This story is published in partnership with CNN Style, a Paris Fashion Week media partner.
With all eyes on Balenciaga, one of Paris Fashion Week’s most anticipated collection unveilings, the brand’s creative director Demna used his platform to pay tribute to Ukrainians in a dramatic show that evoked a deep sense of unease about the future.
For the designer, the humanitarian crisis unfolding in eastern Europe, where more than 1.5 million Ukrainians have fled the country, hits close to home.
Demna (who prefers not to use his last name) was born in Sukhumi, a city in Georgia that saw heavy fighting during the country’s civil war in the early 1990s. The designer and his family were among tens of thousands of people to flee Sukhumi amid conflict in the disputed region of Abkhazia, which is considered independent by Russia despite being internationally recognized as part of Georgia.
“The war in Ukraine has triggered the pain of a past trauma I have carried in me since 1993, when the same thing happened to my home country and I became a forever refugee,” he wrote, in a note given to guests attending the label’s Fall-Winter 2022 show, held Sunday on the outskirts of Paris.
In a poignant moment, the designer recited a poem in Ukrainian by beloved poet Oleksandr Oles. No translation was provided as Demna intended its overarching message of strength to be heard by those who could understand it. In another gesture, Ukrainian flags were draped on guests’ seats.
During the show, models trudged through artificial snow and a biting wind, some holding oversized leather trash bags (or trash pouches, as the show notes described them).
While the collection was designed before the war in Ukraine broke out, it was hard not to draw parallels and, speaking to reporters backstage, Demna said the set and staging — a shocking and stirring production — deliberately reflected his own experience of conflict and displacement 30 years ago.
Demna also noted that the severity of the set was, originally, a partial comment on climate change, and how due to global warming, snow may have to be rendered digitally in the future. A glass wall separated the audience from the circular set, creating an IRL livestream of sorts.
The show wasn’t the first time Demna had responded to the war in Ukraine. Last week, Balenciaga posted an image of Ukraine’s flag to its Instagram account and stated that all of the company’s channels would be sharing details about how to contribute to relief causes. The post also announced that the label would be providing direction on resources for verified information.
Balenciaga has since wiped that image from its grid, and uploaded images from the show. A link to donate to the World Food Programme remains on Balenciaga’s Instagram highlights section.
The collection featured long trains and billowing silhouettes alongside classic staple pieces like turtlenecks and oversized hoodies. Signature skin-tight bodysuits were also on display. One model was wrapped head-to-toe in yellow and black Balenciaga packaging tape — an identical look that was seen on Kim Kardashian who attended the event as a guest.
The show closed without a finale, where models typically file out together to take one last walk as a group. Instead, the last model strode off set to an intense, suffocating track titled “Storm,” by electronic music composer BFRND. Lights in the faux sky above the set flashed and flickered adding drama to the man-made weather.
In his note to guests, Demna said he’d considered canceling the show altogether in the week leading up to it, reflecting on the fact that, “in a time like this, fashion loses its relevance and its actual right to exist.”
“Fashion week feels like some kind of an absurdity,” he wrote.
But he came to the conclusion that calling off the event would mean “giving in,” and “surrendering to the evil that has already hurt me so much… I decided I can no longer sacrifice parts of me to that senseless, heartless war of ego.”
Ultimately, the show achieved what the designer does best: It forced the viewer to ask questions, both of themselves and of the system — perhaps making a barbed suggestion that Demna’s Balenciaga mirrors the world, and oftentimes what we see looking back at us is going to be uncomfortable.