People visit natural history museums to gawk at dinosaur bones. Might one day will they go to experience winter, to see what snow was?
Demna asked this wrenching question — and addressed the Russian invasion of Ukraine head-on — at his powerful and sometimes jarring fall fashion show for Balenciaga, set in a vast white fishbowl of a space alive with a manufactured snowstorm, swirling bits of paper standing in for the real stuff.
Guests arriving at the giant exhibition hall on the fringes of Paris discovered oversized T-shirts the colors of the Ukrainian flag on every seat, and a note card from Demna, whose family fled the civil war in Georgia in 1993. “And I became a forever refugee,” he declared. Current headlines “triggered the pain” of that past trauma, making fashion week seem such an “absurdity” that he seriously considered calling the show off.
“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. I decided that I can no longer sacrifice parts of me to that senseless, heartless war of ego,” he wrote, dedicating the display to “fearlessness, to resistance, and to the victory of love and peace.”
His title for the show, “360 Degrees,” appropriates the language of VR technology, which he subverted by recreating the same effect in real life behind a giant glass screen. The mind boggles at the logistics — and the cost — of this giant snow globe.
It was something of a thumb in the eye to the metaverse, the latest comet hurtling toward planet fashion. “It’s really important to be in real life, even though we may enjoy technology and we will have no choice but to use it,” he explained in an interview the day before the show. “I wanted to also show how much more effort it takes to create this kind of thing in real life — and how much more beautiful it is.”
The title also refers to our overheating planet. The designer lives outside of Zurich and described “shock” at visiting familiar peaks at 3,500 meters and finding no snow. (The headlines about obscene water consumption to create snow for the recent winter Olympics in Beijing came months after he had fixed the concept for fall.)
He views this show as “chapter two” of his last IRL runway extravaganza pre-pandemic, which had models splashing through water in a dark, flooded arena as a metaphor for global warming. “Snow and this kind of scenery is going to be one of those things that will only exist either in the digital world, or in this kind of artificial set. We’re losing the real thing.”
Before the lights went up, Demna’s voice could be heard reading a poem in Ukrainian by Oleksandr Oles, whose message, he said backstage afterwards, tells Ukraine “to be strong, to focus on love.”
Watching the models trudge through this fake winter storm, tightening into the wind and lugging what looked like garbage bags, added a third and heartbreaking narrative — evoking the million-plus Ukrainians now fleeing the war. It was very hard to pay attention to the clothes.
In the backstage scrum, Demna explained that having the models struggle against the elements — the wind turbines cranked all the way — was deliberate, an echo of the dark days in Georgia when he was “in a shelter like some other 10-year-old Ukrainian boys and girls now with their parents, not knowing when the ceiling will fall on their heads.”
Ultimately, questions came around to the clothes, and guest Kim Kardashian, dressed in a catsuit made of logo packing tape just like a few of the models in the show. Demna called the tape, which he wound around hulking faux furs, a way to break bourgeois codes, and to offer something for sale not too expensive that could be whipped up into clothes. “It just took half an hour,” he said of Kardashian’s sticky outfit.
The collection was strong and did not bend to any of the storylines, but rather to Demna’s garment-focused approach to fashion. He alluded to a lengthy conversation about buttons with Ye (who like Demna, ditched his last name) as the lightbulb that went off that led to puffers, bombers and jean jackets that pull over the head, fasteners be damned.
His storage problems and obsession with traveling light — and perhaps some remorse for his gigantic multilayer parkas of yore — led him to invent pre-wrinkled trenchcoats and double-breasted suits that can be balled up for easy packing.
It’s amusing to think how many might fit in his latest send-up of luxury leather goods — the Trash bag, which looks exactly like the Hefty you carry to the curb. “I couldn’t miss an an opportunity to make the most expensive trash bag in the world, because who doesn’t love a fashion scandal?” he said with a chuckle.