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Alexander Wang Is Out at Balenciaga

Alexander Wang after showing his first collection for Balenciaga in fall 2013. Credit Catwalking/Getty Images

So it’s official: The Alexander Wang — well, what? Not era, since it was less than three years — interregnum at Balenciaga is officially over.
The creative director and the company have agreed to part ways, Mr. Wang to concentrate on his namesake brand in New York, and Balenciaga to find a new designer, leaving the rest of us to consider how this particular abbreviated period will be viewed through the long lens of fashion.
I don’t think it will be remembered for the clothes, which were fine, but which never exploded expectations in the way truly original fashion can. They actually met all the predictable expectations, reminding me most of what you’d think someone who had just seen the Balenciaga archives and was full of respect and intimidation, but was instructed to tweak it a bit for now, might produce. Bubble skirts! White shirtdresses! Egg coats! With some studding. And so on.

There was a signature bag, and a new scent, but nothing that sent the fast-fashion brands scuttling off to create their own “homages,” or moved the general silhouette in one direction or another. Nothing that really sticks in the brain.

Nor do I think it will be remembered as any sort of giant mistake. Growth, while not jaw-dropping, seems to have been O.K. (and in the past quarter, very good), store openings have continued apace, and both sides have said appropriately respectful things about each other in their farewell. Though it does once again raise questions about the feasibility of having one designer bridge two brands, two countries and two time zones.
Rather, I think it will prove to have been a critical juncture in the evolution of both Mr. Wang and Balenciaga, effectively changing the image of both and setting them up for the future. Whether they can take advantage of their altered circumstances is the question now.
For Mr. Wang, for example, his stint at Balenciaga demonstrated to a largely sceptical industry that the buzzy downtown kid with the contemporary line could actually do high fashion, and work with a Parisian atelier. It got him taken a lot more seriously. It also upped his name recognition on the international stage — invaluable for his own brand expansion — and made him a viable red carpet name. (See: Cate Blanchett at the “Blue Jasmine” premiere in 2013, a pregnant Kerry Washington at the 2014 Golden Globes and Taraji P. Henson at the Met Gala this year.)
For Balenciaga, the shock of the appointment of a young New York kid known for T-shirts at the hallowed house that Cristobal built, and his subsequent not-terribleness, helped consumers make the break from the 15 years of the celebrated creative director Nicolas Ghesquière’s vision for the brand, and their obsession therewith.
Mr. Wang was effectively a design version of the bridge boyfriend. Now Balenciaga, and its parent company, Kering, are free to find someone else without the same expectations attached.
Speculation has already begun about who that might be. “An unknown,” à la Alessandro Michele at Gucci, seems to be the odds-on favorite of the social media set at the moment. For me, however, whether it is a name we recognize or one that has been hidden in the wings of a design group is less important than what kind of designer he or she will be.
Both Mr. Michele, whose opening few Gucci collections have been widely applauded (admittedly, less so by this critic) and Hedi Slimane of Yves Saint Laurent, his fellow great Kering success story, are essentially aggregators: Surfers of fashion history pulling a skirt from here, a suit from there, recombining them and then dressing them up with accessories and atmosphere so they seem new. In Mr. Slimane’s hands, this has a hard-rock Los Angeles bent, in Mr. Michele’s a romantic vintage vibe, but in both cases it is merchandised to the hilt, with bags and shoes and boots and hats and sunglasses and so on, and in both cases it’s a hit.
That would suggest that a similar tack be taken at Balenciaga — hey, it’s working, why not? — but to me that would miss the point. This house above all fashion houses was known for its purity and commitment to rethinking form and its relationship to women’s bodies and minds. It needs a designer with that kind of rigor and ambition. Forget the merch: Dream bigger. Dream about changing how women dress. Balenciaga deserves it. So do we.