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Decoding Demna’s Vision for Balenciaga

The designer talks to Tim Blanks about the apocalyptic power of his latest Balenciaga show and why reality beats the metaverse.
Balenciaga's Autumn/Winter 2022 show.
Kim Kardashian, Anna Wintour, François-Henri Pinault and others watch Balenciaga's Autumn/Winter 2022 show. (Imran Amed)

PARIS — It was difficult, Demna acknowledged, to work on his latest Balenciaga show this past week. He couldn’t focus. He had friends in Russia, friends in Ukraine. For two years, he’d attended school in Odessa. But more to the point, the Russian invasion of Ukraine triggered memories of the horrors he’d endured three decades ago in Georgia.

“I never got over it,” he said. “The worst connection was really the fact that I went through exactly the same thing 30 years ago. Same aggressor, same military planes bombing houses, same fucked-up geopolitical reason. It was hard to digest that nothing has changed, except that there’s more media around and this is closer to Europe.” So close, in fact, that Demna claimed it would take less time to travel from Paris to Kyiv than it would to the Spanish seaside town of Benidorm. Digest that factoid, haplessly happy summer holidaymakers.

At one point, he did consider cancelling the show. “But I’ve already sacrificed so much to Putin in my life. And resistance is moving forward, not surrendering to one man’s evil war.” So, instead, Demna read a dedication to resistance by the Ukrainian poet Oleksander Oles, who died on the run from the Nazis in 1944. And the soundtrack opened with a piece by classical composer Antonín Dvořák, which he said “couldn’t be more Slav.”

The title of the show — 360° — had a double connotation: a reference to both heat and the circular venue. There was no real snow in the mountains when Demna made a trip to the Alps earlier this year, only the artificial kind made by machines. This set him brooding about a future, not so distant, when snow would be just a nostalgic memory, existing only as a digital simulation or something machine-made for a privileged few.

“I love technology and the metaverse but there is nothing more beautiful than real life.”

“It’s not a joyful story,” he said. “It’s Chapter Two of the last real show we did just before the pandemic started. That one was dark, with biblical references. This is the opposite: infinite white.” Inside the enclosed set (no snowflakes falling on the front row!), the models stoically bent against a blizzard while they made their way through a foot or so of fake snow. “You’ll need virtual reality to experience this in the future,” said Demna. “I love technology and the metaverse but there is nothing more beautiful than real life, even if it is fake snow. And you can’t do it on a phone. That’s why the invitation was a broken phone. Throw it away!”

“I’m trying to imagine the future,” he continued. “Its problems but also its beauty. We’re always trying to push design boundaries further. Here, we made tailoring completely packable. You can squeeze a whole trench coat into a pocket. Clothes take up less space. And I was discussing buttons with my good friend Ye. Why do we have this medieval, historical element of clothing? You need to make buttonholes, and every buttonhole costs money, which makes the garment more expensive. So, we did pullover outerwear, silhouettes with no closures. A minimal aesthetic with very recognizable garments.”

In the show itself, these technical innovations weren’t obvious. Nor could you see that a dress, gloves, stockings and shoes ensemble was actually all one piece, zipped up the back. But they were technical versions of the often-repetitive tropes that Demna has firmly established as his Balenciaga six years into his creative directorship of the brand. Those mumsy all-over florals, for example, that he returns to faithfully season after season. Of course, they’re a nostalgic reference to an Eastern European grandmother. “The culture in which I grew up formed my design aesthetic, so it kind of happened naturally. And I filter it through Balenciaga, and it becomes my story in this house.”

Demna designed his latest collection long before war broke out, but fashion has a habit of finding ways not only to reflect its times, but also to project possibilities. Those packable, pullable looks made me think of nomads, refugees, people having to leave somewhere in a hurry. The bag of the season would seem to be a garbage sack. How many times have you moved apartments with your stuff shoved into a Hefty? Though here it was called a Trash Pouch, and it was made from leather.

“It’s the elevation of the mundane into a new context,” Demna explained. Like the Balenciaga masking tape, which he couldn’t get enough of. He eerily encased one model in it, a full fetish look, which fangirl Kim Kardashian was already sporting in the front row. Took one roll and less than 20 minutes, head to toe, Demna insisted. “You don’t need Balenciaga clothes to wear that look, you just need the tape. It’s funny to dress up without clothes.”

Balenciaga Autumn/Winter 2022 look 27.

The same tape belted his luxe fake fur coats. He called it “a childlike thing,” like when he played dress-up as a kid, wrapping himself in curtains and taping them round his waist.

“It’s how my idea of fashion was born, the idea of something inexpensive being used in a new manner.” As far as he was concerned, a masking tape belt on a fur coat turned something banal and bourgeois into something cool. “These are the kinds of things that trigger excitement in me.”

In keeping with his bone-dry sense of irony, Demna also offered a hoodie adorned with an Apple and the message “Be Different.” Not the Apple, mind. Their message was “Think Different” and Demna’s Apple had no bite taken out it. “It’s complete, before the sin was committed.” And “being” rather than “thinking” was more direct. “I’ve always struggled with society’s boxes,” he said.

“The most challenging thing is to establish an aesthetic that can be interpreted through clothes you haven’t even done.”

Through his own Instagram account, he’s been engaging with kids who used clothes to make themselves be different. “They don’t wear Balenciaga, but what they do wear — vintage or whatever — looks like Balenciaga.” So, he invited them to the show. “For a designer, the most challenging thing is to establish a kind of aesthetic that can be interpreted through clothes or products you haven’t even done. I embrace it almost as a proof of the endurance, the persistence. I feel almost gratitude.”

I sensed a kind of humility in that observation. Balenciaga might be a great stomping beast in the arena of fashion, but its fearless leader feels grateful that he strikes such a chord. Clearly, he speaks to his vast audience through his elevation of the familiar, the way he turns something banal into something bizarrely memorable, if not extraordinary. I mean, what else can you say about the vision of a man in nothing more than underpants and sneakers making his way through a snowstorm with only a towel wrapped around himself to keep the elements at bay? “It was a trompe-l’œil of an actual towel in cashmere stretch knit,” Demna clarified, but still … I’m assuming it was part of an underwear launch, underlining the canny provocations that have turned Balenciaga into a commercial powerhouse.

Balenciaga Autumn/Winter 2022 look 40.

In July, Demna will show his second couture collection. The first one was a sensation, a rigorous expansion of Cristobal Balenciaga’s small, elite world onto the modern media stage. “Couture is always on my mind,” said Demna. “It had a big impact on me when I went back to ready-to-wear, where I know I can’t do the same kind of things. But there are certain elements — textures, materials — which may be industrialised.” One of my favourite pieces was the ingenious top fashioned from a pair of denims, with the waistband forming a couture neckline.

Questioning orthodoxy gets results for Demna. He considers it the root of his optimism. “It’s the only reason I do it. I believe in a better future. It’s part of who we are as humans. We naturally strive to be better. Having gone through that experience 30 years ago — when you don’t know if you’re going to die — puts it in perspective. Fashion doesn’t matter, the weather doesn’t matter.”

And yet, his show closed in a devastating way. The blizzard raged as muse Eliza Douglas made her way to safety in a sky-blue sheath that trailed a long train in the wind, like a promise of better days. The soundtrack had long since switched from lyrical Dvořák to pounding rat-a-tat techno by Demna’s partner and longtime musical collaborator BFRND. Then the “skyline” was illuminated by flashes of light, like explosions in the distance. The winter turned nuclear.

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