Whether you are into fashion or not, Balenciaga is on everyone's radars these days. Under the direction of Demna (formerly known as Demna Gvasalia), the label quickly became a household name that draws perhaps an equal amount of admiration and ire. The label, of course, has no shortage of questionable products-the latest being leather Lay's potato chip bags with no design alteration except for "Balenciaga" in place of the flavor name. The outrage for such products is understandable, yet Balenciaga's admirers are almost cult-like-so what does the general audience not get?
While it's easy to dismiss Balenciaga as a social experiment, doing so is highly reductive of the label's message and intentions. What, then, is the point of it all?
A Closer Look
To understand Demna's vision better, his runways are a good starting point. Balenciaga's runways are not merely spectacles to showcase the pieces, they also communicate statements personal to Demna. Earlier in March, Balenciaga's FW22 collection directly references climate change and the Ukraine conflict. Models walked through artificial blizzard inside a glass-walled construct designed by the architecture studio Sub-clad in outfits that sometimes barely covered their bodies and trash bag-inspired pouches in hand.
Through the show, Demna recounted his experiences of being a refugee from the 1993 Georgian civil war. In the show notes, he wrote "The war in Ukraine has triggered the pain of a past trauma I have carried in me since 1993, when the same thing happened in my home country, and I became a forever refugee." Without context, the bags and clothes almost seem like a mockery of its customers, yet the show paints a haunting scene of fleeing one's home in whatever clothes you can find, with the entirety of your possessions stuffed inside a trash bag.
Their latest runway, SS23, elicited strong reactions due to its mud-drenched "runway". The clothes are as expected of Balenciaga, with massive outerwears, lots of leathers, and a mix of dark and vibrant colors. Notably, this is also the collection where Demna decided that he is no longer explaining himself, stating that "I hate boxes and I hate labels and I hate being labeled and placed in a box. Society, the internet, and the world in general loves doing that, because it feels safe that way," in the show notes. His collections will "express a state of mind" instead.
The argument can be made that Demna is fetishizing or commodifying hardship and poverty through the lens of his own personal history, but Balenciaga's partnership with the World Food Programme to support those fleeing from Ukraine attested to his sentiments. To what degree the effort justifies is open to our own interpretations.
There's no denying that Balenciaga has its fair share of "inside jokes" and meme products, but beyond it, Demna's design expertise speaks for itself in his couture collections. To make more sense of his approach, it seems more appropriate to see it through the lens of antifashion. Demna clearly doesn't follow trends, instead he looks to the mundane for inspiration. From his days in Vetements, he often reinterprets garments such as security staff and police jackets. He often embraces aspects of popular culture without consideration if it's perceived as "fashionable" or not-case in point being Balenciaga's Fortnite collaboration.
While cheeky, his continuous subversion of design challenges our preconceived notions of luxury and what high fashion should look like. Even if being conventionally fashionable is not in his agenda, Demna's work dictates it all the same. Balenciaga's first collaboration with Crocs in 2017 was endlessly pondered, analyzed, and laughed at, yet the once-dreaded footwear's status has been steadily rising in the fashion landscape ever since.
As per his own words, "You either like it or you don't," it's entirely the audience's decision to be offended by his work or try to understand it. Since it's impossible to categorize his works as being "serious" or not, it leads to the question: should fashion be so serious all the time? Can we just have a few laughs with it? At the end of the day, no one is forcing us to buy high fashion products-certainly not Demna, as he once claimed he would rather go on holiday than pay full price for his own designs. After all, the idea of a $1,790 trash bag is pretty funny.