Balenciaga takes a position: Demna talks standing up for Ukraine

In a huge silo at Le Bourget exhibition center Balenciaga built a vast snowglobe. From outside the glass and to a soundtrack that went from Antonin Dvorak to Mozart and then innards-churning industrial techno, we watched Demna’s models fight the artificial elements, striding against a fierce fan-forced wind and the artificial snow it whipped up to lash against their faces and clothes. Remembering that this stage and all the collection had been designed before Russia invaded Ukraine and displaced 1.5 million people, it was nonetheless impossible not to see metaphorical parallels between this artificial experience and that very real one. “That was a very deliberate scenography,” Demna said.

Demna was 12 when he and his brother Guram fled the Georgian civil war – in which Russian-supported separatists were a protagonist – in 1993. With his family he sought refuge in bomb shelters and escaped the country overland.

Self-described in Sunday’s notes as a “forever refugee” he is now settled in Switzerland, and lived for a while in Odessa, Ukraine. Of Sunday’s mise-en-scene he said “I was seeing myself walking the path of 30 years ago when I was in the shelter like some 10-year-old Ukrainian boys and girls are now, with their parents, not knowing when the ceiling will fall on your head. And standing here today and doing that show, that path, to me if I could visually express that it was like those half-naked people walking through that wind.”

“It’s only innocent people that die in the war: I’ve experienced that. And I actually blocked it in myself for 30 years until I started to read the news last week, “ he added. “And it brought all this pain back which I didn’t actually do anything for – like anyone who goes through that, you know. The message is love always, I think in everything we should be doing. And fashion has to kind of assume that in some way, at least in terms of taking a position.”

Taking an outspoken position on the war in Ukraine makes him an outlier amongst the luxury megabrands. In Paris this week, many designers have called for peace, raised funds and joined protests, though none arguably as personally and with the same profile as Demna. Owner Kering, alongside Chanel, Hermès, Prada and LVMH have announced the pause of operations in Russia, though often without directly criticizing Russia, or even calling it a war.

In taking a position through the storytelling and presentation of Sunday’s show, however, Demna was breaking important ground at fashion month. As the designer said in his notes for the show: “in a time like this, fashion loses its relevance and its actual right to exist. Fashion week feels like some kind of an absurdity.” But canceling the show would mean giving in, so instead he dedicated the show to “fearlessness, to resistance and to the victory of love and peace”.

Clarification: Remove reference to Demna’s surname. The creative director prefers to go by his first name only.

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