PARIS — In a cold, dark airplane hangar on the outskirts of Paris, amid reports of more than 1.5 million refugees fleeing Europe from Ukraine, Demna, the unnamed Balenciaga designer who had fled Georgia at the age of 12 during this country’s civil war, built a huge snow globe and started a storm.
In the wind, men and women struggled, holding fake trash bags apparently full of belongings, donning stiletto boots, clutching heavy black coats that flew around them, heads bowed. A few were shivering in boxer shorts, with only towel-like shawls for protection. The long dresses flowed inside out. The music was pounding; overhead, lights (bombs? lightning?) shone in the darkened sky.
Outside the glass, an audience watched, clutching blue and yellow T-shirts the shades and nearly the size of the Ukrainian flag that had been left on each seat, along with a note from the designer (which also read , in Ukrainian, a classic poem — a prayer of strength for Ukraine — by the writer Oleksandr Oles, at the beginning of the programme).
The war had, Demna wrote in the note, “triggered the pain of past trauma that I have carried with me since 1993, when the same thing happened in my country and I became a refugee forever. Forever, because it’s something that stays with you. Fear, despair, the realization that no one wants you.
Thus, a collection originally conceived as a commentary on climate change – a theme that Demna began to explore before the pandemic and which he intended here as a meditation on an imaginary future where snow is relegated to the status of fantasy. created by man – has instead become an exceptionally powerful response to war.
Over the past week and a half of the dispute, fashion has all but apologized for its own existence; dare to offer a frivolous and useless product in a context of global crisis. There has been a lot of lip service to the idea of beauty as an ointment; a lot of things like “All I can do is what I do best”. (Plus, donate cash and emergency supplies, of course, and close stores in Russia.) Lots of reminders to everyone the industry employs.
This is a perfectly valid response to the situation. She can even draw inspiration, as with Valentino, which also began with a voice-over by designer Pierpaolo Piccioli, offering a hymn to the Ukrainian people – “We see you, we feel you, we love you” – before moving on to a collection designed to showcase the power of the individual.
It was built on a single hue: no black or white, but rather a kind of signature hot pink – dubbed Pink PP, about to become an official Pantone color – which was also the hue for the walls and floor. There was a brief section of black, like some sort of palate cleanser, but it was the pink that stood out. And offered an update to the classic Valentino red.
Chunky pink platform shoes under pink tights. Floor-sweeping pink shirt dresses that looked more like royal dresses. Little abbreviated pink sequin dresses. Sheer pink blouses. Molded mini roses. Pink tea dresses covered with flowers. Pink handbags. Pink everywhere we looked, except the faces, which each stood out on their own. The effect was a bit dizzying, but it got the point.
Of course, getting down to business, like Matthew Williams did at Givenchy, is good too.
He combined the streetwear influences first brought to the brand by Riccardo Tisci (layered t-shirts, like a ride through the logos of the past; hooded nylon anoraks under tailored jackets; thigh-high leather boots) with his clichés (“Breakfast at Tiffany’s” beads; ruffled fusions of tulle and organza) plus her own affinity for a bit of hardware. The result was her most cohesive collection to date.
Yet, as Demna has proven, there’s no reason for designers to be afraid to tackle the tough stuff. He had almost, he says in his notes, canceled the Balenciaga show, until “I realized that canceling this show would mean giving in”. So instead, he shook it. It was a risk.
After all: very expensive leather trash bags come dangerously close to bad taste. Although it is the same designer who created very expensive versions of the Ikea bag. Part of his schtick is to elevate the unseen everyday to luxury status, poking fun at the pomposity of the fashion beast.
Russo-Ukrainian war: what you need to know
And the fact that some of his models are wrapped in Balenciaga-branded packing tape jumpsuits might look a lot like a social media-only catnip gimmick.
Especially because Kim Kardashian actually modeled a packing tape look in the audience — an outfit (can you even call it that?) she said took four Balenciaga assistants to create. Not only did the tape make sticky, creaking sounds as it walked, but Ms. Kardashian was, she professed, worried that when she sat down, some sections might tear. (It didn’t, much to her relief, although she said she still didn’t know how she would go to the bathroom.)
Yet backstage after the show, Demna said the tape wasn’t just a joke — it was also a nod to the dressing-up experiences he had as a rootless kid. . And that they would sell the rolls in stores, so everyone could DIY their own look, in a sort of extreme version of do with it and fix it.
The one who has made it clear that for him, the clothes themselves, in ready-to-wear anyway, are perhaps the least of the worries. After all – apart from a strapless denim jumpsuit made from two pairs of jeans (the waist of one formed a bustier over the other), a dress screen-printed to imitate lace, and bags made from fused pairs of boots – most of the stuff as seen through the snow – long jersey dresses, hoodies, asymmetrical flowers, wraparound condoms – looked much the same as they have for a few seasons now.
But combined with last season‘s Simpsons show; virtual reality experiences; past and immersive climate change scenarios (for those wondering, most of this season’s set would be recycled, with carbon emissions being offset); plus the Donda shows he worked on with Ye; the unsettling depiction of refugees under glass confirmed Demna’s position as fashion’s greatest and most fearless set designer.
His subject is not the silhouette, it is the human condition. On an epic scale of pop culture.