Today, following all-but-confirmed reports on Friday, PPR announced the appointment of Alexander Wang as Creative Director of Balenciaga, effective immediately. In a statement, Balenciaga President Isabelle Guichot said, “The Balenciaga fashion house and its staff are proud to welcome Alexander Wang, whose proven talent, modernity and individual and cosmopolitan vision of design will naturally embrace and enrich the unique heritage of this fashion house which will soon be one hundred years old.”
PPR Chairman François-Henri Pinault added, “Balenciaga is an extraordinary fashion house with inexhaustible potential and it is endowed with a priceless heritage. Alexander Wang will use his creativity and his own research to reinterpret and immortalize the distinctive, modern and extremely innovative style imposed by Cristóbal Balenciaga. "
The naming of Wang puts an end to heated speculation that engulfed the fashion world since the sudden departure of Nicolas Ghesquière several weeks ago, capping a 15-year tenure synonymous with innovation and artistry. The decision certainly signals a commercial tack for the revered Paris house and presents a challenge for Wang, who'll keep his eponymous New York label, which will surely see rapid growth. One source estimates his business could double in size in two years.
Publicly, the news has been met with a wait-and-see attitude, with the New York Times's Cathy Horyn blogging on Friday, "Although I haven’t been a fan of some of his collections (he seems to try too hard, in my opinion), my immediate hope is that he sees this as an amazing opportunity and has fun. Be serious and respectful but, above all, surprise us." Previously she hasn't been as hopeful, writing in 2010: "Mr. Wang doesn’t really have courage in the traditional sense of trying something new and difficult, but he does have China. Nearly all of his clothing is now produced there."
Privately, however, reaction has been visceral and negative. Criticisms include Wang's young age (28), relative inexperience, lack of hardship, and his street- and sportswear-inspired leanings—not the sort of things that typically go hand in hand with high-fashion. More seriously, there have been unspecific charges of "copying," although clear examples have not been raised. Several fashion-as-art diehards had even been hoping for the reverse retirement of a demigod along the lines of Martin Margiela or Helmut Lang.
There have also been claims that the move is a grab at the Asian market—China, specifically. In a story in today's International Herald Tribue, Suzy Menkes writes, "The real secret behind Mr. Wang’s appointment may lie in his ties to China. He speaks Mandarin, and Balenciaga has expanded rapidly in China in recent years. Mr. Wang will be in a unique position to push forward the Balenciaga image throughout greater China and Southeast Asia, industry experts said... With a demographic that suggests that 40 percent of Asians will be under age 30 by 2020, the French company may feel that it is time to take high fashion down from its lofty pedestal."
Our own view is this. If Wang can get past the grueling slog of designing back-to-back collections (spring and fall, pre-spring and pre-fall, men's and women's, Alexander Wang & Balenciaga), he'll need to do little more than tweak his already de-feminized aesthetic and fabric experimentation to fit with Balenciaga's vanguard image. In a way, since few would argue his aggressively modern look isn't the future of ready-to-wear, he's uniquely qualified for the position.