‘‘We’ve created our own rules.’’

Balenciaga CEO Cédric Charbit and Demna on turning a marginal vision into mainstream success.

By Jonathan Wingfield
Photographs by Juergen Teller
Creative partner Dovile Drizyte

Cédric Charbit & Demna. - © System Magazine

Balenciaga CEO Cédric Charbit and Demna on turning a marginal vision into mainstream success.

Since he became Balenciaga’s CEO in 2016, Cédric Charbit has been on a stealth mission: transform the vision of Demna – a creative director arguably more comfortable when operating in the margins – into mainstream global success.

With Demna often working from his adopted hometown of Zurich and Charbit in Balenciaga’s Parisian headquarters, the pair have built a relationship they describe as based on mutual trust around a simple ritual: a weekly call. ‘Just the two of us, tête-à-tête,’ says Charbit. ‘When we are able to talk openly about things.’

Charbit himself has spent his entire career at Kering, beginning at the luxury group – then called PPR – as a young buyer for Printemps department store in Paris. After rising through the ranks, he was appointed executive vice president of product and marketing at Saint Laurent in May 2016. Within six months, he was offered the role of CEO at Balenciaga and jumped at the chance.

Since then, he has overseen an almost complete transformation of the company’s internal organisation, including the absorption of the entire merchandising department into the design studio, while balancing the sometimes-competing pressures of creative vision and commercial reality. The result has been a remarkable increase not only in the brand’s revenue, but also its image and status. Under his watch, Balenciaga has once again become what Charbit believes it should always be: ‘ground-breaking, innovative, pushing the norms.’

System spoke to Charbit and Demna at Balenciaga’s Rue de Sèvres headquarters about the pair’s learning curve, the challenge of implementing a powerful and singular vision, and ensuring that everything is infallibly ‘brand right’.

To find out what a great fashion partnership is all about, read the full conversation in System No. 18. Click to buy.

Were you a straight-A student, rebel or slacker at school?

Demna Gvasalia: I was always a straight-A student. Best in class, worked a lot, and always felt that I needed to prove to my parents that I was good enough. I guess that was my distorted idea of deserving love – and I don’t know whether that translates into ‘straight-A’ or ‘gay-A’ – but I was always the eccentric weirdo who was good at studying, who didn’t fit into any group, and who didn’t have a lot of friends. There was a rebellious side to me too, though: I’d wear pants that were cropped or worn low on the waist, which was considered to be too unacceptably ‘Western’ for the Soviet school system. If they could see your socks it meant you were trying to be like Michael Jackson, and the school would call my parents to say they should stop spreading capitalist values; values which, of course, I really admired. So when I got in trouble, it was always dress code related.

Cédric Charbit: I was a very good pupil at school, no real surprises there. I started my schooling in a very bourgeois setting, but then my family’s financial situation changed. When that happened I was able to get a scholarship, which meant I could continue my studies, and I’m really grateful that the French system allowed me to get ahead. That wouldn’t have been possible otherwise, especially in an industry like fashion, which isn’t known for being inclusive of people from diverse backgrounds or who come through scholarships.

Demna: I knew that if I wanted to get somewhere – and get out of the system – I needed to be as good as I possibly could in whatever I was doing. Escape as motivation was the mindset: to get somewhere you need to work hard.

How did you express your creativity when you were a teenager?

Demna: I experimented a lot with what I was wearing, and I was making clothes for myself. Then people like my mum’s friends or the cool guys in the neighbourhood would be like, ‘Hey, I like your pants, can you make some for me?’ So I started to make clothes for other people, as well as customizing things. I still do this now actually; I still cut up things to make new things.

What informed your understanding of glamour or what an aspirational lifestyle could look like?

Demna: Being able to live with your own identity, being different. I hate the word ‘glamour’; I always did, maybe because I didn’t grow up aspiring to the glamour and sparkle of Hollywood. I never dreamed of having that life, of socializing, going to dinners or cocktail parties, it never interested me. I don’t know why, maybe because I didn’t see enough of it as a kid to be inspired by it. But I always dreamed of the freedom to be who you are, without being judged. That’s still difficult in society today but it’s still my aspirational lifestyle.

‘I’d wear pants that were cropped to try to be like Michael Jackson. But the school would call my parents to say stop spreading capitalist values.’

The pursuit of freedom.

