by Stella Hughes
5 min

From the (blue) carpet at the Oscars after-party to the catwalks of Milan, distressed has been one of the most talked about trends of the season. In large part thanks to Glenn Martens’ recent Diesel show, but also seen on the catwalks from many other designers, we seem to be undergoing an industry-wide shift into looking, well, worn out. Taking the form of deliberately aged and cracked leather pieces, alongside a propensity for ‘dirty wash’ denim, the trend has been everywhere recently.

The latest in the distression obsession? The Balenciaga Paris sneaker. With product shots dropping yesterday, the internet, somewhat predictably, went into overdrive over their appearance – distressed past the point of recognition, and giving shock over practicality. Soles are decimated, uppers torn and holey, and the silhouette that perhaps once resembled a classic Chuck 70 has been warped and destroyed. Whilst these images were of a limited run of 100 ‘super-distressed’ versions, the brand is set to release slightly less chewed out kicks for the sweet sweet price of $625.

With the branding ‘BALENCIAGA’ scrawled on to the midsole in what is no doubt meant to replicate graffiti, the brand has prefaced the campaign by suggesting that the images and products are merely demonstrating that the Paris sneakers are “meant to be worn for a lifetime”. Although with these, it kind of looks like they already have been.

Maison Margiela ©

However, Balenciaga certainly isn’t the first or last to release a ‘distressed’ sneaker. Margiela has been doing it for years, with a series of hi-top kicks that were roughed up and stapled, giving the illusion that they’ve been heavily worn and quickly fixed up. Gucci’s 2018 resort collection also saw distressed sneakers take to the runway: more specifically, an off white chunky shoe which’s black scuffs made them look like they had had a nasty encounter with a tube escalator, or some kind of fire. Same story with Acne Studios’ ‘Tumbled’ sneakers.

Moreover, the Italian brand Golden Goose has made distressed sneakers its whole identity – releasing range upon range of pre-roughed-up shoes, but at a premium price point. And this last note is where the trend has been criticised: why are luxury brands appropriating heavily-worn pieces and still selling them at high prices? We saw it with YEEZY’s first season: people were quick to point out the absurdity of splashing their cash on something that a year before, would have them denied entry to institutions with any kind of dress code. 

@the_mrjk ©

Others have even likened the trend of buying expensive beaters as classist – citing the same aesthetic that the luxury brands are trying to replicate as one that would get them followed around their stores, or that were born from financial necessity. Whilst the backlash has subsided since the trend first peaked around five years ago, the trend hasn’t: we now find ourselves surrounded by ‘distressed’ pieces, from all angles.

This argument is most relevant for the luxury brands whose high price points and usual brand identity feel at odds with the ‘upcycled’ or distressed pieces they put out. However, with Balenciaga and its Paris sneakers, something different may be going on. At the helm of Balenciaga, Demna has been no stranger to controversy: producing politically minded shows, IKEA-rip off bags (at wildly inflated prices) and making socio-political commentary a key pillar of his work.

Balenciaga ©

Take the most recent show: set against the backdrop of the ongoing Ukraine-Russia war, Demna sent models out in a manufactured blizzard, holding bin liner bags, as his interpretation and way of addressing the plight of refugees which the war has created. Some were instantly alienated – asking what a fashion show had to do with the war, and criticising the fact that it went ahead at all. However, within the context of Demna’s own experience and trauma as a refugee, the brand’s donation, and explanation of staging the show as a means of raising awareness and funds for Ukraine, others hailed the show as the most powerful fashion production in recent seasons.

For Balenciaga, its products are as much about the spectacle, the hype and the concept as they are about the final piece. It would be hard to imagine the newest it-bag, the Cagole, without its context as being papped on all the right people, or the pink, furry pop-up which launched it in London. Similarly, although undeniably striking, the brand’s show venues are not immediately as impactful as they become once their context is revealed – what could’ve just been a fun blue, spiralling catwalk for SS20 transformed into a scathing meta-commentary on Europe’s politics, by emulating the room where the European Parliament congregates and accompanying it with scents that were said to smell of antiseptic, blood, money and petrol.

So yes – Balenciaga’s Paris sneaker is designed to shock. And that it does. But surely more interesting are the suggestions of consumption, sustainability and class consciousness in fashion that the design provokes.

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