Balenciaga: Refugees in black and white
Every so often, a great fashion show becomes a comment on our times. Rarely more so than Sunday’s show by Balenciaga, an exile in flight collection, by a Demna, a designer who terms himself a “forever refugee.”
Presented in a remarkable set – a glass walled snow-space, 60 meters in diameter – where his cast trudged in blustery winds to their destination, their clothes blown vertically behind them. Several were half naked, in underwear and skimpy blankets.
In a season where fashion had seemed largely irrelevant, given the horrors of the Russian invasion of Ukraine projected everywhere and constantly worldwide, it was salutary to witness an aesthetic statement by an individual who himself was the victim of war.
Back in 2013 Demna's Orthodox family were forced out of their family home in Georgia, in a violent civil war where Russia troops supported separatists in the Abkhazia region. This lead to ethnic cleansing and over a 200,000 Georgians becoming refugees. In a mark of respect at Sunday’ show, every guest was given a yellow and blue Ukrainian flag t-shirt.
Demna even recited a poem – in Ukrainian – over loudspeakers, to open the show, before the first evacuee model appeared.
“Until you are bound by chains, and the enemies bind your hands, your faithful sons are standing beside you. With swords in hands on guard, they swear to live and to die with you. Our native flags though covered in bloody battles, will never be covered in shame,” read Demna, in a text translated by the acclaimed Ukrainian-American documentarist, Andrew Tkach.
Dressed in a cloak/dresses billowing furiously, carrying shoulder bags that looked like refuse sack. Most of the cast carrying similar sacks, as if they had grabbed up their most valuable possessions as they fled their homes. Demna had originally dreamed up the set as a comment of what snow might mean in the future.
“The future is now since when you go to ski resorts there is no snow. It’s about visiting a world in 50 years where you will have to go to somewhere artificial to experience weather we take for granted now, unfortunately,” he explained after a snowstorm of compliments for his apocalyptic show.
A defining moment, of youth dressed mostly in black, slimmer versions of Demna’s signature volume style – chunky jumpsuits, flared flamenco cocktails and grand governess gowns.
In a co-ed show, the guys appeared in black bedraggled jeans; dragoon boots or twisted cloaks, carrying their refuse sack bags. Everyone wearing Balenciaga insect shades, protection from the snow flurries.
“This week, I saw myself in the past from 30 years ago in a shelter like some Ukrainian boys and girls today. Not knowing if the ceiling was about to fall. So, these half-naked people making their way through the wind are very personal,” said an emotional Demna.
He referred to the show as “my chapter two,” where chapter one was his pre-Covid show in Paris, where the cast walked on a shallow lake, in a biblical reference.
“When I began this season I wanted something positive, open space and hope, but given the circumstance everything changed. That often happens with my shows, somehow,” shrugged the designer, wearing the yellow and blue t-shirt.
Much of the collection were packable outerwear and trenches in very light fabrics. And, at times it looked like the cast might have personally made the clothes. Many were sewn together denim looks, where jeans were made into tanks tops; or handbags formed by sewing together two high-heel boots.
“I was once a little Georgian boy who used to dress up in curtains and play in my mother’s boots and be punished for that. So today is kind of 'my revanche',” laughed Demna.
Known for plastering the Balenciaga monogram on pretty much everything, Demna even playfully wrapped several female models in logo tape, to render the monogram less bourgeois and less madam.
“By wrapping the tape around them it is no longer an expression of a rich lady walking around a rich area.”
His soundtrack was theatrically Eastern European, a piano sonata performed by Johnandrew Slominski. Ukrainian music was played continuously in the backstage.
Asked, had he any message for Vladimir Putin after nearly two weeks of war, Demna replied quietly: “My only message is this show. And the fact that only innocent people suffer. Those that die in the war. I have experienced that. I blocked it out of my mind for 30 years. But recent events have brought all this pain back. So, the message is that what matters in life is life itself; human love and compassion… Fashion somehow doesn't matter right now.”
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