Master of the immersive fashion show, Demna Gvasalia dazzled once again with the reveal of his latest Balenciaga collection via a bespoke video game entitled “Afterworld: The Age of Tomorrow.” It propelled his usual cast of cool characters to New York City circa 2031, still clogged with scaffolding and food carts — along with flashing drones and number 7 buses that levitate and twist into the sky.
On Friday, Balenciaga dispatched Oculus VR headsets and a wrinkled, yellowed letter that reeked of mildew and patchouli, foreshadowing the game’s smattering of Middle Ages heroism amid near-future dystopia via cutting-edge photogrammetry and other technological wizardry.
Like Jonathan Anderson’s show-in-a-box concept for his own brand and Loewe, the game required patience and effort, including a panic run to the convenience store for AA batteries to power the finicky handheld controllers. Even the desktop version of the game can be challenging for newbies: It turns out avatars can get tripped up by an ottoman in Zone 1, a sniff around a vast Balenciaga store set in a parking-garage-like space.
The press release about the game, said to be the largest volumetric video project ever undertaken, describes a series of tasks and interactions. (Was I supposed to hop on that futuristic motorcycle?) In fact, the game felt more like a sequel to the music video Balenciaga screened during Paris Fashion Week, models lip-synching their way through rain-slicked Paris. Here, the journey was more mind-bending, through decaying cities, a magical forest with white rabbit guides and a rave party that yields to a breathtaking mountain landscape.
Just getting through the five zones — where one alights upon artist Eliza Douglas, in full Joan of Arc regalia, shoving a sword into stone — felt like a victory in itself. A quick breathing exercise — the reward for finishing the game — was a welcome balm for frazzled nerves.
And so was the collection, which saw Gvasalia take commanding possession of oversized silhouettes and streetwear tropes, here enlivened with vivid color, textural fabrics and couture-like cutting. The great thing about the video game, once you relinquished the urgency to just get through it, was the ability to stop and inspect each outfit from all angles. You could appreciate the forward pitch of sleeve heads; the trapeze cutting on a sweatshirt; the lap apron — borrowed from a scooter — attached to the front of loose jeans, or the dense embroideries on a ragged, silver-y turtleneck dress.
The outerwear was fantastic, from meaty parkas and bombers with NASA patches and skewed, off-one-shoulder puffers to a hooded blanket coat, complete with scarf edges dripping into the face. Familiar items were given new verve via daring cutting, as in supersized, yet elegantly draped T-shirts; unusual fabrics, such as crinkled jersey for oversize tailoring, or juxtaposition, as in blown-out jeans worn over silvery boots modeled after medieval armor.
Logos were sparingly used and with wry humor, including the Playstation 5 font scribbled up the arms of a sweatshirt, or a T-shirt imploring the wearer, if found, to be taken to a Balenciaga store.
In an interview via e-mail, Gvasalia professed his conviction that “fashion is about loving clothes” and using them as a “modern-day armor” to help people express an attitude and a character. He carried over from his pre-collection in September (he reversed the order of seasons recently) the idea of making new clothes look lovingly used.
“There was a whole study of authentic aging treatments for most of the garments,” he explained. “I believe the sustainable and smart consumption in the future will encourage us to wear our clothes until they fall apart and decay, so this collection is full of clothes that look old, somewhat worn in and pretty destroyed.”
He also did some clever upcycling: shredding leftover fabrics and embroidering them on down jackets to give them a shaggy, fur-like appearance. As with his last outing, much of the collection is considered unisex and uni-size, employing mostly fully sustainable materials: 93.3 percent of them, to be exact.
Gvasalia said he decided on the video game format last April, and discovered that making one is almost akin to haute couture, which he plans to tackle next July.
“You create the whole world from scratch — what type of trees you put, with what leaves on them, what type of sunset,” he marveled. “For the game visual to look authentic and realistic, you really have to consider every single detail.”
While hardly an avid gamer, he said he mostly plays car racing “in short breaks while working at home because it helps me disconnect and reset my brain, so it has a similar effect as mediation, which is a more practical approach to gaming in my case,” he said. “But I have been fascinated by video games’ aesthetic and how it developed since the Nineties to now.”
“Afterworld” was billed as an “allegorical adventure” anchored to “mythological pasts and projected futures” in which the hero emerges as a master of two worlds.
It turns out Gvasalia’s heroes are many.
“My grandmothers, my parents and [husband] Loick are my personal heroes of all times,” he said. “In mythology it is Achilles, because I love a hero who has a small but dangerous weakness. In history, it is Joan of Arc because she is a symbol of fearless eternal youth and bravery. And in gaming, it is Aloy from ‘Horizon Zero Dawn’ because she is an outcast, just like myself.”