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I’m Convinced We Are All Pawns In Balenciaga’s Giant Social Experiment

I’m Convinced We Are All Pawns In Balenciaga’s Giant Social Experiment

Look, ever since Balenciaga was taken over by cult designer Demna Gvasalia, the brand has been a little… crazy, to say the least. I thought it had especially hit a high point when gimp masks became his go-to accessory on last year’s runway, and Kim Kardashian walked out in one (how are we supposed to explain that to the kids?! The kids are not alright), but now I feel like we are all a part of this elaborate rouse.

There’s no denying Demna is a genius. He’s designed clothes for Walter van Beirendock, Louis Vuitton, Maison Martin Margiela, and started up the cult label Vetements with his brother, who now has taken over the helm as Demna moved over to Balenciaga. But things have just gotten too strange, and not in a good way.

The moment where it struck me that Demna is probably definitely playing a trick on us all was when the internet was collectively duped (me included) by a pair of sandals, consisting of a flattened plastic bottle and a toe strap. Essentially, the pair of jandals that you’ve seen on many an impoverished person, from Kenya to Malaysia to Columbia – all over the world, people have transformed somebody’s rubbish into an essential accessory to protect their feet, and we genuinely believed that Balenciaga – a haute couture house, who’s founder would be rolling in his grave – would release that.

Turns out, it was actually concept art created by Georgian digital artist Max Arnautov, who came up with this idea from Kanye West’s post, saying “Look to the children, Look to the homeless, As the biggest inspiration for all design.” Along with a photoshopped image of the sandals on Balenciaga’s website selling for €895, Justin Bieber also “modelled” them in a particularly lifelike collab. Max’s comment reads:

“Meta-irony and metamodernism are best friends of modern fashion, guys. I guess this concept is meta-ironic towards Balenciaga, which became meta-ironic brand itself thanks to @Demna.
When this idea came to me, I thought: “So f*cking funny! But… I will not be surprised if Balenciaga gonna do something like that for real.”
They released earrings made of laces, destroyed Paris sneakers, a trench shitted by birds.. so this bottle slippers are fitting perfectly! Cuz it’s all about overconsumption and its fruits.”

This season, Demna’s S/S23 show came with the news that he was no longer going to comment on his work, i.e. it is what you make of it. The problem with this is that instead of his collections speaking for themselves, it excuses Demna to answer for his work. His show notes dictate “You either like it or not,” but this is tactic of subtly undermining his critics, insinuating that they (me included) in fact don’t get his collections, so really, it’s not his problem – it’s ours. It’s him stepping away from having any responsibility to his work, which, as I’ve said before, is impossible and irresponsible when you’re creating art, something designed to influence audience – or in this case, shoppers.

His last runway show was a commentary on climate change, set in a swirling snowstorm with models traipsing around with (leather) rubbish bags filled with their possessions. This season it was set in a slippery, muddy pit, reflecting in what a dire situation he thinks the world has come to the multitude of refugees fleeing Russia’s war on Ukraine, with clothes that had looked like they had been run over, ripped, dipped in mud and dried (which they actually had). There was also an especially designed scent of decomp created by Norwegian scent artist Sissel Tolaas – lovely.

Commenting on privilege and the absurdity of capitalism from a brand like Balenciaga makes no sense. You can’t sell beat up clothes and plastic bottle sandals (will concept become reality?) for extortionate amounts of money as a commentary on how materialism and capitalism is ruining the planet and then pocket the profits. That doesn’t make you a genius, it just makes you a hypocrite. Even Vogue Runway’s review this season spelled out the obvious: “Of course Demna wants us to shop, and of course his bosses do, too. But when it comes time to spend, my money’s on the guy who looks around and is terrified, not the sleepwalkers.”

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It’s well known and documented that the fashion industry is one of the biggest contributors to world pollution, creating 10% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions (more than international flights and shipping combined), and news came out just a few days ago that the textile industry is on track this year to miss its climate targets and exceed the 1.5 °C pathway laid out in the Paris Climate Agreement, so why would we think that Demna is doing right by drawing attention to climate change while making even more waste? Are we really going to pretend that Demna’s mud-pit show is going to spread light and benefit refugees in any way at all? As 1 Granary so eloquently put it: “Is the designer really just ‘rejecting labels’, or is he preemptively dodging any criticism of his work as the commodification of pain and suffering?”

Just like Demna’s close friend and collaborator Kanye West’s recent YZY show with his “White Lives Matter” t-shirts, there comes a time when the boat is pushed out too far – my question is, at what point will consumers and shoppers draw the line?

Feature image via Max Arnaurtov’s Instagram @neondazer