Understanding Demna: why Balenciaga trash bags are a thing

Understanding Demna: why Balenciaga trash bags are a thing

by Juliette Eleuterio
10 min

Chances are, you’ve seen the viral Balenciaga Fall 24 runway show set in LA that took place recently. And if you did, chances are, you chimed into the “Is Demna done?” discourse that has got Demna apologists and condemnists going head to head in one of the most polarising fashion debates of the decade.

The Georgian designer joined Balenciaga in 2015, and debuted his first collection in Fall/Winter 2016. Since, Demna has transformed the brand into his creative playground amidst heavy public criticism. From the current offering being too far detached from the original couturier Cristóbal Balenciaga’s artistry to cheapening the brand through various hype culture and shock value tactics, Demna sure knows how to get people talking.

But before venturing into his role at Balenciaga, understanding Demna means taking a look back at his career, beyond Balenciaga and beyond VETEMENTS, and to a time when he didn’t even have a career yet: his childhood.

Demna was born in 1981 in Georgia, a time when the Iron Curtain was blocking him, and millions of others from the non-Soviet part of the world. When the Iron Curtain fell in 1989, Demna remembers his entire environment changing. “Suddenly you had bananas. Suddenly Coca-Cola came in. Suddenly you could get music. Culturally it was a shock,” he explains in an interview.

These luxuries that are considered simple, everyday objects to most of the Western world were a fascinating escape for Demna, who experienced the tragedies of war between 1992 and 1993, when Russia invaded Georgia as part of the War of Abkhazia. “My childhood was not steeped in flowers or butterflies but war,” he told SLEEK, before adding, “I grew up observing what Georgian women wore. As a result, everything I create says a bit about Georgia.”

By 2001, his family relocated to Düsseldorf, though Demna stayed in Tbilisi, Georgia, to study international economics at the State University. But Demna was never fated to stay solely within the business sector, and decided to attend the famous Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, Belgium, where the Antwerp Six were educated, to study Fashion Design. 

For his graduate collection, Demna’s signature boxy design aesthetic was already materialising itself, stating he “wanted to avoid the round shapes, and the roundings of the actual body shape.” There was an air of Martin Margiela in his graduate collection, the legendary designer who also attended this school. Dummies were used as inspiration and measurement lines were exposed onto the garments rather than hidden.

After graduating, Demna spent his time working at various fashion Houses and brands, including Antwerp Six member and university professor, Walter Van Beirendonck. Funnily enough, Demna actually joined Maison Margiela in 2013, and worked on the women’s collections, and in the same year joined the Louis Vuitton team under Marc Jacobs, and a brief Nicolas Ghesquière stint, also working for the womenswear department. And then a year later, VETEMENTS came onto the scene.

Co-founded with his brother Guram and ran with a close circle of friends, VETEMENTS came as a whiplash that shook the fashion industry to its core. While Guram took on a more business-focused role, Demna effectively became the Creative Director, coming up with the visual identity of the brand. And visually, he had a goal: to subvert high fashion.

While VETEMENTS started popping up in gay clubs around Paris, its debut Spring/Summer 2015 show took place during Paris Fashion Week, but it wasn’t until the Spring/Summer 2016 runway collection that the brand really set itself apart in the luxury and streetwear space. At a time where the industry found itself at a plateau, Demna delivered a $300 DHL yellow tee as the show’s opening look, and the industry still hasn’t recovered.

The inclusion of an everyday uniform for some onto a runway was something unprecedented, with high fashion doing everything and anything possible to separate itself from “everyday people.” For Demna though, DHL and all such sorts of American brands were a mark of luxury, having grown up deprived of it. 

Ever since that show, VETEMENTS gained an undying loyal fanbase and strategically placed itself in the midst of the Supreme craze and the general streetwear explosion, but with a Paris Fashion Week edge. VETEMENTS was truly unique because its offering lent both to the world of luxury fashion and streetwear, at a time when the latter was not considered worthy of a runway appearance. 

