On Sunday, moments after Balenciaga staged the first-ever fashion show to take place at the New York Stock Exchange, three men wearing distinctly boxy, non-Balenciaga suits stood beneath a group of screens displaying fake numbers from real stock listings, grinning from ear to ear. According to the screens created as a backdrop for the runway show, everything was tanking. They’re tanking in real life, too, but the men were celebrating, high-fiving, as if they had just scored a lucrative trade on behalf of clients.
“Everyone agrees this is great for the brand,” one NYSE director said to another.
Even though the public has been barred from entering the trading floor’s premises since September 11, 2001, the trading mecca allowed the lightning-in-a-bottle perma-zeitgeist that is Balenciaga—it generated $2.3 billion in revenue in 2021 and churned out constant headlines by dressing KimYe through their public divorce—to create a runway that curved through the clusters of trading terminals in the beating heart of American capitalism.
“Let me ask you a question,” said one of the executives of the parent company that owns the stock exchange, motioning to the fashion show attendees standing around us.
“Who…are all these people?”
Who were all these people at the fashion show? They broke down evenly, in quarters. The first quarter included the brand’s clients, decked out in Balenciaga’s now iconic duds, which meld a dynamic logo-appropriation with the world’s finest tailoring to create self-aware clothes that are dystopian enough to reflect the perils of modern living and, say, the new extremes created by climate calamity. The second quarter was made up of envoys from glossy magazines, which, I mean, guilty. The third group was extremely famous musicians, the most famous of whom was Kanye West, who was joined by Frank Ocean, J Balvin, Megan Thee Stallion, Pusha T, Clown from Slipknot, Dev Hynes a.k.a. Blood Orange, Offset, and more. Finally, the crowd was a quarter artists—artists who aren’t usually excited to attend fashion shows, artists who show both at gigantic galleries in New York’s Chelsea and London’s Mayfair and smaller, scruffier galleries in Tribeca and Berlin.
And the artists were a force. Balenciaga’s show pulled in more artists than any other fashion boondoggle I’ve ever witnessed, even the ones that get inches in Artforum.
MoMA curator Stuart Comer chatted with LUMA director Simon Castets and the artist Jill Mulleady, while artist and dealer Emily Sundblad perched on a swivel chair near the entrance. Venice Biennale curator Cecilia Alemani was there, along with at least three artists she put in her show: Dora Budor, Hannah Levy, and Jacqueline Humphries, who came dressed in a hot pink Balenciaga dress.
Anna-Sophie Berger, who has a show at JTT a few blocks north, chatted with the esteemed cultural critic Dean Kissick, and photography-based artist Daniel Arnold, who has a show at Larrie on Orchard Street, shadowed Interview editor Mel Ottenberg, snapping away. Jordan Barse, proprietor of the Tribeca gallery Theta, was wandering around looking for Rose Marcus, who was taking phone pics of the terminals for future works, while Josh Kline took pictures of the plaques put up in the 1940s to honor the traders who died in World War II.
This outpouring of support is a testament to Balenciaga’s creative director, Demna Gvasalia, the typically mononymous savant who was tapped by Kering CEO François-Henri Pinault to take over the storied brand after his former line, Vetements, became an underground sensation beloved by fashion insiders. Other designers may work occasionally with the art world, but Demna brings artists in as his closest collaborators, and thus makes clothes conceptual enough that artists actually want to wear them.
This is not new for him. I was in Paris during fashion week in October 2015, and while all the usual shows took over grand spots in single-digit arrondissements—Dior was right next to the Louvre—Demna’s Vetements show drew luxury-brand cognoscenti and Kanye West, Travis Scott, and Virgil Abloh to Le Président, a dingy chinese restaurant in Belleville, where all the hip art galleries took spots.
The first look of that show—and it was a watershed moment—featured a hat emblazoned with the logo of the shipping company DHL—the first time under the Vetements umbrella that Demna would treat other brands the way Richard Prince treats Marlboro ads, appropriating them with glee, taking something and making it his own without any worry.
