PARIS — In a cold, dark airplane hangar on the outskirts of Paris, when reports came of more than 1.5 million refugees who had fled Europe from Ukraine, Demna, Balenciaga’s mononymous designer who was Georgia at the time as a 12-year-old fled civil war, built a huge snow globe and unleashed a storm.
In the wind, men and women wrestled with fake garbage bags ostensibly filled with stuff, slithering in spiked boots, with large black coats flying around them, head down. Some were shivering in boxer shorts, with only towel-like scarves for protection. Long dresses flowed back. The music was pounding; above us, lights (bombs? lightning?) flashed in the darkened sky.
Outside the glass, an audience watched, blue and yellow T-shirts in hand, the curtains and almost the size of the Ukrainian flag left on every seat, along with a note from the designer (who also, in Ukrainian , read a classic poem – a prayer of strength for Ukraine – by the writer Oleksandr Oles, at the beginning of the show).
The war, Demna wrote in the note, had “inflicted the pain of a past trauma that I have carried within me since 1993, when the same thing happened in my country and I became a refugee forever. Forever, because that will stay with you. The fear, the despair, the realization that no one wants you.”
For example, a collection originally intended as a commentary on climate change — a theme that Demna began exploring before the pandemic and which he here referred to as a meditation on an imaginary future where snow is relegated to the status of man-made fantasy — was turned into instead an extraordinarily strong response to war.
In the past week and a half of conflict, fashion has almost apologized for its own existence; about daring to offer a frivolous, unnecessary product in the midst of a global crisis. Much lip service has been paid to the idea of beauty as an ointment; a lot of “All I can do is what I do best” kind of stuff. (And of course donating money and emergency supplies and closing shops in Russia.) Reminiscent of all the people the industry employs.
That is a perfectly justified response to the situation. It can even be inspired, as with Valentino, which also started with a voiceover by the designer Pierpaolo Piccioli, who offered a song of praise to the people of Ukraine – “We see you, we feel you, we love you” – before he evolved into a collection designed to emphasize the power of the individual.
It was built on a single hue: not black or white, but rather a kind of signature hot pink – called Pink PP, which was about to become an official Pantone color – that was also the hue of the walls and floor. There was a little bit of black, like a palate cleaner, but it was the pink that jumped out. And offered an update to the classic Valentino red.
Pink towering platform shoes under pink tights. Floor-sweeping pink shirt dresses that looked more like royal robes. Little abbreviated pink sequin dresses. See-through pink blouses. Cast pink minis. Pink tea dresses covered with flowers. Pink handbags. Pink everywhere you looked, except for the faces, which stood out, each on its own. The effect was a little dizzying, but it made the point.
Of course, it’s also okay to just go to work, like Matthew Williams did at Givenchy.
He combined the streetwear influences that Riccardo Tisci first brought to the brand (layered T-shirts, like a tour through logos of the past; hooded nylon anoraks under tailored jackets; thigh-high leather boots) with his clichés (” Breakfast at Tiffany’s” pearls; ruffled amalgamations of tulle and organza) plus his own affinity for a bit of hardware. The result was his most coherent collection to date.
Still, as Demna proved, there’s no reason designers should be afraid to struggle with the hard stuff. He nearly canceled the Balenciaga show, he said in his notes, until “I realized canceling this show would mean giving in.” So instead he shook it up. It was a risk.
After all: very expensive leather garbage bags come dangerously close to a very bad taste. Although this is the same designer who created very expensive versions of the Ikea bag. Part of his schtick is elevating the unseen mundane to luxury status, poking fun at the pomp of the fashion beast.
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And the fact that some of his models were wrapped in Balenciaga-branded packaging tape catsuits could look a lot like a catnip gimmick aimed only at the runway.
Especially since Kim Kardashian actually modeled a packing tape look in the audience—an outfit (can you even call it that?) she said it took four Balenciaga assistants half an hour to create. Not only did the tape make sticky, squeaking noises as she walked, but Mrs. Kardashian, she claimed, was worried that some parts would tear apart when she sat down. (Much to her relief, it didn’t, although she said she was still unsure how to go to the bathroom.)
But backstage, after the show, Demna said the tape wasn’t just a joke — it was also a nod to the dress-up experiments he’d done as an uprooted kid. And that they would sell the sandwiches in stores so that everyone could create their own look, in a kind of extreme version of make do and mend.
One that made it crystal clear that for him the clothing itself, at least in ready-to-wear, is perhaps the least important thing. After all — aside from a strapless denim jumpsuit made from two pairs of jeans (the waist of one formed a bustier on top of the other), a silk-screened dress to mimic lace, and bags made from joined pairs of boots — most things as seen by the snow – long jersey dresses, hoodies, asymmetric florals, wraparound overcoats – looked about the same as a few seasons now.
But combined with last season’s Simpsons show; the experiments with virtual reality; the earlier, immersive climate change scenarios (for those wondering, most of this season’s set would be recycled, carbon emissions offset); plus the Donda shows he worked on with Ye; the swirling depiction of refugees under glass confirmed Demna’s position as the greatest and most fearless scenographer in fashion.
His subject is not silhouette, it is the human condition. On an epic pop culture scale.