The VETEMENTS effect was exactly what Demna intended: it was a disruptive force that became a catalyst, bridging the gap between luxury and streetwear, as well as doubling down on collaboration culture, which has become the norm today. While the DHL tee goes down in history as VETEMENTS’ most iconic collab, the Gvasalia brothers-helmed brand has officially and unofficially collaborated with every brand under the sun. Though it was its Spring/Summer 2020 show that epitomises what VETEMENTS was all about. 

Set in a Champs Élysées McDonald’s, this was Demna’s last show before leaving the brand, and it showcased a Maccies-inspired uniform, biker boots, a police-style uniform, and ‘I heart Paris’ tee, and Heineken, Vodafone, Internet Explorer and PlayStation’s logo riffs – suffice to say, it was très VETEMENTS. It was a convergence of two ends of the spectrum, fusing luxury with ‘lower class’ entities, such as DHL and McDonald’s.

While Demna officially left VETEMENTS in 2019, he had simultaneously been working at Balenciaga, and continues to operate as the House’s Creative Director. VETEMENTS gave Demna a platform to burst onto the scene, and received established seals of approval through an LVMH Prize shortlisting and Fashion Week scheduled slots. Balenciaga on the other hand, was exactly the sort of establishment Demna was after all these years, taking over a Kering-owned century-old House.

For his debut Fall/Winter 2016 show, the designer presented a series of tailored archive-inspired pieces, specifically honing in on Cristóbal Balenciaga’s way of playing with and morphing the human figure. We also saw oversized track jackets and granny-style floral prints which we had become accustomed to at VETEMENTS. That collection showed Demna’s interpretation of the modern rich lady wardrobe, as well as injecting the brand with a youthful edge, which would become a lot more prominent as seasons passed. 

In fact, this youthful edge became a VETEMENTS 2.0 for Demna, again, tapping into the everyday brands to make their runway cameo, such as the 2017 Arena tote bag, which was basically dubbed the expensive dupe of the IKEA Krafta bag. Balenciaga’s new-found grasp on the young and cool was further pushed by celebrity co-signing, from Kanye West to Rihanna boasting Demna’s designs. 

While Demna’s VETEMENTS can be linked to his early childhood fascination with Western brands, his work at Balenciaga, notably because it is such an established brand, feels a lot more like a commentary on consumer culture, especially within an American framework. Demna walks a fine line between commenting on a particular culture whilst also being a part of it.

Take, for example, Balenciaga’s 2021 show in collaboration with The Simpsons. The Matt Groening show places itself in a similar position to what Balenciaga has done – both making fun of while integrating itself into American culture – making the collaboration ridiculous as well as on-the-nose. Then there was the Resort 2023 show that shutdown the New York Stock Exchange, where latex gimp masks flooded the global financial powerhouse, confronting finance bros and critiquing capitalism while also making it desirable.

While Demna’s output has been extremely popular, it has also been quite polarising. For a while, everybody seemed on board and in with the joke, making fun of rich people who would spend $1,790 on a trash bag. Eventually, though, the joke seemed to tire out, and many called out Demna and Balenciaga-wearers of ‘class cosplaying.’

The recent Balenciaga LA show, and specifically sending leggings and gym wear onto the runway, was the last straw that broke the camel’s back. It was no longer a question of Demna tapping into a new-age luxury, spearheaded by the likes of Kim Kardashian, but rather a sort of sell-out that wasn’t critiquing a culture but rather profiting off of it.

The meaning of art, and in turn fashion, is a debate that will never see an end. Is it about what the artist puts into their art? Is it about what people get out of said art? In Balenciaga’s case, the answer remains as blurry as ever. For Demna, his art is all about commentary on American culture, specifically its hyper-capitalist and consumerist society. 

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But fashion, especially on a conglomerate-owned brand level, isn’t just art; it’s a business. So how far can Demna push his consumer culture narrative when, in essence, his job is to sell clothes and create brand awareness, which will eventually turn into profit? Can Demna actually poke fun at the same people and culture that he profits off?

No matter what side of the Demna debate you fall on, his impact on the industry is undeniable, with his work being a visionary force that changed the trajectory of fashion forever.

Main image credit: BFRND

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