Since taking over at Balenciaga shortly after that show, Demna has sought out artists to collaborate in an informal but crucial way. Starting in May of 2018, the Balenciaga Instagram scrubbed all text or context from its feed and replaced it with caption-less Wolfgang Tillmans–esque photos of random stuff, and art-world insiders would notice their own among those featured: the artist Stewart Uoo, or the artist Nora Turato’s dog, Taco. The artist Kayode Ojo shot for the brand’s page and featured his dealer at the time, current 52 Walker director Ebony Haynes.
The brand refused to comment at the time; according to then GQ writer Rachel Tashjian, the artists in the shots said they signed NDAs.
As the minutes crept closer to the noon start time, Wall Street turned into an impromptu step-and-repeat for the fans, with the four quarters of the crowd intermingling before heading inside. Anne Imhof came with her dealer, Daniel Buchholz, while her partner, Eliza Douglas, was already inside ready to walk. Mayor Eric Adams arrived. Alex Israel came up to briefly dap Pharrell, who had been telling his crew that Marc Jacobs, standing beside him with his husband, Char Defrancesco, was the first person to rope him into high fashion back in 2004.
They were approached by CeCe Vu, the head of fashion at TikTok, as Defrancesco held aloft a gold money-shooting gun and spewed the counterfeit bills Balenciaga gave to each guest in a plume in the air while dipping into a full-body twerk.
“Now, that’s a TikTok,” Jacobs told Vu, taking a gigantic hit of his vape.
Stock exchange employees led guests into a waiting room and then through a disorienting series of anterooms—until, with a shock, there it was, the trading pit. Closed to the public for 20 years, one of the most famous and photographed places in finance was now open to a bunch of people who would never have elected to go there if they had the chance. One writer asked me if this was the actual stock exchange or just a set built by the brand, and for a second, I wasn’t sure. I Googled it, and the picture was the same. We were there. I think.
After Balenciaga staffers dressed like brokers led us to our seats, the “opening bell” rang, and the monitors started whirring and flashing fake stock numbers for Disney and Twitter and IBM. The Balenciaga show had started. Suddenly, thunderclap rumblings of a soundtrack by BFRND, the musician who is also Demna’s husband, filled the room, and sure enough, artist Douglas walked the runway first. Not that anyone could tell it was her. Douglas, and every model after, had a mask on, echoing back to last September, when Demna put the most recognizable woman on earth, Kim Kardashian, in a mask to attend the Met Gala. As the strains of a techno banger turned the bastion of moneymaking into an American Berghain, models in power suits clutching Sharpie-scrawled Starbucks cups strutted down the aisle like they were late to work at their bank. These were part of a collection Demna is calling “Garde-Robe,” which is separate from the brand’s ready-to-wear and a little more upscale; later in the show, Demna debuted a second collection, a collaboration with Adidas, with the Balenciaga logo underneath the brand’s iconic three stripes.
Like every runway show, it was all over in about 10 minutes. Afterward, in a mask of his own design, Demna came out to say a quick hello.
The after-party that night, just a 10-minute walk but a world away from the financial district, was at 88 Palace, a dim sum joint underneath the Manhattan Bridge in Chinatown. Gavin Brown used to have his Christmas parties there, before he closed his gallery. I arrived shortly after 9:00 to find many of the same people from the show downing drinks with glow-in-the-dark plastic ice cubes. A very young unGoogleable man who goes by Lësterr was crooning into a microphone.
Demna, now mask-less, gloriously stubbled, and downright ecstatic, sat watching Lësterr with Amanda Lepore. I told him that I’d been following the brand since before the Balenciaga glow-up, and that I had been there for the Vetements show at Le Président in Paris.
“I always go back to Chinese restaurants, right?” he said, gesturing around to the dim sum parlor. “I found this place and I thought it was perfect, but I guess it was already done as a place, right?”
I told him about how Brown had thrown parties here, making it hardly a new spot, and instead of disappointment, Demna seemed elated that he was not the first to make a discovery.