PARIS — 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.
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 towel-like shawls for protection. Long dresses streamed backward. The music pounded; overhead, lights (bombs? lightning?) 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 (who also read, in Ukrainian, a classic poem — a prayer of strength for Ukraine — from the writer Oleksandr Oles, at the start of the show).
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.”
Thus did a collection originally meant as 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 — instead become 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. (Plus donate money and emergency goods, of course, and close stores in Russia.) A lot of reminding about all the people that the industry employs.
That’s a perfectly valid response to the situation. It can even be inspired, as at Valentino, which also began with a voice-over from the designer Pierpaolo Piccioli, offering a paean to the people of Ukraine — “We see you, we feel you, we love you” — before seguing into a collection designed to highlight the power of the individual.
It was built on a single shade: not black or white, but rather 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 towering platform shoes under pink tights. Floor-sweeping pink shirt-dresses that looked more like royal robes. Little abbreviated pink sequin dresses. Sheer pink blouses. Molded pink minis. Pink tea dresses covered in flowers. Pink handbags. 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. Though this is the same designer that made very expensive versions of the Ikea bag. Part of his schtick is elevating the unseen everyday to deluxe status, poking fun at the pomposity of the fashion beast.
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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.
Especially because Kim Kardashian actually modeled a packing tape look in the audience — an outfit (can you even call it that?) she said had taken four Balenciaga assistants half an hour to create. Not only did the tape make sticky, squeaky sounds as she walked, but Ms. Kardashian was, she professed, worried that when she sat down some sections might rip apart. (It didn’t, much to her relief, though she said she still was not sure 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 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 — aside from a strapless denim jumpsuit made from two pairs of jeans (the waist of one formed a bustier atop the other), a dress silk-screened to mimic lace and bags made from melded pairs of boots — most of the stuff as seen through the snow — long jersey dresses, hoodies, asymmetric florals, 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 (for those wondering, most of this season’s set would be recycled, the carbon emissions offset); 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.