Let's talk shoes.
In 2015, Demna joined Balenciaga as creative director. The first trainer released under his creative direction was very ugly and disappointing. It was called
I hate these shoes. They're super ugly. Being ugly isn't necessarily a bad thing, but these shoes are not my kind of ugly, and, even worse, they were wildly successful.
You see them everywhere, on all sorts of horribly dressed people. Seven years after their debut, they're still being released in new variations and colourways. They inspired every boring, visionless fashion company to make their own versions, which somehow look even worse.
I don't like this shoe, but I think it was a sort of exorcism/cynical but necessary cash grab, because ever since, Balenciaga has been on a casual footwear tear - the trainers they've released have all been pretty sick, and they seem to have been getting better with time.
The Triple S. The S stands for sole. The shoe has three soles. Get it?
These are pretty fun. They make for a cool silhouette, as long as they're not worn with skinny jeans. But they're not that exciting. Despite the triple sole concept, they basically just look like a big skatel shoe. They also inspired a lot of other brands to make big shoes - which over time has worn away their distinctiveness. When they were released, they may have seemed freakishly large. Now, they look almost normal.
I'm lumping these three together because they all feel very similar.
These shoes continue in the ‘really big shoe’ vein that started with the Triple S, but they lean more into the popular dadleisure aesthetic. They look like Asics or New Balance shoes writ large, and with more detail1.
Remember your youth and the chocolate bars that you ate during it. They were huge. Gigantic things that barely fit into your stretched-out palms2. Eating one was a serious endeavor. It was an act that could take most of a car ride or fill the time you would wait to see your GP.
Think of how you experience those same chocolate bars now. Do they not seem somehow diminished, far smaller than they should be? Do their lights not shine less brightly than they ought?
If this diminishment is true of treats, then it is doubly true of shoes. As children, we were at eye level with our fathers' gigantic trainers and boots, our mothers' imperial red high heels. We inscribed them into our memories as titanic things. Towering objects of power and control. Now when we're shopping for our own shoes, we have a world of choice - but nothing we can buy can match up to these idealised memory objects because the only shoes that are available are of a normal size.
Or rather, I should say, “the only shoes that were available.” Demna and Balenciaga's true aim is to re-enchant the world by offering us clothes that realise our exaggerated memories in concrete reality. We can wear these shoes and become the mothers and fathers with implausibly large trainers. These shoes let us recapture halcyon days while simultaneously escaping the mental prison that we build while growing up in the shadow of our parents, who we will always imagine as much larger than we are.
We can step out into the world with platonic forms upon our feet.
Oh, and the Xpander has a heel that looks like a piece of Lego Technic, which I guess is also pretty cool. The Runner is clearly the best of the three. I'd wear it.
Okay, so Demna has worked at Balenciaga for a good few years. 2021 is over, the Xpander was released in May. What comes next?
February 2022 They release a shoe that escapes the bounds of shoeness.
Look at these:
They're once again borrowing the design language of established dadcore brands. But now, we've got a balloon-like tire as a sole. A bulbous shape that looks unwalkable in, barely like a shoe. You imagine rolling on these shoes rather than walking. Our references are no longer constrained to the prosaic, true history of footwear. Instead, we are mixing and matching pure concepts from within and without the world of clothing.
This is the shoe as monster truck. Evoking Ballard's "Crash" - these shoes let us step into the psychosexual fantasy that drove the western world's transition into an individualistic, atomized, car-owning polity. When you slip on a pair of Defenders, you are stepping into the rubbery soles of Dr. Richard Beeching. You have become Corbusier standing bravely astride a gorgeous world of six-lane highways and tower blocks.
I recently saw a LSE student wearing these on the Strand. His gait was no longer that of a human, but instead of the new man who will turn this world into what it wants to become. Unfortunately, he had purchased the grey colourway, rather than black - so he didn't look that cool.
And then, a few months later, this.
This is the “HD sneaker”.
