The most recent Balenciaga show at Paris Fashion Week made headlines and majorly contributed to an ongoing dialogue concerning fashion’s conscience and complicity: what does it mean for fashion month to be continuing as normal whilst a catastrophic war wages?
As with any major conflict, the true historical, political and social context is far more nuanced and complex than any article attempting to summarise it could portray – but includes questions surrounding fashion’s pick-and-choose attitude in reacting to global events, an outpouring of blatantly performative and hollow gestures, along with the ethics of staging fashion shows right now full stop.
Showing a collection which directly referenced the unfolding Ukrainian refugee crisis with ‘bin bag’ bags and a catwalk-terrarium of blizzard like conditions, the reaction to the Balenciaga show has been mixed. The brand was praised for directly acknowledging the crisis and creating an uncomfortable viewing experience and holding up an accusatory, reflective mirror for the watching fashion industry, with many likening it to a Hunger Games-esque spectacle. However, it has also been criticised for going ahead at all, seeming to use fashion instead of finance to help (note: we don’t know what or if Balenciaga has donated to the cause), choosing to comment on this war over the ones that have been raging in Syria, Yemen and Palestine, and according to one online comment on our show review which has gained almost 1.3k likes, “the designer (was) using the drama to draw attention to himself”.
Although we can see their point, this would benefit from some context. “In a time like this, fashion loses its relevancy” read the show notes, which were penned by creative director Demna. “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” he wrote. Born in Soviet Georgia in 1980, Demna and his family fled to Germany when civil war broke out. Going on to explain that he had considered, but ultimately decided against cancelling the show as “Putin had already taken so much”, this dedication helped to ground Balenciaga’s approach in a place of genuine fear, concern, and relatability – ultimately distinguishing it from the sea of arguably vacuous gestures elsewhere in fashion month.
And whilst many have rightfully pointed out fashion’s hypocrisy in their response to this event in comparison to its slow, inactive or altogether absent commentary on other events which don’t directly impact white people, Demna at both VETEMENTS (now VTMNTS) and Balenciaga has often been politically-minded, using shows and collections to advance a social commentary, whether it was well-received or not.
Starting VETEMENTS in 2014 with a 7-strong creative unit that included brother Guram and Russian stylist extraordinaire Lotta Volkova, Demna took what he had learnt at university, Margiela and Louis Vuitton as well as his thorough understanding of internet culture to irrevocably change the face of streetwear and fashion at large. The brand was known for its oversized outerwear silhouettes, for which Demna looked to the Post-Soviet capitalism of the 90s that he witnessed and lived through, as well as his personal observations that in Post-Soviet countries, people often wore jackets that were multiple sizes too large in efforts to make them last longer and keep warm in sub-zero conditions.
However, perhaps VETEMENTS became most known for its playful reworking of the mundane: Demna sent DHL t-shirts and ironic slogan tees down runways which were held in (then) unconventional settings: Chinese restaurants, underground sex clubs, and even a McDonalds in Paris. Operating at the intersections of memes, streetwear and playful irony, VETEMENTS soon achieved acclamation from the fashion, celebrity and popular worlds. Its success can be attributed to its world-making: to know and wear VETEMENTS was to understand niche internet references, the ironic absurdity of showcasing this at a (then) stuffy fashion week, and be on the pioneering crest of the streetwear movement, which would come to rewrite how we think of fashion as a whole.
When Demna was announced as Balenciaga’s new creative director in October 2015, his practice of world-making and weaving political statements into his designs was only amplified. For AW17, Balenciaga’s collection centred around Bernie Sanders, putting his logo on everything from blankets to trousers and outerwear. By AW18, the brand was collaborating with the World Food Programme – logos were on neon tees and hoodies, as well as the brand donating $250,000 to the cause.
For SS20, and with four years under his belt at Balenciaga, Demna staged a show which aimed to emulate the circular room where the European Parliament congregates, with the set designed in the same vivid blue. 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 was set to “change the world”.
Then came AW20, in which Balenciaga departed from the vivid hues of the previous season to enter an all-black world, which drew attention to climate change. Models walked through a flooded runway, whilst the show venue’s roof consisted of a screen showing the effects of climate change on the environment: fires, storms and disasters. In more recent seasons, Balenciaga’s politically-minded world making has expanded to include the digital, as the fashion industry shifts ever-closer to fully existing within the metaverse. This (literally) played out in a collaboration with Fortnite, as well as the SS22 show which partially took place inside a specialist Simpsons episode.
The other half of this presentation saw celebrity and Balenciaga-atelier attendees walk the red carpet and be photographed by a throng of paparazzi which included Juergen Teller, and was live streamed inside the theatre. Inadvertently forming the show, this red-carpet live stream was revealed as a meta-commentary on the world of fashion and celebrity: what makes a fashion show? And what if you don’t know you’re walking in one?
As you may have noticed, though – the political and social commentary of these shows, something that Balenciaga had become synonymous with, were often reflected in everything but the clothes. The clothes are almost an afterthought. With each of these presentations, Demna created a universe – so much so that this is the reputation upon which Balenciaga now operates: it’s about the show concept and execution, all of which’s context and motivations are often more interesting than the clothes themselves.
As Cattytay from the Institute of Digital Fashion noted in our conversation a few months ago, “Balenciaga is a classic example of their metaverse being more interesting than their clothes: I’m way more interested in their digital identity than their coats, personally.” Similarly, as fashion aficionado @relaxitsonlyfashion said in their commentary of the Ukraine-tribute AW22 collection, he “actually has very little to say about the clothes… it was more of like a merch drop for Kim Kardashian”. In his report ‘Kanye, Gap, Balenciaga and the Age of Brand 2.0’, Christopher Morency has encapsulated Baleciaga’s identity as the epitome of a new era of brand: one which pumps out constant, thickly-veiled marketing and universes instead of collections.
For Demna, everything is interconnected – fashion, politics, arts. He creates lifestyles, not clothes, which in turn forges a community. The universe and community-building capabilities of the designer make people want to be a part of it. And in essence, this is what makes Demna so successful, unique and perhaps the designer of our current digital consumerist age.
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