When you wrapped a towel around your waist after your shower this morning, it’s unlikely that you thought you were making any kind of fashion statement. But, as it turns out, the look was very much on trend.

At least, it is in the world of Parisian luxury label Balenciaga. The couture house, founded in 1919 by Cristóbal Balenciaga, has a towel-inspired skirt in its Spring 2024 Ready-to-Wear collection, currently available to preorder for £695 (NZ$1400). It’s made from terry cotton, and the only obvious differentiator between this and the towel in your bathroom is that this one has buttons and an adjustable belt inside. That, and it’s inexplicably dry-clean only.

The towel-skirt is, apparently, a unisex piece, and in imagery has been styled by the brand over cargo pants, under oversized coats, and accessorised by another faux-humble item: a £7,050 (NZ$14600) net shopping bag like the one you take to Waitrose. Because nothing says “I have more money than sense” than this slobbing-to-the-supermarket-having-just-got-out-the-bath aesthetic.

I joke, but Balenciaga’s Georgian-born creative director, the mononymous Demna, knows that I will. He has form when it comes to “stunt” products, and courts media attention accordingly. There was his £1,600 (NZ$3300) Ikea-inspired blue tote in 2017, the glossy black “trash bag” of 2022 (£1,350, NZ$2800 net-a-porter), the £345 (NZ$717) beaten-up baseball cap, the £515 (NZ$1000) high-heeled Crocs, the spoof Bernie Sanders campaign merch…

Other brands are at it too – in 2012 Jil Sander released a £185 (NZ$384) brown (coated) paper bag, while former Moschino creative director Jeremy Scott sent a £560 (NZ$1100) transparent dry cleaning bag dress down the catwalk. In 2017, Prada sold a £140 (NZ$291) “money clip” that was little more than a branded paperclip.

All of this is a gift to newspaper editors, because seemingly ludicrous merchandise will always make an entertaining story. The towel-skirt et al are not really designed with the intention of selling to the masses, or being produced in huge volumes (leave that to Balenciaga’s bestselling £825 (NZ$1700) Triple S trainers).

Sometimes these things are, like contemporary art, designed to provoke conversation. “Designers strategically offer unconventional products as a form of artistic expression, pushing the boundaries of traditional fashion and often serving as cultural commentary or satire, challenging consumerism and societal norms,” says Alison Bringé, chief marketing officer at fashion data and analytics company Launchmetrics.

“Owning and wearing these distinctive pieces isn’t just about fashion; it’s about participating in the ongoing cultural conversation and enjoying the cultural currency that goes with it.”

The people who buy them – yes, even in a cost of living crisis – are doing so because they want the world to know that they are intellectual, and in on the joke. To own and collect fashion items like these are, to some, akin to surrealist artworks. Where once fashion celebrated talents like the original Mr Balenciaga for creating innovative dress silhouettes and lines, now we seek to applaud the artist who can create the best viral memes.

And they do sell, says Damien Paul, head of menswear at MatchesFashion: “There is always going to be a customer who is inspired by more abstract fashion,” he attests. “We have seen huge engagement over the past few years with seasonal novelty and designers using design to surprise customers in unexpected ways. There is an element of fun and playfulness that speaks to a lighter angle of buying fashion, and while there is so much talk of quiet luxury this is a fun reprieve.”

These high-fashion conversation starters also get the brand name on everyone’s lips, and even if the towel-skirt won’t appeal to Joe Public, he might now be familiar enough with the Balenciaga brand to pick up a fragrance next time he passes through the airport – and that’s where the real money gets made.

The towel-skirt could yet take off, too. We’re laughing now, but seemingly unsellable products have been known to go mainstream. Take Golden Goose, the original distressed trainer brand, founded in 2000. It can’t make its £390 (NZ$810) + pre-dirtied footwear styles fast enough, and the company is now said to be planning a stock market listing in Milan. Yes, trainers that already look dirty are as desired as sparkling whites.

Then there’s the £400 (NZ$831) fake logo Gucci T-shirts – one of the first It products launched by Alessandro Michele when he took the creative helm at Gucci in 2015. “Why would you pay designer prices for something that looks like it came from a market stall?” we all asked. More fool us, because they became a bestseller for the brand and now that Michele has left the house, they remain collectors’ items.

The original laughed-off fashion item, though? Ripped jeans, of course. They’ve been a symbol of rebellion for every generation since the 1970s – and yet parents are still asking their teens why they’d spend more money on pre-distressed denim than they would on a new pair. The current youth are taking their lead from, you guessed it, Balenciaga. Demna’s other new-season “hit” is a pair of muddy jeans – just wait until you see them all over social media too.

As for towel-skirts taking off next season? Perhaps we’ll see them trickle down into Zara soon. Ikea is already offering a dupe, using its £10 (NZ$20) Vinarn bath towel – just add a couple of bulldog clips to keep it in place.

What’s fashionable now?

Golden Goose’s distressed trainers

The brand that made scuffed trainers a luxury item, Golden Goose’s sneakers sell from £390 (NZ$810).

Jil Sander’s paper bag

In 2012, Jil Sander created possibly the most expensive paper bag ever made. Coated and with stitched seams and metal eyelets at the bottom, it quickly sold out despite the £185 (NZ$384) price tag.

Balenciaga’s Ikea dupe ‘Arena’ bag

In 2017, Ikea released an advert advising its customers on how to differentiate their classic blue tote shoppers from Balenciaga’s remarkably similar new It bag. One came in at 40p, the other £1,600 (NZ$3300).

Gucci’s market stall T-shirts

Alessandro Michele’s market stall-style T-shirts poked fun at the copies.

Acne’s muddy jeans

Acne took ripped jeans one step further by giving them a mud-stained look, as if the wearer had just returned from a festival.