Demna: Absolutely, and the way I dress. People are sometimes scared of my look, my silhouette. They judge me on that because they’re not able to categorize me, like, ‘What the fuck! Who is this guy?’ The other day I went to the Maison du Caviar restaurant with a friend here in Paris. I never really go to those ‘chic’ places – I mostly cook at home – and they didn’t want to let me in because of the way I was dressed. They were like, ‘Chez nous, c’est pas possible!’ I was like [incredulous], ‘Pardon?’

What were you wearing?

Demna: Head-to-toe Balenciaga! Had the other person I was with not said, ‘It’s OK; he’s with us’, they wouldn’t have let me in. That’s the story of my life – I don’t fit in. People who go to ‘chic’ places like that don’t have the freedom to look the way they want and I think my career will always be dedicated to proving the opposite.

Did you feel uncomfortable once you’d made it into the Maison du Caviar?

Demna: Yes, but the owner of the place later joined us at the table and I complained to him, saying, ‘What the fuck? You should explain to your staff that we’re in 2021 and they shouldn’t judge people by their silhouette.’ It’s like this everywhere. [Sighs] Unless they know who I am – Demna, creative director at Balenciaga – they won’t let me in. But the moment they know that, the way I choose to look suddenly becomes acceptable. That’s what’s so unfair. I hate that, and I don’t want to be a part of it. I’ll never be hungry enough to have to wear a tuxedo to eat. I’d be happier going to McDonalds wearing my rubber boots. That is my aspirational lifestyle – just to be who I am.

Risk-taking seems so naturally embedded in Balenciaga right now. Tell me about a significant risk you took in your life, and how it panned out?

Cédric: I actually want to talk about a day when Demna and I were chatting and he mentioned a traditional Russian saying: ‘If you don’t take risks, you don’t drink Champagne.’

Demna: Russian motivational sayings are generally alcohol related. [Laughs] Although I should add that that’s not actually my life motto!

You haven’t got it tattooed, have you?

Demna: [Laughs] No, good idea though.

Cédric: But that motto nicely summarizes how, since I met Demna, my attitude to risk – certainly professional risk – has changed. I remember a WhatsApp message I sent to Demna when we’d just started working together. It read: ‘I am sharing the risk with you.’ And he answered, ‘OK, thanks, but just so you know, this isn’t a risk.’ That helped me to understand that the right decisions are risky, and the more you risk, the more you gain. I found this new perspective enriching because I’m naturally quite risk adverse. So, with Demna, I’ve learned to expect the unexpected. And that is what works: to accept being open to doing things that are innovative and unprecedented, which by definition is risky.

Demna: I remember that WhatsApp message. It was all part of how we were building our relationship, because one generally doesn’t share those kinds of values straight away. Cédric was very open from the beginning, though. Risk taking is just part of my character; I grew up that way. I don’t think it’s what I’d call ‘intellectual’ risk taking, which can be quite scary when you overthink things. It’s more intuitive or impulsive; you just know something’s right, even if everyone else thinks you’re crazy.

Can you give me an example?

Demna: I had a great job, but I had a feeling I had to do something else, so one day I just quit. All my family and friends were saying, ‘You’re crazy. You’ll end up jobless. You want to do your own project [Vetements], but no one needs it.’ I ignored those negative intellectual aspects completely because I knew deep down I had to do it. It didn’t even feel like a risk; I knew it was the right thing to do. And here at Balenciaga it is like that sometimes on a corporate level. It might be like, ‘Oh my God, what are we doing here?’, but the brand is big enough to be aware of that risk. That’s also how you grow, evolve, have your own unique identity.

Cédric: And that is what’s so inspiring.

Demna: Risk-taking always has a negative connotation, but it is also very hopeful. You can discover new things which, from a creative point of view, can be hard to do. It’s much easier to stay in your comfort zone and stagnate.

‘My parents had a lot of retail ventures, including a Céline franchise store. As a teenager I used to run that store at weekends and during the holidays.’

When I interviewed [then Louis Vuitton CEO] Yves Carcelle, he said that he was a natural-born entrepreneur, already selling marbles at primary school. What about you, Cédric?

Cédric: Before they went bankrupt, my parents were entrepreneurs who had a lot of retail ventures, and among them was a Céline franchise store in Toulouse. As a teenager I used to run that store during the holidays and on the weekends. I was barely 15 but I already had a team working with me. I say this because I really felt that I was a born entrepreneur; it was always in me. I always wanted that, and it absolutely defines me. And then I met Demna.

