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Balenciaga’s Paris sneaker and the problem with the ‘poor aesthetic’

Balenciaga’s latest creation is the stuff of nightmares – a £1,290 shoe that looks like it crawled straight out of a Wes Craven movie. But perhaps the scariest thing about these trainers is that Balenciaga thought it reasonable to launch them at all, co-opting a controversial ‘poverty aesthetic’ to sell overpriced products to wealthy people. 

No, you’re not seeing things. Those, muddied, shredded, just-been-mauled-by-a-dog-looking sneakers are Balenciaga’s latest footwear launch, coming in at a modest £1,290. ‘The Paris Sneaker’ has an air of the Converse All Star about it – that is, if you can see beneath the excess of rips, holes, and frayed cotton.

The shoes are being sold as part of a limited launch, comprised of only 100 extremely ‘distressed’ sneakers. And despite their outlandish appearance, the Paris Sneakers have already roused the interests of Balenciaga’s avid audience.

Streetwear platforms Highsnobiety and HypeBeast have covered release dates and pre-order of the shoes for eager consumers.

Defenders of the Paris Sneaker have been quick to note that the uber-destroyed footwear featured in Balenciaga’s marketing campaign – a pair of trainers that look as though they were discovered on an archaeological dig – were an ‘exaggerated’ version of the real shoes, created to stir controversy around the launch.

It’s certainly worked, but Balenciaga isn’t a brand known for its conventional footwear. From Stiletto Crocs to platform Crocs and pointed Cagole boots, chief designer Demna Gvasalia has consistently pushed the boundaries of luxury fashion.

With the dishevelled arrival of the Paris sneaker, however, many are criticising Balenciaga for pushing one boundary too far.

Ellie Delphine, of fashion blog ‘Slipintostyle’, blasted Balenciaga for creating a shoe she’d seen countless times ‘on the homeless people of Paris’. Charging over £1000 for a piece of clothing so obscene in its lack of quality is an affront to those who can hardly afford shoes at all.

Delphine also highlighted the hypocrisy of the launch, citing Balenciaga’s vocal stance against racism. In a recent Instagram post, the brand had celebrated their long standing partnership with the NAACP.

‘Balenciaga is committed to standing against racism and to creating inclusive communities’ the post stated. Delphine argued that the Paris Sneaker signals Balenciaga’s willingness to profit from a ‘poor aesthetic’ by ‘selling it to rich folks’, a marketing ploy that flies in the face of their anti-racist social justice work: ‘racism and poverty are correlated, just saying’.

The ‘poverty aesthetic’ has been discussed at length across both fashion news and academia. But the rise of a ‘distressed aesthetic’ within the fashion industry has raised heated discussions around appropriation, class, and ethical limits within the creative industries.

Isabelle McBride traces the ‘poverty aesthetic’ to the rock and heavy metal era of the 1980s, the first time that ripped and destroyed clothing was worn as an aesthetic choice rather than a necessity.

Brands have capitalised off this trend since it first started, making pre-torn garments for the ready-to-wear retail market. The most obvious of these purposefully distressed items is the ripped jean, which remains a wardrobe staple for a millions of shoppers.

But the phenomenon of the ‘poverty aesthetic’ has grown to new heights as contemporary streetwear takes over the fashion industry.

Golden Goose stirred up its fair share of controversy when it launched the ‘Super Star Taped Sneaker’, a scuffed and muddied trainer held together by a piece of duct tape.

If, as McBride argues, the ‘poor’ fashion aesthetic has been around for decades, then why the outcry when brands jump on board? The answer lies in the price tag. Golden Goose’s sneakers retailed for a startling £530.

High price-points have historically been associated with quality; unique craftsmanship that can’t be found anywhere else, combined with a strong brand identity that cultivates desire and exclusivity.

Profiting from such large mark-ups by creating pieces that are, quite literally, falling apart, not only contradicts the entire purpose of designer clothing, but is incredibly tone-deaf.

Even worse is that these items are grossly unattainable. Regardless of how much interest it musters, the Paris Sneaker’s £1200 price tag makes it a pipe dream for the majority of consumers.

This leaves a wealthy elite as the main purveyors of the ‘poverty aesthetic’. The richest people in the world dressing up as ‘poor people’ for the day, a tasteless exercise that simultaneously enables them to flaunt their excessive wealth, is uncomfortable at best and offensive at worst.

Fashion statement or otherwise, a shoe full of holes is a shoe full of holes – and charging £1200 for them isn’t innovative, it’s tasteless.