Balenciaga’s trashed trainers are dividing opinion — and tapping into fashion history

The fashion house Balenciaga has released a new pair of trainers. In itself this is nothing unusual — trainers are big business at Balenciaga, forming a sizeable chunk of a brand where turnover is now estimated at $2.3bn. But this new style — dubbed the “Paris” — has incited ire across the internet, as many things do today.

The anger hasn’t been elicited by the price of the trainers (which ranges from £350 to £1,290), nor scarcity (a relatively wide choice is available), but rather by a limited-edition version that has been customized to look annihilated , shredded, stained and graffitied by the artist Léopold Duchemin, and featured in imagery to promote the shoes. “[He] used a multitude of knives, scissors, punch paper for the texture,” said a Balenciaga representative. “For the colour, he used tea, wood filler, shoe polish and floor polish.” The result are dubbed “Full Destroyed”, and while the other “Paris” sneakers in the range are gently scuffed, 100 limited edition pairs have been heavily distressed.

“Part of me is totally offended,” wrote Livia Firth, founder of the Green Carpet Challenge and a champion for sustainability, below a picture of the shoes on her Instagram feed. “To buy something so destroyed is beyond offensive towards people I actually met who wore shoes like this because they couldn’t afford even basic meals. She followed it up with a query: “On the other side, what is Balenciaga trying to say?” Her comments reflect a wider discourse around these sneakers. “I can find these in the garbage for free,” read one. “Controversy. Goal is to spark a discussion”. A press release from Balenciaga suggested that the bashed up shoes are meant to look as if they will be worn for a lifetime.

But, what’s new? Fashion has flirted with destruction for decades — arguably, even centuries — with the most obvious example of being punk. An early version is slashing, the rich decoration of court costumes in the 15th and 16th century inspired in part by battle-slashed clothes. And in a similar vein high fashion has often, controversially, mimicked the clothing of the less fortunate. Marie Antoinette famously dressed as a milkmaid in gauzy white muslin in the twilight of the Ancien Regime, inciting anger from the impoverished population of France. In the 20th century, Gabrielle Chanel’s simple jersey dresses — the material drawn from the uniform of fishermen — were derided as “poverty de luxe” by rival Paul Poiret. But Chanel’s elevation of simplicity is a bit different than distressing clothes to appear worn.

There are a few early examples of this spirit—in 1938 Elsa Schiaparelli printed a dress with torn flesh, for instance, and applied a veil to match with flaps of fabric that could have been rifts in the material. And in the 1970s, influenced by punk, Zandra Rhodes created dresses that were slashed and held together with beaded safety-pins. But it wasn’t until the 1980s that high fashion really decided to unravel. Perhaps because the economy was booming, and because fashion often reacts against the status quo. Punk was a subculture: late-1970s high fashion, by and large, was moneyed and affluent, sparked by Yves Saint Laurent’s opulent 1976 “Ballet Russes” haute couture collection, filled with furs, rich satins and brocades.

Balenciaga Paris High Top trainers in white full destroyed cotton and rubber, £1,290, balenciaga.com

A challenge came from Rei Kawakubo who, in 1982 under her label Comme des Garçons, presented a collection in Paris of black knitwear pock-marked with holes. She called the sweaters “lace” — because what is lace, except a fabric with holes, really — and they were created, she said, by loosening screws in the knitting machines that manufactured the pieces, so the machinery couldn’t quite do its job. They caused a furore: critics dubbed them “post atomic” or “Hiroshima chic”. Similar names were used for Vivienne Westwood’s work. The “Bag Lady” look was a descriptor of choice.

It influenced later generations who shredded their designer jeans and, of course, there was Martin Margiela, who created sweaters made from old socks as well as garments with scruffy fraying seams and unraveling hems. It’s what fashion came to call “deconstruction” but dubbed, at the time, “le mode destroy”. Later, it dovetailed into fashion’s co-opting of grunge. Fashion hasn’t stopped since: Alber Elbaz habitually let unfinished hems poetically unravel in his work for Lanvin; Karl Lagerfeld created a 2011 Chanel collection with jackets that appeared moth-eaten; Rick Owens’ signature is a grizzled leather jacket that seems to have been boiled, and knits that come pre-pilled. Some methods of distressing are controversial — sandblasting, used to quickly and economically distress mass-market denim, has been banned in numerous countries due to the risk to garment workers of silicosis.

Rick Owens Womenswear SS/22 at Paris Fashion Week © Getty Images

John Galliano’s controversial Christian Dior collection in 2000, inspired by homeless people in Paris © AFP via Getty Images

Destruction is one thing — but destitution is another. There’s a jump between a frayed hem and, seemingly willingly, pastiching the clothes worn by the homeless or impoverished. In January 2000, John Galliano presented an haute couture collection for the house of Christian Dior that incited protests. His inspiration was, he said, the homeless people he saw on his morning jogs along the Seine, as well as the “rag balls” of the 19th century, when high society perversely dressed in ragged clothes especially created by the couturiers of the day. Galliano’s collection included chiffon gowns with hems exquisitely tattered by hand, and belts dangling detritus including taxidermied mice and whiskey bottles.

Homeless rights groups protested outside Dior’s headquarters — riot police were called — and after rebuttals and assertions of creative freedom, the house was forced to issue an apology. It was one of the first examples of the cancel culture we know so well today. That collection, however, still filtered into Galliano’s subsequent Dior Autumn/Winter 2000 ready-to-wear collection: a print derived from newspaper articles was worn by Sarah Jessica Parker on Sex And The City.

It’s also, honestly, a trend. As in the 1980s, fashion in general has swung towards acts of desecration in the pursuit of cool — walk through any busy street and the kind of ripped jeans last seen on the likes of Bros and New Kids On The Block seem resurgent, alongside chewed- up “vintage” T-shirts and beat-up sneakers. The Balenciaga trainers are just the most extreme example of a general shift — which is why its interesting that they have stirred up such extreme reactions. How much distressing, indeed, is too distressing? Maybe that’s just a matter of taste.

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