This summer season's fascination with all things herbaceous is well documented by now. Loose-fitting all-in-ones are among the most photographed pièces du jour, courtesy of Stella McCartney. Flower fairies worthy of an Arthur Rackham illustration take pride of place in the lovely collection bearing the Prada name. All the roses the most cultivated of green-fingered aesthetes might wish for are on display in contrasting colours at Dries Van Noten. The list goes on.
The most remarkable – and indeed precious – treatment of flowers of them all, however, may be seen at Balenciaga, the supremely influential label today designed by Nicolas Ghesquière. For those who think nothing of spending half their salary on clothing – you're out there and you know who you are – the good news is that an eponymous store opened in London's Mount Street last month and this country is now in possession of by far the largest selection of the label's clothing to date: cause for celebration for the dedicated follower indeed. Or a case of "lock up your daughters", depending on how you look at it.
It should, perhaps, come as no surprise that when Balenciaga says it with flowers there is nothing much whimsical or – heaven forbid – bucolic on offer. This is not a collection likely to be favoured by any modern-day Marie Antoinette manquée. Instead, this greatest of all feminine fashion clichés is handled with just the rigour one might expect given the august Balenciaga heritage. The collection also represents yet another brilliant and brave about-turn courtesy of this designer who, last season, famously gave the world the much-copied velvet blazer and jodphur combination accessorised to the maximum, and designed to express individuality and personal style. "This time," states Ghesquière, firmly, and he must be obeyed: "it's not about being casual at all."
This is something of an understatement, as it turns out. But it all started out relatively simply.
"I wanted to work on something that I'd never really explored before," says Ghesquière, "and that was florals – floral embellishment and floral patterns."
The concept may be straightforward. Its realisation, however, is anything but. Once again, Ghesquière looked first to the Balenciaga archive for inspiration. "I was always interested in the fact that when Cristobal Balenciaga worked with print he approached it in exactly the same way he would plain fabric. It was never about a placement, the fabric was always completely filled with pattern. It was about cutting an entire garment out of a single piece of material. I thought that was quite radical."
The result, it almost goes without saying, is far from obviously sweet. "It was important to have a rigorous structure," the designer continues. "I like the idea of playing with our perceived notions of flowers as something nice, something soft and kind, but handled with the sharpness and architectural approach that is typically Balenciaga."
And so a procession of the smallest and most perfectly formed floral print dresses imaginable came down the catwalk displaying an unrivalled diversity, not to mention the power of taking a single idea and exploring it to the full. Overblown hydrangea blooms sprouted from pagoda shoulders, magenta rhododendron bushes, abstracted water lilies and chrysanthemums, either inspired by vintage Balenciaga or other antique prints sought out by the label's team, certainly bore little resemblance to any plant seen in the real world. And that is precisely the point. The look photographed on these pages, for example, is an archive print that the Balenciaga studio lovingly recreated in colours to suit the contemporary wardrobe.
"They are very strange flowers," Ghesquière confirms, "quite graphic and even Warholian in places." Any potential blousiness, meanwhile, is undercut by an attention to construction and detail that is second to none.
"The clothes are all cut in very classic couture fabrics again," says Ghesquière, "radzimir, shantung... and there's nothing much technical happening with the outside of garments. Inside, though, high-performance breathable fabric is printed with the same flowers and everything is laser or ultrasonically cut. There is no heaviness around the hem or anything like that, giving the impression that the clothing is sculpted in the way it would be out of a piece of wood or stone. I was thinking about racing cars and the idea that there had to be a space between the body and the clothes, which again is something that was always very important to Balenciaga."
Ultimately this is a study of contrasting elements – of the natural and the artificial, the soft and the sharp, the antique and the modern and so forth.
"It's a little bit Sixties. A little bit futuristic," Ghesquière says, and indeed this is a time-honoured signature by now. The fact that these jewel-like garments are held together by an oversized cross-stitched spine only adds to the slightly unsettling and unreal quality.
"The lacing was probably one of the only details in this collection," its designer explains. "Everything else is quite minimal. There are no buttons and very little interruption of any surface – it looks like exaggerated sewing and gives bones to the print." It also only adds to the rarefied haute-couture treatment of the whole. In a world that prides itself on churning out cheap clothing as if the future of fashion depended on it, it is not insignificant that such pieces will prove well-nigh impossible to copy in anything but a perfunctory way. Neither, it has to be said, might they ever be reasonably described as easy to wear.
So what of the woman who wears these clothes?
"She's confident," says Ghesquière, and it is true that this is statement dressing of the highest order and never likely to be worn by a woman who favours a low profile.
"I hope wearing those clothes she's confident. The collection is body-conscious and about going somewhere her friends won't go. It's really saying: 'I can be soft, I can be decorative, I like colour, I like flowers. But never in a pretty way.'"