December 10 2022 1:51 AM E-paper Subscribe Sign in My Account Sign out

Balenciaga goes where fashion hasn’t dared go before

BALENCIAGA FASHION 1
Models present looks at the Valentino fall 2022 fashion show in Paris, March 6, 2022. (Photo: NYTimes)
In a cold, dark airplane hangar on the edge of Paris, as reports broke of more than 1.5 million refugees fleeing through Europe from Ukraine, Demna, the mononymic designer of Balenciaga who had fled Georgia as a 12-year-old during that country’s civil war, built an enormous snow globe and let loose a storm.اضافة اعلان

Into the wind struggled men and women clutching faux trash bags seemingly filled with belongings, slipping in spike-heeled boots, clutching big black coats that flew out around them, heads down. A few were shivering in boxer shorts, with only towellike shawls for protection. Long dresses streamed backward. The music pounded; overhead, lights flashed in the obscured sky.

Outside the glass an audience watched, clutching blue and yellow T-shirts the shades and almost the size of the Ukrainian flag that had been left on every seat, along with a note from the designer.

The war had, Demna wrote in the note, “triggered the pain of a past trauma I have carried in me since 1993, when the same thing happened in my country and I became a forever refugee. Forever, because that’s something that stays with you. The fear, the desperation, the realization that no one wants you.”


(Photo: NYTimes)

Thus, Demna did a collection originally meant as a commentary on climate change — a theme Demna began exploring before the pandemic and which he here intended as a meditation on an imaginary future where snow is relegated to the status of man-made fantasy — become instead an exceptionally powerful response to war.

For the last week and a half of conflict, fashion has been almost apologetic about its own existence; about daring to offer a frivolous, unnecessary product amid a global crisis. There’s been a lot of lip service to the idea of beauty as a salve; a lot of “All I can do is what I do best” sort of thing. A lot of reminding about all the people that the industry employs.

It was built on a single shade: a sort of signature hot pink — dubbed Pink PP, about to become an official Pantone color — that also was the tint of the walls and floor. There was a brief section of black, as a sort of palate cleanser, but it was the pink that stood out And offered an update to the classic Valentino red. Pink everywhere you looked, except the faces, which stood out, each on its own. The effect was a little dizzying, but it made the point.

Of course, simply getting down to the job, as Matthew Williams did at Givenchy, is OK too.

He combined the streetwear influences first brought to the brand by Riccardo Tisci (layered tees, like a tour through logos past; nylon hooded anoraks beneath tailored jackets; thigh-high leather boots) with its 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 yet.

Yet there’s no reason, as Demna proved, that designers should be afraid of grappling with the tough stuff. He had almost, he said in his notes, canceled the Balenciaga show, 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 trash bags veer dangerously close to deeply bad taste. Although this is the same designer that made very expensive versions of the Ikea bag. Part of his shtick is elevating the unseen everyday to deluxe status, poking fun at the pomposity of the fashion beast.

And the fact that some of his models were wrapped in Balenciaga-branded packing tape catsuits could seem very much like a runway-only social-media-catnip gimmick.

Yet 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 a rootless child. And that they’d be selling the rolls in stores, so everyone would be able to DIY their own look, in a sort of extreme version of make do and mend.

One that made crystal clear that for him, the clothes themselves, in ready-to-wear anyway, may be the least of the matter. After all, a dress silk-screened to mimic lace and bags made from melded pairs of boots, long jersey dresses, hoodies, asymmetric florals, and enveloping greatcoats — looked pretty much the same as it has for a few seasons now.

But combined with the Simpsons show of last season; the experiments with virtual reality; the earlier immersive climate change scenarios; plus the Donda shows he worked on with Ye; the roiling depiction of refugees under glass confirmed Demna’s position as the greatest scenographer in fashion, and its most fearless.

His subject isn’t silhouette, it’s the human condition — on an epic, pop culture scale.

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