What changed?

Cédric: In January 2018, Demna and I did an interview together for the Financial Times, and the journalist Jo Ellison wrote something like, ‘After meeting with these two, you wonder who the strongest businessman in the room is.’ That got me thinking, because she was quite right: with Demna, there are lots of things that have inspired me – about taking risks, but also about being an entrepreneur.

Cédric, Demna has often cited Martin Margiela from a creative standpoint, but who did you look up to in terms of innovative leadership and business management earlier in your career?

Cédric: It’s a cliché, but I’d say Apple. The products, the people, the decisions, the aesthetics, the concepts: it all inspired me, like it did my entire generation. As a brand and a culture, Apple has reached a level of modernity, innovation and excellence that I find very inspiring. As for a person or particular group of people, it would be the Pinault family. As predictable as that might sound, it is true. I started my career at Parisian department store Printemps, which was part of Kering –
PPR at the time – and the Pinault family was already the owner. It was my first job and I remember very clearly the moments when Pinault family members spoke to collaborators such as myself. I mean, I started as an intern, then became a buyer; I was really entry-level. I always found them to be inspiring, and they gave me a vision of luxury and entrepreneurship that I found fascinating and innovative. Things such as sustainability and proximity management came very early on, as did the intention to genuinely ‘create’ brands rather than simply developing them.

Was there any advice that they gave you in particular?

Cédric: In general, there are people who talk a lot but inspire very little, then others who speak less but are very inspirational. There are members of the Pinault family with whom I have had only a handful of conversations, but they’ve made a real impact on me. They saw me in a way that I never thought anyone would ever see me.

I remember speaking with people at Balenciaga from the late 1990s through to about 2012, and thinking that while there was real creative ambition, the company itself seemed like a pretty bare-bones operation. Demna, did you immediately sense the potential the house had to become the size and scale it is today?

Demna: Intellectually, I didn’t have any expectations. I would have been too scared to take on the responsibility if I had, and to be honest I didn’t have much confidence in myself back then. The idea of how far any project I’m working on can go never crosses my mind. For me, it’s the opposite: ‘At what point do you have to become conscious of whether it’s already gone too far?’ My only preoccupation when I came here was building the creative vision and trying to modernize the aesthetic that could fit into the heritage while also being my own story. There was no masterplan, like, ‘Right, I want to create a sneaker…’ It just came naturally
because I didn’t have any expectations, and I didn’t feel there was expectation placed on me either. I felt genuinely free, which as a creative is the ideal way of being at your best.

Cédric: I’d say there was a plan but there wasn’t a plan. At the beginning, I had never been a CEO before and Demna had never held such a senior position in a company of this size, so we were in freestyle mode. It didn’t take long to realize that the fit between Demna’s creative vision and the brand, and the execution of the heritage done in his way, was a rare match. That alignment was what unlocked the potential. I often talk about the magnitude of the vision, and I’m conscious that a house meeting an artistic director who can bring such a strong, powerful and long-term vision doesn’t always happen. I quickly realized how important it was to have a genuine exchange with Demna. From my perspective, I had accepted to run a company, of which I am the CEO, yet at the same time, I need to passionately and constantly execute [Demna’s] vision. That is hard for directors to admit: you have a company, a team, you make the decisions – all the CEO clichés – but you also need to be able to execute a vision, when that vision is spot on and powerful. My role is to manage Balenciaga, but also to execute this vision. And the idea of executing something when you manage a company is sometimes taboo, but it’s something I totally accept.

Demna: In relationships in a house like this, it is important that there is genuine trust between someone like Cédric and me. It needs to work together, not in parallel. It took us a while to understand and have confidence in one another, to be able to say, ‘You have to trust my vision and I’ll trust yours.’ Obviously it is not always fluid, but it has become more fluid over time, like in every relationship you build. Cédric is a very talented businessman and visionary, and I really recognize that, even more over time. It works both ways, too: he has seen where the vision or the ideas I have might be going, even when those ideas might be a bit, ‘What the hell?’

‘I once sent Demna a WhatsApp which read:‘I’m sharing the risk with you.’ And he replied,‘OK, thanks, but just so you know, this isn’t a risk.’’

You mean, too extreme?

