labels such as Gucci or Bottega Veneta. And it was not treated with the reverence that has benefitted Yves Saint Laurent.

Wang almost certainly would bring a broader commercial appeal to Balenciaga. He understands the familiar cool that has global recognition among young women who all listen to the same music, watch the same films, obsess about the same runway models and participate in the same technology. Under his own label, Wang is skilled at capturing a particular urban fantasy with blaring music and shadowy lighting, packaging it on beautifully nonchalant models and then selling it off piecemeal.

In the smoke and mirrors of the fashion world, Wang is an expert at sleight-of-hand. He has been selling customers the big shirts, tight dresses, leggings and windbreakers they already have. He just connects them to the idea of a cool girl in the midst of a late night of partying.

Other designers have been inspired by the energy of the street. Helmut Lang, in the late 1990s, could recreate on his runway a sense of the urgency on a city sidewalk. He toyed with androgyny. But his men and women populated a metropolis that grew out of his imagination. He wasn’t mimicking the aesthetics of real life; he was improving upon them.

Wang’s spring 2013 collection was less reliant on mood. Instead, it focused on an aesthetic idea: He disassembled dresses and skirts. They didn’t look like anything one might see on a woman dashing to a subway or hailing a cab. In fact, they seemed a bit awkward. But they offered the most convincing argument that the young entrepreneur is not just a creature of his times but is also someone who has the desire--if not the capacity--to influence them.