Fashion is art, and art is subjective. But the towel skirt from the spring/summer 2024 collection of the Spanish fashion house Balenciaga takes the luxury biscuit: a unisex, terry cotton, beige towel skirt – literally a towel with belt, buttons and an embroidered logo.

It is now available for pre-order for £695 and, by the way, it’s dry clean only.

I pay a visit to John Lewis in Oxford Street, London, to see if I can turn a £15 ultra soft cotton caramel bath towel into a designer towel skirt just by wrapping it around my waist.

A male model poses in front of French doors wearing a towel over trousers with a large jacket on top.
Balenciaga’s towel skirt. Photograph: Balenciaga

I get funny looks when I ask to try it on, but I’m pleased I’m a standard bathroom fit (too big for a hand towel, too small for a bath sheet). That’s £15 well spent.

On London’s Carnaby Street, even standing on a table, I attract very little interest. None of the shoppers have heard of Balenciaga. “What’s that? An ice-cream?” says one.

Balenciaga, under the creative director, Demna Gvasalia, has been a pioneer of the kind of high-fashion that seems intent on trolling us. He has a reputation for subversion and a bull-in-a-china-shop disregard for convention. In 2018, Ikea was miffed when Balenciaga released a £1,600 version of their 40p blue Frakta plastic bag. In 2022, a pair of “fully destroyed” trainers went on sale for £1,290, a calfskin “trash bag” was once sold for £1,350, and there was a £750 branded T-shirt.

Gvasalia previously worked for the Swiss luxury fashion house Vetements and became an overnight provocateur when, in 2015, a Vetements model strode the catwalk of Paris fashion week wearing a bright yellow T-shirt emblazoned with the logo of the logistics company DHL. The £185 shirt sold out in a week.

“I don’t think elegance is relevant,” Gvasalia told the Guardian in 2018. But by 2023, isn’t everyone bored of stunt dressing? Kylie Jenner arrived at January’s Schiaparelli couture in a lion’s head. Jared Leto turned up to May’s Met Gala as a giant cat. Even the towel as high fashion has been done before – Prada and Ludovic de Saint Sernin posited towel as skirt in 2020.

Last year Gvasalia told Vogue that in future Balenciaga would be about “quality clothes – not image or buzz”. Clearly the opportunity of charging eye-gouging prices for domestic debris has proven too seductive. It makes a certain sense – there is something uniquely beguiling about the towel: the image of its wearer newly showered and perfumed.

Rich Pelley with Grayson Perry.
Rich Pelley with Grayson Perry. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Guardian

Perhaps I need to preach to a better-educated audience, rather than the Carnaby Street crowd.

The stylist Becky Leeson, who motivates women to consume fashion more responsibly, tells me: “It’s a layering look I love, a skirt over a trouser/jean,” she says. “It’s certainly a way of repurposing what we already own. With all the wet weather it can serve as a dual purpose. I’m up for trying my waffle one.”

Harri, the designer behind Sam Smith’s inflatable outfit at this year’s Brits, says: “To visually embody a garment, you need an iconic body to wear it.”

Perhaps my body isn’t quite as iconic as when Sean Connery wore a towel skirt in 1965’s Thunderball. “Balenciaga have taken a very mundane object and put it in a fashion context,” Harri says. “Fashion is all about finding the right audience.”

To find my right fashion audience, I gatecrash the launch of an exhibition and book about Grayson Perry, Muse: A Portrait of Grayson Perry, by Richard Ansett, at London’s Iconic Images gallery. What does Perry think of the Balenciaga towel skirt? “It’s just another ridiculous thing rich people will buy,” he says. “The appeal is that it’s ludicrous.” What is Perry’s secret to standing out at a party? “The key is to be two notches less dignified than everybody else in the room”. I feel like I’m a good three.

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Michael Sun tests his towel skirt in Australia

A price tag of $925 is about 60 times outside my towel budget. But I do have two safety pins and a dream, so in the spirit of high fashion dupes, I brave the depths of my linen cupboard.

There I find a towel I have not seen in years. I hold it in place with a pair of bag clips and use some safety pins to secure the wrap-around. After exactly three minutes of fiddling, my version is complete. It does not have Balenciaga’s embroidered logo or its hidden fastenings, but does boast compromised structural integrity and the faint stench of mould.

I begin my walk to work, and instantly it falls apart.

Over the course of a 20-minute stroll, the safety pins give out a maddening number of times. I am courageous. I soldier on. There are several moments, however, where I find myself wondering whether it may well be worth an extra $900 for the privilege of buttons. My answer teeters alarmingly close to “yes”.

Michael Sun crosses a pedestrian crossing wearing a towel over his trousers
Michael Sun road-testing his own towel skirt. Photograph: Jessica Hromas/The Guardian

Cars whiz by; several drivers honk. Far from any water, I am cognisant that I look like someone who has wet themselves then tried to hide it, so I begin to think of more generous alternatives: a laundry disaster, an impromptu escape, petty larceny from a homeware store. As my towel flaps, I can feel the glare of a thousand eyes on my crotch. Or as I like to call it, Friday.

There are admittedly upsides to this cotton accoutrement. I have very sweaty palms and now I have somewhere to wipe them. I am extremely prone to spillages and this is a built-in napkin.

At lunchtime, I leave for a pilates class, where afterwards – in the shower – I discover I have left my gym bag at home. But the towel skirt! I am soaking and humbled, grateful for its existence. One humiliation has saved me from another.

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