Demna: …or maybe just out of the comfort zone. That can be hard if you don’t have trust. I’m very Russian in my way of saying things; I am very direct. We had to find a healthy way of communicating, but I always felt the moment would come when I could trust Cédric. That is what we have worked on in our ‘professional couple relationship’; we have learned to trust each other’s visions, which is lucky because it’s rare.

Cédric: It’s a combination of getting to know one another, working together, having success, having relative failures. That can only happen over time. I know how lucky we are, especially when you consider that some of the important duos in fashion have also shared a private life.

Tell me about your first proper meeting together.

Cédric: It was a lunch, and Demna brought along a list of about 10 points; a mix of ideas and questions, like a to-do list. It was brilliant to see his intelligence and lucidity about the situation. And I was like, ‘OK, wow…’

Demna: Did you keep those questions?

Cédric: Yes, I still have them.

And has everything on that list now been ticked off?

Cédric: I think so. Every time we talk, there’s always a solution, but it’s important not to confuse the word ‘problem’ with something new. Being innovative brings things that are beyond the comfort zone, but that’s not a problem.

But within all of this, there remains ego. How does that get put aside when you receive a to-do list?

Demna: I don’t think my list was based on ego. I don’t remember those exact ‘ten commandments’, but I’m pretty sure they were based on the problematics of how the brand could develop. I don’t see myself as a businessman. I make a product that someone has to pay money for at the end of the day, but I have had situations in my career where ego became such an obstacle that it destroyed a lot of stuff. I never felt this from Cédric. In building our relationship, I always felt that the ego was somewhere else, but never in-between us.

Cédric, was it necessary to change the business model or management approach as radically as Demna was reinventing the creative proposition?

Cédric: When I first arrived I met the management team – about a dozen people – and each person told me a story about Balenciaga, none of which was the same. It wasn’t that they didn’t like Balenciaga, but I quickly realized that they weren’t aligned in a shared project, and that this lack of alignment between the individuals would be problematic.

Why? Because of the extent to which Demna was reinventing the brand’s creative vision?

Cédric: Demna’s ideas to transform Balenciaga have been really strong – our aesthetic, our scale and our business culture have all changed. The execution of this vision has been achieved because it has had to be done collectively. You often get executives who are highly skilled and talented, but they can be too focused on leadership and autonomy. If you have a vision that’sright for the brand, then you have to come together. There’s Demna’s creative vision but there was a business vision, too: the number of collections, the schedule, the unification of genders, the development of menswear…

‘The other day I went to the Maison du Caviar but they wouldn’t let me in because of the way I was dressed. Like, ‘Chez nous, c’est pas possible!’’

Demna, it’s interesting to hear Cédric talk about implementing necessary structural changes. To what extent if any were you involved in this?

Demna: I remember my first meeting – this was before Cédric joined – with the menswear team at their office on Rue du Cherche-Midi. I didn’t know them at all as it was only my second day here. It was the most depressing experience I’ve ever had in fashion: they had seven boards with technical sketches that had been given to them by the commercial team to execute, and that was their collection. And I was like, ‘But where is your vision, guys? Do you actually like any of this?’ And they were all like, ‘No, we hate it, but that’s what we have to do.’ I just said, [incredulous] ‘What? You have to do this? But you’re designers – you’re creatives.’ I came out of the room thinking [sighs], ‘What the hell. What can we do when the system is so wrong? If the direction comes from the other end – the commercial team – then it’ll never be a desirable product. We’ll never be able to develop a proper menswear line in this house, if this is how it works.’

So you had to break it and start again.

Demna: Yes, completely. I felt like we started the menswear line from scratch – from the structural point of view through to the vision – until we fused it with the women’s, and it became one thing. Men’s, women’s, we don’t even have separate designers any more; everyone does everything. And they love it, too. Designers don’t like to be put in those boxes, like, ‘You only do knitwear for women.’

Was that a culture shock for some people or was everyone immediately liberated and onboard?

Demna: The people who found it a culture shock are no longer here. And thank God for that because we needed open-minded people. I probably now have the most open-minded team ever! We’re used to these things: men’s and women’s together, only doing two collections, we split them in four and they love that, too. We’ve managed to create our own rules, ones that are good for us.

Cédric, what was your first impression when Demna showed you the Triple S sneaker? Did you genuinely see it as an instant hit? And given its success, how tempting is it to say to Demna, ‘More, more, more of the same please’?

