“In a time like this, fashion loses its relevancy” read the show notes from today’s Balenciaga show in Paris, penned by creative director Demna. Set against the backdrop of the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war, Balenciaga is not the first brand to address the events unfolding in Europe, but it is perhaps the first brand to get its approach right.
Whilst others have noted its occurrence, adopting a series of largely performative and empty gestures throughout fashion month, Balenciaga’s concept seemed to address the conflict head on, and from a place of personal experience. “The war in Ukraine has triggered the pain of a past trauma I have carried in me since 1993, when the same thing happened in my home country and I became a forever refugee” Demna wrote. On the verge of cancelling altogether, Demna made this collection and show’s intent clear – it was a spectacle of “resistance, fearlessness and love and peace”, birthed from a place of genuine concern, fear, and relatability – and that’s what made it so powerful.
The show began in pitch black – with a voiceover reciting a poem by Oleksandr Oles, one line of which translates to ‘Live Ukraine, live for beauty…like the wind in a wide field’. From there, the show space was lit up and revealed: a frozen tundra, complete with a blizzard, which the models soon began to walk through. Struggling through the winds, and looking visibly cold with the industry watching from behind glass, the inferences were clear: Demna had constructed a voyeuristic stage for his designs to be received, that had the effect of holding a mirror up to the audience at large, the industry’s complicity, and “fashion week’s absurdity”.
In some ways similar to the voyeuristically-minded staging of McQueen’s SS01 collection Voss, the result was a feeling of discomfort – we were watching the events in Ukraine played out in a microcosm of Paris Fashion Week, and it wasn’t meant to be easy viewing. Strobes lit up the space in what read as a refraction of the videos of missiles in Ukraine that have been permeating news and social media. Colour palettes were predominantly all-black, in true Balenciaga style, save for a few exceptions – notably, in yellow and blue.
For the collection itself, as ever, Balenciaga reworked elements of the mundane. The sizing stickers normally found on low end ready-to-wear garments instore was reappropriated into a Design Choice, and the brand debuted a series of catsuits seemingly made entirely of duct tape. One of which, worn by Kim Kardashian to the show itself, had BALENCIAGA emblazoned on each line of tape, emulating the police tape that usually tapes up a crime scene.
In the context of the show and current events, this perhaps had an unintended inference though – indicating that everyone watching was all privy to a crime scene, watching it play out in real time, both here and in Ukraine. Bin-bag bags, in black, white and blue, visually grounded the collection in the plight of the thousands of Ukrainian refugees who have had to leave their homes with just what they can carry. It was a moving, arresting, and powerful statement.
Demna’s Balenciaga is no stranger to politically-minded presentations. For SS20, the show’s set was designed in vivid blue to emulate the circular room where the European Parliament congregates. Working with fragrance scientist Sissel Tolaas, the presentation saw scents released from the walls and ceilings that were dubbed scents of ‘power’, and smelt of antiseptic, blood, money and petrol. According to Tolaas, who captured the scents in locations such as big banks and the offices of European Lobbying groups, the show “changed the world” – a sentiment which Demna was no doubt considering as a priority for this season, too.
With the blizzard making the models’ walks increasingly difficult, the kineticism of the clothes were also revealed. Capes and trains were blown behind the wearer, making silhouettes ever-changing and exaggerated in size. Demna’s designs both command attention and have the ability to take up space – both literally and figuratively. Still, the wearers struggled through. Demna’s note was proved true: Balenciaga’s AW22 show was a compelling and potent display of resilience, fearlessness, and embodied a hopeful plight to eventual peace.
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