You should see them in the context of the show where they were first presented.. Worn by a model wearing only a towel, they give the aspect of a forlorn wading bird, lost in a blizzard, doomed to death. A fatal blow against anyone claiming that fashion isn't art.
This shoe is when the design team at Balenciaga made one of their greatest discoveries, one that was prompted by them bumping against the limits of how large a shoe can feasibly be. They realised that if, instead of focusing on simply making a large shoe, you instead skew the proportions such that they are a normal height but abnormally wide, then you can create something that steps fully into the realm of the uncanny. These shoes are a technical marvel, a purely synthetic creation which unavoidably evokes visions of human-animal hybrids. Crippled seals dying amid the rainbow iridescence of Alaskan oil spills. Flamingos, bleached white by lack of access to their traditional food source - picking their way through a cracked concrete waterway.
I actually own these shoes - and I love them. But weirdly, they're the only Balenciaga trainer that I've never seen anyone else wearing. I got them quite heavily discounted, and so I think that they maybe represent the moment where this adversarial fashion brand got too adversarial for the normies. A step too far beyond good and evil and into beauty for an ugly world to come along. Or maybe people just didn't want to spend so much money on a glorified croc.
Doubling down on the flat and wide shoe, Balenciaga has just released the 3XL. It seems to maintain the silhouette of the HD sneaker. But it's actually a trainer.
They come with an extra pair of laces, which are tied around the shoe. These laces come pre-dirtied, and there is a card in the box informing you that they are only there for display purposes and must be removed before wear.
I saw someone at Primavera Sound wearing these, and he looked terrible. If I wore them, I would look magnificent.
Although these shoes have been released over the course of almost a decade, they're all still actively in production. If you're wealthy and a maniac, you can just go and buy any of them now. This seems quite unusual for fashion, and especially for sneakers, which are often sold on the basis of FOMO and artificial scarcity. Luxury fashion is a pretty weird world, but I think the fact that you can buy these shoes if you want them is pretty cool. Here's my power ranking in order, split into three tiers for easy comprehension:
I assume that most people will see them and respond with derision or contempt. They're plainly ridiculous. And they become even more absurd if you look at them top down. They're clown shoes, and they've inspired a meme that suggested you could recreate them with Asics and a bike tire. And someone followed through on this idea.
They're incredibly expensive and made in China out of polyamide. It's hard to get any sense of what standard of 'quality' they're made to – but that feels almost beside the point. No one seems capable of styling the shoes nicely; most of the fit pics you see online look bad. They apparently weigh over 1kg per shoe, and have such a bulbous sole that walking up and down stairs, or uneven terrain is actively dangerous.
Nonetheless, I cannot stop thinking about these shoes. I am fully obsessed with them. I don't think I'll ever get over them.
I could just go out and buy them today. They're in stock in a full size range everywhere that sells them, and when I look, I always fear that my size will have been marked as 'sold out, and not coming back'. But I don't. Why? I'm not sure. Partially due to having had the value of money drilled into me as a child, and knowing that inevitably someone is going to realize how much they cost. I would struggle to justify such an undeniably expensive and impractical shoe and would always fear the social pressure of wearing them.
Why do I want these shoes so much? I don't think it's because of the brand name. The branding that exists is subtle. I think my lust is purely for the design. The insane, never-before-seen design. Though brave design is its own branding.
Balenciaga is often written off as a joke/meme brand, selling bad, ugly clothes to rich people. But they are one of the only houses that we can rely on to create novel stuff. This shoe was inconceivable, but they conceived it – and now our visual worlds are richer.
This shoe should be in museums, and that is why I want it. It fulfills fashion's promise of letting us be walking works of art.
So, in summary, I ask you, Balenciaga, please give me a pair of these shoes.
1 When I first saw a lot of these shoes, I would think, 'Oh, that looks like an ASIC,' but then I look at the ASIC shoe, and it looks like a flat copy. Like looking at a PS1 asset after playing a PS2 game.
2 For my British readers, think of creme eggs. I remember them being as big as a balled fist and still imagine them that way. When I see them in a shop now, barely a quarter of the size that I imagine – I am always disappointed.