Kaarin Vembar is obsessed with the luxury and apparel markets. She also has a sassy mouth so her managing editor decided to give her a column in an attempt to harness insight for readers. Kaarin can be reached at [email protected].
Balenciaga’s creative director, Demna, is done explaining his work.
He said so earlier this month in an artistic statement placed on the seats of attendees of his ready-to-wear Summer 2023 show — a note wherein he went on to explain his work.
“The set of this show is a metaphor for digging for truth and being down to earth,” he wrote. Demna had set up his runway show in a convention center on the outskirts of Paris and brought in over 9,700 cubic feet of black mud from a French peat bog, according to reports on the show. Models walked (really stomped) down a runway of mud while wearing the season’s collection, all of which rapidly got splattered with mud.
Setting a Paris Fashion Week show in the middle of a dirt pit is outrageous. Having models trudge through a runway of mud in apparel that will sell for thousands of dollars per piece is unheard of. And making the fashion elite waddle through dirt to get to their seats — many of whom posted on social media pictures of their shoes and legs covered in gunk as bragging rights — is a hilarious piece of performance art.
Love it or hate it, Demna hit a nerve. He also tapped into something in the zeitgeist that has to do with the balance between comfortable and aspirational clothing among a backdrop of destruction.
How the past informs Summer RTW 2023
Demna has been leaning into decay for a while.
The designer caused a fuss this past spring when he released a pair of tattered, “extra destroyed” sneakers that looked like something you wore to 8th grade gym class then threw in the back of a closet. The price tag on those beat up, limited-edition sneakers was nearly $2,000 — a cost and a concept that had people both inside and outside the fashion world talking.
The sneaker was absolutely a preview of what was to come, albeit at a larger scale. This time around the runway had a number of men in ballet flats, sparkly clogs and ripped jeans all dripping with mud to aid the theme of wreckage.
After his most recent show, Demna talked to reporters about how it is difficult to deteriorate clothes. He also revealed that Balenciaga has an entire department “that ages and makes things dirty,” according to Women’s Wear Daily, stating that destruction takes time and effort.
But, Demna also revealed more about the tension between beauty and ruination earlier this year during Balenciaga’s Fall 2022 presentation. The runway show took place in Paris a little over a week following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
T-shirts in the colors of the Ukrainian flag were on every seat, along with a note from Demna about how Russia’s actions triggered his past pain and made fashion week an “absurdity.”
His resulting fashion show was set in the middle of a manufactured snowstorm. Models struggled against the synthetic weather event, fighting against wind turbines in order to present the designers’ high-concept apparel. Some carried garbage bags, a deliberate symbol of the desperation of the refugee’s plight to escape while gathering what they could carry.
And it was all very personal.
Demna was only 12 years old in 1993 when he escaped war-torn Georgia with his brother. In an interview with Vogue in 2018, he said of the experience, “Everybody today talks about war, refugees and I am like, yes — I know exactly what that means.” After leaving Georgia he spent two years in Ukraine, where he still has family, before moving to Germany. He eventually ended up studying at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Belgium.
His work throughout the years has channeled childhood trauma. His natural inclination as a designer is to create apparel that is rooted in beauty and expression, but there are still moments that echo the inescapable horror that comes with experiencing war and misplacement.
And those memories are close at hand. In an interview about the snowstorm runway, Demna said the models’ struggle was deliberate, and a representation of his time 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.”
The juxtaposition continues, down to a mud pit, where once again models struggle with the natural elements while daring to present beauty against entropy. It’s bombastic, but it’s rooted in both pain and hope.
Art and a commercial show
It’s also rooted in commercialism. The garbage bags that adorned the runway earlier this year carried a larger message, it’s true. But they also currently carry a price tag of around $1,800.
While Demna’s runway shows are high concept, he has managed to pull off something even greater by making his ready-to-wear collections commercially successful. He’s managed to do that by drawing legions of fans and high-profile admirers, including a potentially fraught friendship with Kanye West, also known as Ye, with whom he partnered earlier in the year on a project with Gap.
That’s because Balenciaga, which at times can seem outrageous and ridiculous (i.e. check out this Lay’s potato chip bag), offers a mix of both trendy and aspirational looks that translate into what people actually wear. Or could wear if they had the money.
Demna’s latest runway contained things that are familiar: hoodies, ripped jeans, oversized outerwear. Those looks were quickly followed by eveningwear that showed off the range of the designer's vision, including a pleated, floor length gown in a shade of cherry red that reminded the audience that not all is doom and gloom.
All of this to say that Demna is not just here to shock or cause a stir with occasional perplexing designs. There is technique here, but there is also an understanding about what is marketable. His apparel is hitting the reality of what a new generation of young fashion enthusiasts are dealing with by trying to make things comfortable and beautiful amid a backdrop of war and environmental chaos.
“Putting luxury fashion into the box of polished, exclusive, and visually expensive is limited and pretty old school,” Demna wrote of his collection. He’s right. While other designers continue to treat luxury apparel as precious, it’s proving to be particularly tiresome when the world at large has gone askew. Demna, if nothing else, has proven he’s willing to get in the mud and contend with it all.