Models are still fashionably togged, but can they escape artillery shelling in spiked heels?
As the Balenciaga show goes on in Paris, news reports comes forth that Russian artillery attacks continue to rain on Ukraine’s residential areas throughout the country. Agreements with Russia earlier on a humanitarian corridor have largely fallen through, and residents are evacuating in droves. Reflecting this grim reality is the Balenciaga presentation, staged in Halle d’Expositions in Le Bourget, the northeastern suburb of Paris. Models brave machine-created snowstorm and gust, trudging, even in heels and above-knee boots (who has time to put them on under the threat of approaching attack?), through a scene originally created to be a warning about climate change. But with the war, the set becomes a timely discourse and, to a considerable extent, memoir of treacherous escape from military conflict. As Demna Gvasalia (now preferred to be known mononymously by his first name), told the press, “But it turned into something else, which often happens with my shows, somehow.”
The audience sees the presentation behind a see-through panel/shield. Looking on, what stands before could be a massive snow globe, but there is no fairy-tale or festive cuteness within. Instead, a diorama of people in peril, with a soundtrack of Slavonic piano to augment its bleakness. It is tempting to say that fashion is inclined to make light the gravity of things, but we do not sense that here. Demna himself said, “To me, fashion somehow doesn’t matter right now.” But fashion, like any show, must go on. The designer was a victim of war—at ten years of age, a refugee fleeing Abkhazia, Georgia in 1993, and was sheltered in Ukraine, where he went to school and learned to speak the language. At the beginning of the show, in total darkness, he reads a poem in Ukrainian. It roughly translates as “your sons will save you”. Although the words are intended for those who understands the language, Demna does intone, “the message is love, always. And fashion has to assume that, at least in terms of taking a position on it.”
But the allusion to war is not an equivocal one. It it can be seen and felt. And many do see and are touched, such as Bryan Boy, who quickly Twittered, “I don’t think I’ve ever bawled in a fashion show until now”. The show may be about evacuation, but it was about defiance too. Demna wrote in the show notes that cancelling the show to say no to the war would have been “surrendering to the evil that has already hurt me so much for almost 30 years”. The authenticity—a less-hackneyed word may be preferred aside—of putting together a show by someone who had been through what is happening concurrently perhaps adds to the poignancy of the production, and to the clothes that are not entirely visible in the precipitative blurriness. Still, there is a tad of incongruity, when freshly-single, always-visible Kim Kardashian, “friend” of the house, sat in the front row, all bound up—in caution tape, labelled Balenciaga no less!
It is not a show that’s easy to watch, not only because of what it evokes, but also because what is seen are mostly the teetering, and the mere silhouettes. These are identifiably Balenciaga silhouettes: beautiful but, at times, ghostly. In the fog of war and inclement weather, bagged-up shapes and floating trains could be either the bourgeoisie in escape or the peasantry in flight, or both. The models, with wet hair, appear to have just taken their last shower. There are the half-naked, covered by a blanket (or is that a towel?), plodding through the snow. Some of the outerwear look like there are taken off a neighbour’s clothesline. But others—the dresses—could be a refugee’s finest because even in fleeing, you’d want to look your best. Many of them carry bags that look like black versions of those used by hotels for laundry. Perhaps better to contain everything you wish to bring along at the last minute. As Demna told the press, he “made everything less madame, less bourgeois, less upper-class”. It is not hard to second that.
Screen grab (top) and photos: Balenciaga