New designers are making much-anticipated debuts at major fashion houses, Americans designers are staging their first shows in Paris, and Rei Kawakubo sent piles of toys down the runway—but everyone in Paris is talking about Crocs!
Yesterday afternoon, Balenciaga circulated a press release announcing that the foam clog platforms shown at that morning's show were in fact an official collaboration with Crocs. Designer Demna Gvasalia is known for his unexpected collaborations—DHL, Reebok, and Ikea, to name a few—but the Crocs seemed like a new twist in his quest to challenge how luxury is defined on the runway. Though Christopher Kane did a marble-print, jewel-studded Croc last year, Gvasalia propelled them beyond their comfort-first, ergonomic appeal by pumping them up to four-inch platforms and covering them with Balenciaga-logo pins and plastic flowers.
The designer is a noted humorist, but what exactly was he trying to pull here? Crocs are practically shorthand for unflattering clothing that insists comfort will always, always trump aesthetic grace. They're not anti-fashion—they're outside of it. It's a chef's shoe, a mall mom shoe, and, because a non-high-fashion garment cannot exist without a small group of menswear freaks forming a cult around it, a menswear editor shoe. They tout its un-fashionability as an asset, but the Croc remained outside the exclusive realm of luxury fashion until yesterday, when it appeared as the epitome of Gvasalia's signature fashion trick: he takes clothing, references, cult styles, and most of all, other brands, and puts them on the runway to suggest it's not design skill or craft that makes something "luxury," but rather the framing or context. One day Crocs are $35 at a kiosk next to Panda Express, and the next, with some extra inches and the fashion stamp of approval that the Balenciaga logo has become, they're the toast of Paris! (We reached out to Balenciaga about the retail price of the shoes and will update if we receive a response.)
By putting the Croc on a raised platform, Gvasalia recalled another shoe with equally class-bound connotations: the chopine. Widely considered the precursor to the modern high heel, the chopine was a shoe worn by women in Venetian courts during the Renaissance: a jeweled slipper similarly plunked on a surface several inches tall. Its height at first served to keep the wearer's incredibly expensive, flowing gowns from touching the muddy city streets, but this feature was quickly exaggerated out of its practical purpose and into the realm of fashion, growing in stature (at times, up to 24") to reflect the wearer's social status. There's even a joke in Hamlet about a young actor having grown a chopine's height since the titular antihero last saw him: "Your ladyship is nearer to heaven than when I saw you last, by the altitude of a chopine."
Like much women's clothing in Venetian court culture, chopines were worn by noblewomen and courtesans alike, making these two women with wildly different social backgrounds indistinguishable. How are you to know who's rich and important, and who's merely sexy, when they're both dressed exactly the same? "So vexing was the confusion," writes Harold Koda in the Costume Insitute's entry on the chopine, "that sumptuary restrictions were established to define the boundary and at one point prohibited courtesans from wearing silk dresses and virtually all jewelry."
We have no such formal laws now, but the bewilderment with which Balenciaga's Crocs have been received suggest that many believe these lines exist. Crocs on the runway! But how will we know who knows what's cool and who's just going to the mall?!
Gvasalia's most provocative fashion move may be his attempt to abolish or at least challenge those invisible rules. What "luxury" means has been one of the essential unanswered questions of the current fashion era. So climb up on your platform Crocs, luxury shoppers. Gvasalia is bringing you closer to heaven.