Over a million refugees have already fled Ukraine following the Russian invasion. “I worked in refugee emergencies for nearly 40 years,” noted
Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, last week, “and I have rarely seen an exodus as rapid as this”. So when Balenciaga’s creative director Demna, himself a refugee who fled his native Georgia during the civil war in 1993, was finalizing his fall collection, the situation unfolding in Ukraine seemed so close to him that he considered canceling this week’s show in Paris. Demna, who recently dropped her surname Gvasalia to go by a mononym, wrote in the show’s notes that “in times like these, fashion loses its relevance and its true right to exist. fashion looks like some kind of nonsense.
But he continued, fearing quitting the show would mean “giving in.” Instead, he decided to redirect the presentation to Ukraine, describing the show as a “dedication to fearlessness, resistance and the victory of love and peace”. The French brand, which established itself in Paris when the Spanish designer Cristobal Balenciaga fled his country’s civil war in 1937, quickly pivoted. He was among the first to signal his support for Ukraine on social media last week and donated an undisclosed amount to the World Food Programme, which provides emergency food aid to people affected by the war. Balenciaga has been involved with the organization since 2018, when the brand released a $750 hoodie emblazoned with the WFP logo, causing a brief stir over the coin’s hodgepodge of luxury and selflessness.
During Sunday’s show at Paris-Le Bourget airport, folded over each seat, a T-shirt representing the Ukrainian flag, worn prominently in the front row by actress Salma Hayek, married to François-Henri Pinault, the president of Kering, owner of Balenciaga. Ms Hayek was pictured with another big name, Kim Kardashian, who arrived wrapped in a ‘Balenciaga’ emergency band signaling the crisis (the collection’s original theme was linked to global warming). The logo-mummy look, also featured on the show, will be available for purchase this fall as a roll of duct tape.
Also on sale will be pieces from the collection that more overtly evoke refugees, including black leather bags resembling trash bags and knitwear resembling plush towels that wrap around the shoulders like capes. Although the brand did not confirm which elements of the collection were already in the works when the Ukraine crisis deepened, it was these pieces that left attendees with the horrifying feeling of seeing refugees in midair. The models walked through a glazed snow globe of a set with paper snow blowing on their faces. Several spectators left crying.
I wondered, watching the show, if the theme of refugees veered into romanticism or a commodification of pain. One would imagine that those leather trash bags might be sold to oligarchs on Madison Avenue next season, after all. Although industry and social media reception of the collection was mostly positive, a few online dissenters said they felt “uncomfortable” and that the show was “inappropriate”. When I spoke with Venya Brykalin, the fashion director of Vogue Ukraine, after the show, he also expressed some ambivalence, but said that ultimately it will depend on how the trash bags and the towels will be marketed to the public. However, he said: “As a Ukrainian, I did not feel offended.
But the trash bags and towels, along with Balenciaga’s signature heavy-duty black dividers and final looks in blue and yellow from Ukraine, produced a cohesive collection that directly referenced current world events in a way that felt authentic. , at least for me and the others I spoke to. for. The only designer I can think of who matched Demna’s ability to terrify with beauty was the late Alexander McQueen, with his collections like 1995’s “Highland Rape”, inspired by England’s treatment of Scotland in the 18th century.
This show is likely to enter fashion lore in much the same way as Mr. McQueen’s collections. It started with a voiceover of a poem by Oleksandr Oles calling on Ukraine to stay strong, and the soundtrack then shifted from soulful strings to more typical Balenciaga Berghain rhythms.
Mr. Brykalin, the director of Vogue Ukraine, was touched by the inclusion of the poem. He thinks Demna’s collection was exactly the wake-up call the fashion industry needed. He said: “It shows how great he is as a designer: he really has that sense of context and urgency.”
At present, many Ukrainians get their daily news about the war from streams on the Telegram app. Mr. Brykalin explained that on these feeds, which aggregate information from different sources, stories about the Balenciaga show appeared alongside information about the most recent explosions. He said that was proof of his impact. “For Ukrainians it is important,” he said. “It is important for us to feel seen and heard. Culturally, it absolutely resonates.
One of Balenciaga’s sweatshirts had a variation on the Apple Inc 1997-2002.
“Think Different” slogan. At first, it didn’t seem out of place in the series, but then I remembered that Steve Jobs was the son of a Syrian migrant. Artist Banksy even painted Mr Jobs as a refugee in a 2015 mural titled “The Son of a Migrant from Syria” near the encampment in Calais, France. In a way, this slogan could be seen as a beacon of hope for the millions of displaced people currently moving around the world. Or to remind the fashion industry to think differently about how to use its huge platform and important resources during a war.
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