Cédric: It’s always more, more, more of the same! I am that kind of guy. Demna is the one who sometimes says less is more – for the best. As for the Triple S, I arrived in early December 2016, and about six weeks later this shoe was first presented on almost every look at the men’s show. I am supposed to have a commercial eye, or at least an eye for what will be successful, but I didn’t feel that when I first saw the shoe – and I don’t mind saying so. The question I asked myself was, ‘Is this a bestseller or not?’ Which I now realize was the wrong question. This job is more about asking if a product that Demna has proposed is what I call ‘brand right’. Does it fit the vision? Is it groundbreaking, innovative?

Demna: Maybe you didn’t see the potential, but what did you think about a sneaker being part of the brand vocabulary? There are two things here: the aesthetic idea that the Triple S would be considered too big and too extreme for the time, but also the idea of having a sneaker in the collection was… because
I don’t think you were too attached to that idea.

Cédric: Is having a sneaker in a show right? Yes, great. Is it brand right? Yes, because it’s pushing the norms, and literally pushing the volumes, which is very Balenciaga. Everything was revolutionary about it, everything screamed Balenciaga, and was utterly brand right, but instead we asked ourselves if it was a bestseller. That said, the price was very high for the time.

Demna: We couldn’t even produce it.

Cédric: Then again, I did find the concept of having couture elements and streetwear elements together for this house very seductive, because in that show there was also beautiful tailoring. I felt very confident about that. I quickly sensed the infatuation that people had for the shoe; it was then my job to execute the vision and make sure that it was a success. Another point, with both Balenciaga and with Demna: I realized that there was a different approach to what we call in the industry ‘timeless’, and how to elaborate the heritage, the archives, the traditions of a house. It’s almost the opposite with Balenciaga. Demna innovates, and his innovative products become timeless.

‘I think over time we’ve figured out our respective territories and we don’t cross the frontiers, which can be very dangerous in these industries.’

They become instant classics.

Demna: Not instant, it takes some time. These days, it’s less of a big deal, but back then when we launched the Triple S, it was a very different sneaker silhouette. Whether that is considered an ugly sneaker or not is just a question of taste. I personally think there are many far uglier sneakers out there! But back then it was so new that it took some time… now it is a kind of timeless product within our context here.

Cédric: That’s what’s interesting about our approach – we’re defining these products that will become timeless rather than looking back at previously timeless products. I think that’s a very intelligent vision, and with Demna’s work, it’s always, ‘What is the concept, what’s the message, what are we doing?’ And I realized that this creative approach was a new way of generating timeless products.

Demna, you’ve had these big hits with sneakers, bags, the collabs, the shows, and so on. Does this success motivate you, make you feel more confident? Or does it add further pressure to maintain the success, to replicate those previous hits?

Demna: Interestingly, I never thought about it as pressure, because I have recognized the importance of accepting failure, while you innovate. Failure is great; we need to be able to fail to create something new and we need to expect to fail along the way. I don’t feel like every product we work on is going to be a hit. In fact, it will never work if you try to plan that, and say to yourself, ‘We need to make a new sneaker like this or like that’, somehow trying to follow a recipe. That’s just going to become an intellectual exercise, one that won’t come from your actual sense of aesthetics. The Triple S is one example, but we have a lot of other products that we have recently worked on or are currently working on that were not meant to be conceived at all. I do feel free from any obligation to create hit products. It is actually the opposite, because within that process of failure there is always a hit product that just comes. Because it’s a good idea, a good product, because it has an identity. That is the magic of creativity: you just keep doing what you do, without creating this frame of ‘I need to deliver something’. The moment I start doing that, I’ll become a worse designer.

Does that culture of embracing failure extend to the whole creative team?

Demna: A lot of people are fearless, but they are often afraid. Sometimes it is just pragmatic, like, ‘We’re doing all this, but maybe it won’t work.’ But I don’t think about all that. Whenever I believe in an idea 95%, then I just want to execute it so I can see if it works or not. I think I have a trustworthy filter, because if I love something, then I feel there is a reason for it to be within my vision. After that we’ll see, maybe other people won’t like it at all. For example, this boot I’m wearing today [points to black oversized chunky rubber boot] I’m not sure more than five people liked it. [Laughs]. But for me it was something that I felt was right to exist within my vision, and that’s how I function. If I spend more than 10 minutes on thinking whether a product is good or not then I just drop it, because it means that I’m forcing it. More than 10 minutes is too long.

