Men and women stumbled through the snow, their heads bowed into the wind. Trembling in flimsy layers, they carried their possessions in sacks.
The snow was artificial and Kim Kardashian was watching from the front row. Thin layers would cost thousands, and the models wore thigh-high stiletto boots. But a week later, when more than 1 million Ukrainians were forced to leave their homes, the allusion to this Balenciaga catwalk became obvious.
It was an uncomfortable watch, and dangerously close to using the humanitarian crisis as an aesthetic. However, for many viewers, it was also a humane and powerful display of empathy, an emotion not often seen on the catwalk.
And for Balenciaga creative director Demna, it was personal. “The war in Ukraine brought pain from a past trauma that I had been carrying since 1993 when the same thing happened in my home country,” wrote the designer, who at age 12 was one of 250,000 Georgians forced from their homes by Abkhaz separatists during during the civil war in his country, crossing the Caucasus Mountains with his family.
A note left at each of the 525 seats, along with a Ukrainian-colored T-shirt, said that while “fashion week seems kind of absurd,” canceling the show would mean “submission to power.” an evil that has been causing me so much pain for almost 30 years.”
“That was me,” the designer said backstage at the show as it ended. “I saw myself 30 years ago as a child in an orphanage, not knowing if the roof would fall on my head.” Bridging the dissonance between fashion week and war is such treacherous territory that most designers just stay away, but Demna was energized by his personal story.Models at the Balenciaga show walk on artificial snow. Photo: Balenciaga
While the models were walking, the designer, who lived as a refugee in Ukraine and Moscow before settling in Düsseldorf, read a poem in Ukrainian, which he says translates to “your sons will save you.”
“It was an art installation. He had something beautiful to say,” said actress Salma Hayek, wearing a blue and yellow T-shirt over a Balenciaga outfit, waiting to congratulate the designer.
Demna insisted that fashion had nothing to do with the show’s message. “Fashion doesn’t matter now. The message must be love and peace, and fashion must stand firm in this crisis.”
However, the context, as part of a showcase for a luxury home whose top boss is husband Hayek François-Henri Pinault, CEO of Kering, should strike a wrong note for many observers. Balenciaga has suspended trade in Russia for the time being and supports the World Food Program’s operation to help people flee the war.
When the show was scheduled six months ago, the snow scene was intended as a commentary on the climate emergency. “It was about what snow could mean in the future. And by future, I mean now, when there are ski resorts where there is no more snow,” said Demna, who no longer uses his surname Gvasalia. “But then it took on a completely different meaning because of the crisis we’re in.”
After a slow start, the fashion industry has joined the sanctions against Russia. Louis Vuitton, Dior, Hermès, Chanel, Prada, Gucci, Saint Laurent, Cartier and Burberry have closed their stores in Russia and suspended online trading, as have big street brands Zara, which has 502 stores in Russia, and H&M.
LVMH, which has 124 stores in Russia of various brands, including Vuitton and Dior, has confirmed that it will continue to pay its 3,500 employees there, as has Chanel, which has 17 separate stores across Russia, as well as mini-boutiques in department stores where it works 371 people.