Confronting Ambiguity and Loss at Balenciaga

Demna has gotten increasingly comfortable with making us uncomfortable.

three looks from balenciaga winter 2022
Courtesy Balenciaga

When attendees arrived at the Balenciaga show on Sunday morning, in a round, freezing, pitch-black room, we found a notecard on seats along with a T-shirt in the colors of the Ukrainian flag. The note, written by creative director Demna, was an emotional reminder of the designer’s personal history and an invitation to consider the context and circumstances of the show.

“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 began. (Demna was born in Georgia, which, like Ukraine, is a former Soviet state.) He described working on the show as “so incredibly hard for me”--remember, the clothes most designers are presenting this week were designed months ago, leaving little time to adapt to global events. “Because in a time like this, fashion loses its relevance and its actual right to exist. Fashion week feels like some kind of absurdity.” He considered canceling, in fact, “but then I realized that canceling this show would mean giving in, surrendering to the evil that has already hurt me so much for almost 30 years.”

The lights went down and back up; one of Czech composer Anton Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances began; and suddenly there was before us a round theater of snow, with a mound of the stuff in the middle of an enormous expanse. (Magnitude is Demna’s forte; he does not seek connection through intimacy but, like a politician or a priest, through grand acts of communication.) Wind machines began blowing, kicking up the snow on the ground into a flakey swirl, and the models trudged out in sunglasses and heels, struggling against the climate of the violent snowglobe.

A few looks were classic Demna comedy, like a woman in a Cruella de Vil faux fur coat waddling through the ice in spiky heels. But a number of the models carried trashbags or were even wrapped in towels over boxer briefs, and it was impossible not to think of all the people fleeing Ukraine–over a million and a half have already left the country, the largest movement of people since World War II.

It was an upsettingly gorgeous portrait of a careless world.

Towards the end of the show, the wind had become so intense–basically a blizzard–that the models were really trudging, and the long blue train of the finale model Eliza Douglas’s gown whipped around like litter. It was an upsettingly gorgeous portrait of a careless world.

Backstage, Demna said that the show had been conceived as a chapter two to his pre-pandemic show in which the first row of the audience was submerged in water. “I wanted this to be the opposite of that–this infinite white space,” he said. That idea might represent “hope,” but “it actually turned into something else, given the circumstances, which often happens with my show, somehow.”

The set design was meant to suggest “what will snow mean in the future,” he explained. Already several ski destinations don’t have snow anymore; maybe in 50 years, you’ll have to go to a sort of contained space to get an artificial experience of what was once natural. “It mimics virtual reality in some way, but it shows that real life is much more gritty, and much more beautiful,” he said. “And as humans, that’s what we really need to focus on, you know?”

The reason that Demna continues to captivate the fashion world, and why his Balenciaga is such essential viewing, is his singular, almost revolutionary comfort with ambiguity. Sometimes he pursues it; other times, he accepts the strange coincidences handed to him. (As he mentioned, that sunken front row at the show he staged just weeks before the pandemic put the entire industry “underwater.”) If he started as a classic fashion disrupter—think of those early middle-fingers-up show at Vetements—he has evolved to embrace what is unsettling, upsetting, or occasionally just unpleasant. It seemed as if the resemblance between these figures struggling against the climate with their fancy trash bags, and the refugees that the war in Ukraine has suddenly created, were for Demna a kind of found poetry.

a red dress from balenciaga's fall winter 2022 show
Courtesy Balenciaga

Of all things (don’t laugh–or do!), I thought of the season finale of Euphoria, in which Rue praises her estranged best friend Lexi for her completely absurd autobiographical play, because Lexi, unlike Rue, has found a way to turn her pain and trauma into art. In our trauma porn times, we forget how powerful it is to see an artist or creative person take something troubling and make it into commentary, entertainment, or spectacle for an audience.

When so many other designers are hitting the escapist key over and over—and increasingly, they pound on it—Demna is the only designer to really go there and let us sit in a lukewarm bath of discomfort. Climate crises, not-so-distant wars, evil billionaires, and general grotesqueness are never far away, and are in fact part of his aesthetic. (I interpreted the trash bags, for example, as a playful tweak at how wealthy people will commodify practically anything.)

And frankly, I found the fact that he conceived the show with an entirely different message all the more moving. The regular chaos of global catastrophes layered into daily indignities and pleasures is just the state of our world. Fashion designers can’t control narratives or political events or even day-to-day feelings any more than the rest of us. Too many in fashion are comfortable with an immediate “look-and-judge” style of showing us clothes; Demna, over the past two or three years, has become less of a provocateur but more of a machine of ideas, offering images up to us and asking for emotion and an open mind. His shows are an invitation to intellectual imagination.

The theater of Demna’s shows is one production, and the clothes are usually another. I almost find it’s better to consider the latter separately, once they start arriving in stores. From my vantage in the audience, though, the shift I saw in the clothes shown Sunday was a lightness of the fabrics—Demna’s clothes tend to be rigid, stiff, and imperious—so that they whipped through the wind. And also, he added backstage, they are more packable, easy to throw on: no buttons, no zippers. He predicts a pretty nomadic future. It even appeared that the finale gown worn by Eliza Douglas could have been pulled over her head, with no zippers or fastenings, which pretty much goes against the rules of gown-making and wearing.

Of course, everyone went crazy for Kim Kardashian wrapped in Balenciaga tape–it was just tape, and Demna’s team had spent some thirty minutes carefully wrapping her up (plus a few models in the show, and a handful of bags and shoes). Rolls of Balenciaga tape will be sold at stores so that customers can go DIY with it.

That sort of gesture of creative democracy is what makes Demna’s approach to the system of fashion so unique. In partnerships with celebrities like Kim Kardashian, dressing her and her estranged husband Ye throughout their tumultuous divorce, Demna has made a compelling case that anyone who looks at a celebrity in his designs is a consumer of Balenciaga. Partly this is because they’re so striking—reducing Kardashian to a black silhouetted void of fame at the Met Gala, for example—and partly it’s because they inspire so much dissection that he (along with the late Virgil Abloh) has cultivated the sharing and decoding of fashion as a form of intellectual or information consumerism.

That, to me, was the message of his show last October, when he imported the brand into the world of The Simpsons, working with creator Matt Groening to create a short episode of the show: if you watched the show, looked at runway images, or talked about the clothes, you are now a part of the Balenciaga ecosystem. The masterful banality of many of Demna’s designs pushes this idea further, making it appear as though anyone on any street in the world could be wearing Balenciaga at any time.

In Sunday’s show, though, it was his theater that was more important than the clothing—a masterpiece of a show whose meaning will continue to evolve every time you watch it, for years to come.

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