Cédric, your heritage is as a businessman. So how does that conversation between you the entrepreneur and Demna the disruptive creative libertine work out? When and how does the inherent conflict become harmonious, and when does it not resolve itself?

Cédric: Demna and I have an ongoing dialogue that’s between just the two of us, tête-à-tête, when we are able to talk openly about things. Most times it is fluid, sometimes it isn’t. But overall, I’ve never experienced anything like it before. And for that, I feel extremely grateful. Yes, I am a businessman, but I quickly realized that my capacities, in regards to Demna and his generation, are a bit obsolete. And that’s important to acknowledge, because I believe Demna – like certain other designers – has great merchandising skills. The best merchandiser in the room is always Demna… no offence, Demna. Of course, it’s my job to highlight mar-
ket-related or product-related issues to Demna – as and when, if any, and at the right moment.

‘Cédric says, ‘Demna, think about the customer. Sure, create a denim jacket that swings slightly to the back, but don’t make it be completely upside down.’’

Do you talk to Demna about purely creative things?

Cédric: All the time. And does Demna talk to me about business? All the time.

Demna: I think over time we have figured out our territories and we don’t cross the frontiers, which can be very dangerous in these industries.

Cédric: I know when to stop and so does he. Something else that’s very important to point out is that Demna’s design department has absorbed the merchandising department.

Demna: Cédric was really open to that, because we’d had a lot of issues with the merchandising department not really working harmoniously with the design department, and kind of existing in two parallel worlds. That can be a problem because merchandisers have their own vision, which is very market and statistics based – and which is never in line with the creative department, especially if those creatives are innovative – because it is only based on what sells. That’s what it is like for our competitors, but somehow Balenciaga is standalone in that respect, because we cover so many different customers – from sneakers to couture.

So you brought the teams together?

Demna: I suggested we fuse them, and have the merchandisers more involved in the process of creation. They pretty much know now what we’re doing from the very first product we make, which allows them to come up with propositions and solutions that complete the product offer at the end. So we work for six months on a season and the merchandisers will say, ‘We have an idea for the shoe you’re working on; maybe we should have a sandal [version] of it, too.’ That conversation is now part of the process; it’s constant.

Cédric: And it works for us. Not just the creativity, but our product offer, too. Is it high level and efficient? Yes, it’s one of the best in the industry, if not the best.

Demna: In response to what Cédric mentioned before about me being a great merchandiser. Personally, I don’t see myself as a businessman, but I am a consumer; maybe an extreme version of a Balenciaga consumer, because I am inside the brand. But the brand has grown so much and the range of customers who really desire the product is so much broader, and this is where Cédric comes in. I’ve learned a lot from those balanced propositions based on a mix of the products – some more extreme than others.

So, compromise becomes the fundamental condition.

Cédric: Well, if your ego isn’t in the room, you have no fear, and if you’re not corporate driven, then you can have faith in the vision and believe it’ll work. I think it’s one of our best decisions and has proven to be really successful.

Demna: It doesn’t happen overnight, but you can see it is efficient. And for me, this is a Balenciaga model that we have created. So the creative and the business sides have become aligned. I can’t say that happens all the time, that is part of a compromise, too.

Cédric: And while Demna’s feedback is constructive and solution driven I also have to be ready for a ‘no’.

Demna: But it’s not my ego saying no. I have to know when something might devalue the brand, and make Balenciaga less Balenciaga. I think knowing that
makes it easier to accept this.

What percentage of the more ‘extreme’ products now gets cut?

Demna: It’s more a question of how can we make some of the more difficult ideas more relatable for a general customer – and not just for a fashion victim like
me – while not watering them down.

Did the boots you’re wearing start out like that or have they become more palatable since the original design?

Demna: This particular one is hard to make less like it is; some ideas should only exist in a small number for a small number of customers, like myself. I mean I call myself a fashion victim because I don’t have that filter of what is too much. There is nothing too much for me in the way I dress but I am aware that we are addressing people who cannot go that far. And that is when Cédric says, ‘Think about the customer, think about your mum’ – who loves fashion by the way. So, you know, create a denim jacket that might swing slightly to the back, but don’t make it be completely upside down.

Cédric: Demna’s mum is often part of
the conversation!

