PARIS — While on holiday in the South of France this summer, Demna and his husband Loik Gomez found themselves distinctly othered because of the way they were dressed in their usual voluminous Gothic black. So they tried a social experiment. They kitted themselves out in “real” clothes — polo shirt, slacks, loafers — just to see what it felt like to fit in. “It felt disgusting,” said Demna. And it confirmed a principal point of pride for him. “The only way I want my work to be is loyal to myself, not trying to be someone else.”The experiment may even have influenced the collection Demna showed for Balenciaga on Sunday morning. His “most personal, most favourite,” he called it. “I needed to do it badly because I had a horrible year.” His last ready-to-wear show in March hadn’t helped his state of mind much. Too polished, too neutral in its white canvas box. For Spring 2024, he found his way back to spectacle, again a box, but this one massive, lined in saturated red theatrical drapes, with the audience sitting in theatre seats while a cast of dozens paraded past. Demna reclaimed his place as today’s grandest fashion showman.I find it hard to see curtains like that and not think of the Red Room in Twin Peaks. In this case, it wasn’t such a weird analogy, because the show itself had a steadily accumulating atmosphere of dread. The show invitation included a small paperback minutely detailing the work that goes into tailored clothing. The actress Isabelle Huppert read from that book on the soundtrack, over music that intensified from lushly classical to pounding subsonic electronica you could feel in the pit of your stomach, with an increasingly agitated Huppert practically shouting to make herself heard over the din. It was perversely thrilling. Demna said it was his way to convey the immense pressure that comes with his job, not least having to address the sales downturn since his horrible year.Many of the clothes themselves felt stress-tested — visibly worn, frayed or ripped, clear responses to the polish of the March show. One thread that has underpinned Demna’s recent work at Balenciaga is desperation. Here, there were people waving passports and boarding passes, looking for a way out. He insisted that was more about identity. “I don’t care much about luxury,” he claimed. “I don’t want to give people a proposition that makes them look rich or powerful. My fashion works from down up and not up down, which I is think is a very old world situation.”But his new world was not a happy place. Too much baggage. Demna surrounded himself with a support team of models, everyone from his mother to his teacher from fashion school in Antwerp to his favourite fashion journalist to the redoubtable Eliza Douglas. Plus Loik, who closed the show not as a bride but as a wedding cake. The clothes Demna showed also provided support because they were reminders of the looks that took him to the top of the mountain before scandal dragged him back down to the bottom: the oversized tailoring, the track suits and massive trainers, the peculiarly folksy feel of a dress made from a tablecloth or a shower curtain, the leather totes that looked like shopping bags from Dutch budget grocers SPAR. There were coats and jackets with four sleeves “because that is the epitome of what the general public thinks about fashion.” In other words, something that is crazily irrelevant to their lives. Demna claimed he missed the crazy. His models carried one single black pump reconfigured as a bag, because he loved the idea of plopping a shoe down on the table to épater la bourgeoisie. He still felt the sting of that summer othering.“There’s a technical complexity to the work, but it’s not important,” Demna said. “What is important is the aesthetic, the style that is mine that I cannot live without, cannot create without.” That read as a subtle riposte to the claims made by his estranged brother in a recent New York Times article. Still, it did feel like Demna was waving not drowning with this collection. “I’m learning to love myself,” he said, but success has become a prison for him. A recurring image in the show was an inked body stocking. The tattoos looked like they could have been drawn in ballpoint pen. Like prisoner tattoos. Demna wanted it raw.ExpandAutoplayImage 1 of 88Balenciaga Spring/Summer 2024 look 1. (Courtesy)Pierpaolo Piccioli, on the other hand, favoured what looked like the digital precision of 3D printing for the wedding cake detailing of the looks that opened his Spring/Summer 2024 show for Valentino. It was actually a new technique called altorilievo (high relief) which can apparently sculpt fabric around the body. It was beautiful, blinding even, in white. It also dared to bare. This was Piccioli’s response to comments made by Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s boyfriend, in which he victim-shamed women who had been raped, blaming what they wore, how much they drank. The show celebrated women’s bodies, from the elemental shapes cast by the dancers who writhed in mud, sand, water and rocks in the centre of the catwalk, to the long silk t-shirt dresses, to those brief and backless altorilievo dresses.There was some kerfuffle about them in the aftermath of the show. Too short, too bare, too young. Fact was, Piccioli showed a schooner of diverse alternatives, highlighting different shapes and sizes, starting with a long white blazer in cotton poplin with an equally long skirt, the look paired with trainers for maximum ease. Perverse though it may seem with all the peekaboo skin on display, there was a monastic purity in the collection. It harked back to Piccioli’s early work with Maria Grazia Chiuri. I don’t think the man has a carnal bone in his body.ExpandAutoplayImage 1 of 65Valentino Spring/Summer 2024 look 1. (Indigital/Indigital)Nicolas Ghesquiere definitely doesn’t, at least not in his work for Louis Vuitton. (I reserve judgement on his earlier tenure at Balenciaga.) The curiously sexless nature of his collections doesn’t mean that they don’t throw up odd moments of beauty. On Monday, Julia Nobis in her draped checked blouse and floating skirts had a sort of hiptastic prettiness. But there is often an over-powering sense of an almost algorithmic thought process behind the clothes. They can seem quite mechanical.The raw space of Monday’s show will likely become an LVMH hotel as the business continues on its unstoppable march to world domination, but here it was decorated to convey the interior of a hot-air balloon, a novel way to reinforce Louis Vuitton’s commitment to travel as its corporate raison d’être. The air was definitely hot, definitely fragranced with Eau de Building Site. The connection of clothes to concept was less tangible, bar the models who sported camera cases. Packing with ease was apparently a consideration. Padded satin jackets were allegedly as light and as packable as feathers, probably more so than swinging little black leather situations.Speaking as an ardent fan of his Balenciaga days, I think Ghesquiere does best when he gets sci-fi weird. There were a couple of densely bugle-beaded tops tucking into shiny black shorts that were epic in that respect. They made me think about waistlines, and how Ghesquiere liked to casually wrap his in chunky crossover belts. They looked random enough in the show that I could almost appreciate them in a “Flashdance”/”Valley Girl” way. In fact, the 1980s resonate in Ghesquiere’s work just as much as they did when he delivered his first collection for Balenciaga in 1997. Such consistency is probably a virtue. It’s surely kept him at Vuitton for a decade. Delphine Arnault led the standing ovation at the end of Monday’s presentation.ExpandAutoplayImage 1 of 47Louis Vuitton Spring/Summer 2024 look 1.