Men and women staggered through the snow, their heads bowed against the wind. Shivering in thin layers, they carried their belongings in sacks.
The snow was fake, and Kim Kardashian was watching from the front row. Lightweight layers will cost thousands, and models wore thigh-high boots. But in the week when more than a million Ukrainians were forced to flee their homes, the allusion to this Balenciaga catwalk was clear.
It was an uncomfortable hour and came dangerously close to using the humanitarian crisis as an aesthetic. However, for many in the audience, it was a humane and powerful show of empathy, an emotion that is often not seen on the catwalk.
And for Balenciaga’s creative director, Demna, it was personal. “The war in Ukraine has caused pain because of the trauma I have carried with me since 1993, when the same thing happened in my homeland,” wrote the designer, who as a 12-year-old was one of 250,000 forced Georgians from his homes since by Abkhazian separatists during the civil war in his country, crossing the Caucasus Mountains with his family.
A message left on each of the 525 seats, along with a T-shirt in the colors of the Ukrainian flag, says that although “fashion week seems like a kind of absurdity”, canceling the show would mean “letting go of the evil that has hurt me for almost 30 years”.
“It was me,” the designer said behind the scenes of the show when it was over. “I watched myself, 30 years ago, as a child in a shelter, not knowing if the roof would fall on my head.” Moving into the mismatch between fashion week and war is such an insidious area that most designers simply stay away, but Demna was encouraged by his personal history.
While the models were walking, the designer, who lived as a refugee in Ukraine and Moscow before settling in Dusseldorf, recited a song in Ukrainian which, as he said, was translated on the line “Your sons will save you”.
“It was an art installation. It had something nice to say, ”said actress Salma Hayek, who wore a blue-and-yellow T-shirt over her Balenciaga outfit while waiting to congratulate the designer.
Demna insisted that the fashion medium was irrelevant to the show’s message. “Fashion doesn’t matter now. The message must be love and peace, and fashion must take a strong position in this crisis. ”
Yet the context, as part of a luxury goods exhibition house – the one whose ultimate boss is Hayek’s husband François-Henri Pinault, Kering’s CEO – will inevitably come to the minds of many observers. Balenciaga has paused trade in Russia for now and is supporting a World Food Program operation to help people fleeing the war.
When the show was planned six months ago, the snow scene was conceived as a commentary on the climate emergency. “It was about what the snow could mean in the future. And for the 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 are in.
After a slow start, the fashion industry joined the sanctions against Russia. Louis Vuitton, Dior, Hermès, Chanel, Prada, Gucci, Saint Laurent, Cartier and Burberry have closed their Russian stores and paused online shopping, as have high street brands Zara, which operates 502 Russian stores, and H&M.
LVMH, which has 124 stores in Russia of various brands, including Vuitton and Dior, has confirmed it will continue to pay its 3,500 employees there, as well as Chanel, which has 17 independent stores across Russia, and mini boutiques in department stores, employing 371 person.