Balenciaga’s creative director Demna utilised his platform to pay respect to Ukrainians in a dramatic display that created a deep feeling of uneasiness about the future, with all eyes on one of Paris Fashion Week’s most anticipated collection unveilings.
The humanitarian catastrophe in eastern Europe, where more than 1.5 million Ukrainians have fled their nation, hits close to home for the designer.
Demna (who chooses not to use his last name) was born in Sukhumi, a Georgian city that suffered intense combat in the early 1990s during the country’s civil war. The designer and his family were among tens of thousands of people forced to escape Sukhumi as a result of violence in Abkhazia, a disputed area in Georgia that Russia considers autonomous despite being officially recognised as part of Georgia.
“The conflict in Ukraine has resurrected the anguish of a former trauma I’ve carried in me since 1993, when the same thing happened in my own country and I became a permanent refugee,” he said in a message to guests at the label’s Fall-Winter 2022 presentation, which took place on the outskirts of Paris on Sunday.
The designer delivered a poem in Ukrainian by famed poet Oleksandr Oles in a moving moment. Demna wanted for its underlying message of power to be heard by those who could comprehend it, hence no translation was offered. Ukrainian flags were hung over visitors’ chairs in another gesture.
Models trekked through fake snow and a cold wind during the performance, some carrying huge leather trashbags (or trash pouches, as the show notes described them).
While the collection was created before the conflict in Ukraine erupted, it was difficult not to draw comparisons. Speaking to reporters backstage, Demna said the set and staging — a frightening and moving production — were aimed to reflect his personal 30 year history of violence and relocation.
Demna also mentioned that the set’s harshness was initially intended to be a veiled reference to climate change, and how, as a result of global warming, snow may have to be reproduced digitally in the future. The audience was separated from the circular stage by a glass wall, providing an IRL broadcast.
Demna’s presentation wasn’t the first time she had addressed the conflict in Ukraine. Balenciaga uploaded an image of Ukraine’s flag on its Instagram account last week, stating that information on how to contribute to relief efforts will be shared throughout the company’s networks. The label would also be giving resources for verified information, according to the article.
Since then, Balenciaga has removed the image from its grid and replaced it with photographs from the show. Balenciaga’s Instagram highlights section still includes a link to contribute to the World Food Programme.
Long trains and billowing shapes coexisted with basic staples like turtlenecks and big sweatshirts in the collection. There were also signature skin-tight body suits on show. One model was completely covered in yellow and black Balenciaga wrapping tape, a style that was also worn by Kim Kardashian, who was a guest at the event.
The event ended without a traditional conclusion, in which the models file out together for one final walk as a group. Instead, the final figure strolled off to electronic music producer BFRND’s violent, claustrophobic piece “Storm.” Lights flared and flickered in the fake sky above the scene, lending drama to the man-made weather.
Demna noted in his message to guests that in the week preceding up to the show, he pondered cancelling it entirely, pondering on how, “in a moment like this, fashion loses its significance and its genuine right to exist.”
He wrote, “Fashion week feels like some kind of insanity.”
However, he came to the conclusion that cancelling the event would mean “giving in” and “surrendering to the evil that has already injured me so much… I determined I can no longer sacrifice portions of myself to that mindless, callous ego conflict.”
Finally, the presentation accomplished what the designer excels at: forcing the audience to ask questions, both of themselves and of the system, maybe implying that Demna’s Balenciaga reflects the world, and what we see gazing back at us is frequently unsettling.