Demna: This is the way I work though, not just with the designers but with anyone on the team. I often ask people what they think – it could be an intern or a design assistant – their status on the team doesn’t matter. They’re all pretty outspoken, like, ‘This is something I’d wear, this is too much for me’, and very often I will change my idea based on what they say. I just want the best idea. For me, this is the most natural way to work, with the ego waiting over there, on the sofa. It’s not only working with Cédric; it’s on every level. You’d be surprised how many people have much better ideas than I do.

‘I am supposed to have an eye for what will be successful, but I didn’t feel that when I first saw the Triple S shoe – and I don’t mind saying so.’

How do you navigate asking four different design assistants and getting four strong and opposing opinions?

Demna: Sometimes it is just good to hear the opinions, because everyone is a potential customer. I’m like an anthropologist when it comes to making clothes, and I need those opinions. Sometimes the opinions are quite nul, but that’s good, too; it’s the same desire to fail in order to create. They often have great ideas that immediately replace mine, because they’re just stronger or speak to more people or are more immediate, and that is something I’ve learned to use to our advantage.

Cédric, without wanting to patronise him, does Demna need protecting?

Cédric: I think part of my role is to protect Demna; he is constantly being solicited, and the stakes are very, very high. When there’s a show or a presentation, whatever is written or commented on can be powerful in good and bad ways. In the modern world I think it’s important to have a protective and caring discourse. It isn’t something paternal, we just support each other.

Demna: It’s not protection from people being critical about what I’m doing; that’s something I’m used to. [To Cédric] But I do feel protected by you because
if I’m heading in the wrong direction you let me know in a very gentle way, not being like, ‘What the hell are you doing here?’ That’s what I feel I need, and without it, I’d feel very alone in this house.

Demna, I interviewed you the night before your first-ever Balenciaga show, and the thing I remember most was how calm you seemed. You even mentioned that
you’d been ready for four days, and that the atelier team were getting stressed out because there wasn’t any stress.

Demna: They didn’t like it, they were suspicious. They thought I’d come in and change everything at the last minute!

Are you still as organized and stress-free these days?

Demna: I think I am even more organized! Structurally, we have grown; we have incredible technicians working for us, so the collection is ready almost two
weeks before. There are retouches, but we never change the whole jacket. Also, I’m pretty clear from the beginning of the season about what we’ll work on, so
there are no last-minute surprises. It’s never like, ‘Oh, I just watched Squid Game and now I want to do red overalls.’ I don’t want to have any fashion drama in the last two days. That’s not what I thrive on; it doesn’t make me come up with better ideas if I do. I’m not like those musicians who need to be depressed to create great music. After this interview I’m going downstairs to do the styling of the Fall 2022 collection; we’ll play some music, and everyone will have fun. This is the Balenciaga way of working: it is the combination and the credibility of the team, but it’s also a very clear and defined vision that doesn’t require the fashion drama of the 1990s, with everyone running around screaming.

Balenciaga was recently described as operating almost like a media company. Do you ever sense that there is a risk the clothes will become secondary to the spectacle and sheer amount of ‘activity’? Does that even matter?

Demna: It matters a lot. As long as I am here the clothes will never be secondary to anything else; they are the essence and driving force of the brand. The outside world might perceive what we do as a media strategy, but really it is just about discovering other ways of communicating the vision and creating products that are fun. Personally, I’d be bored to death by now, going to the same location to see yet another fashion show, and this is why during the pandemic, we had to discover other ways, whether The Simpsons or Fortnite. It could look almost like show business in some way, but fashion has become that, and is actually more powerful than some parts of show business. There are so many people following what we do these days – being a part of it or hating it – and that’s because fashion is part of the media today. But I feel fashion can move even further forward, staying exciting and relevant and creating moments of ‘what’s next’. I always want to know what’s next, that is how fashion becomes entertainment.

Lastly, which Simpsons character do you most identify with?

Demna: That is the hardest question today! I have to think about that… probably a combined and genderless version of Bart and Lisa.

What would the hair look like?

Demna: A bit punky, a mohawk maybe. Bart, because I have fun getting into trouble, and then Lisa because of being the straight-A nerd. And maybe a bit of Maggie, too, just observing things, a wannabe anthropologist. That’s basically my own character in life.

And you, Cédric?

Cédric: Well, Demna just gave me my own Simpsons character this season. That is my life achievement – it doesn’t get better.

Taken from System No. 18.