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Demna’s powerful Balenciaga show explored his experience as a refugee

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The designer’s raging AW22 snowstorm was originally intended as a statement on the climate crisis, but took on far deeper meaning as Russia invaded Ukraine

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has loomed large over the AW22 womenswear shows. Designers, editors, and influencers alike have spent the last 12 days coming to terms with the conflict, grappling with fashion’s role in moments of crisis, and figuring out how best to acknowledge the situation with respect, gravity, and action. For some, this meant poignant messages of love and hope laid out in show notes, while others made donations to charities providing humanitarian aid to the many Ukrainians already displaced by war. 

Meanwhile, many attended the Paris protest that took place in Republique across the weekend to show their solidarity with the country and lobby the government to take action. And where front row chat usually orbits favourite shows and industry gossip, this season, news stories and fundraisers were swapped and shared.

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Demna Gvasalia has been feeling this more than most. Unsurprisingly, the war happening in Ukraine has dredged up some powerful feelings, given the designer himself is a refugee – in the early 1990s, when he was just 12, his family was forced to flee Georgia after their house was bombed in the Abkhaz-Georgian conflict, as he outlined in his Instagram stories ahead of yesterday’s Balenciaga show. 

“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 country and I became a forever refugee,” he wrote. “Forever, because that’s something that stays in you. The fear, the desperation, the realisation that no one wants you.” Even more upsetting, he later explained, was that Ukraine had been a safe haven, where he spent a number of years growing up. 

Like many, he also contended with whether or not to pull the plug on his AW22 presentation. “(To cancel the show) would mean giving in, surrendering to the evil that already hurt me so much for almost 30 years,” he continued. “It is a dedication to fearlessness, to resistance, and to the victory of love and peace.” And so, after a lot of soul-searching, it went ahead. 

Balenciaga shows are notoriously uncomfortable affairs (from the harsh, air conditioned EU conference hall of SS20, to the ravaging fires and floods of AW20, Demna is well-versed in imagining our rapidly approaching apocalyptic future and putting us right at the centre of it), but this one was perhaps the most uncomfortable of them all. Sitting safely behind a thick glass screen, beyond which lay a circular amphitheatre, a blizzard kicked up as the models began their procession round the runway, as snow blew horizontally in their faces and visibility became clouded. 

“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 country and I became a forever refugee. Forever, because that’s something that stays in you. The fear, the desperation, the realisation that no one wants you” – Demna 

The idea was that someday, in the not so distant years to come, we’d no longer get any snow thanks to global warming – and so any that we did see would be via rapidly advancing virtual reality (hence the screen). In light of recent developments, however, the setting took on a new, deeper, and far more pertinent meaning. Demna’s message rang out loud and clear. 

A sombre collection heavy with black clothes was on the agenda for the new season (rumours swirled like the paper snow in the days leading up to the show that Demna had scrapped his original vision and reworked the offering in light of current events just last week, but so far, they remain unsubstantiated). The usual suspects were all present: big, blown-up hoodies bearing Apple logos were matched with XXL wide-legged jeans, enormous puffers were layered over similarly enormous shirts, and tailoring, as ever, came supersized. Trousers were tucked into thigh-high heeled waders, and many of the models carried big, bin bag-like sacks.  

As the show rolled on and the blizzard intensified inside Demna’s VR snow globe, his models hunched forward against the wind. Battling their way around the path, they marched defiantly forward as their hair whipped the air and their dramatic evening gowns billowed out behind them. Further moments of deep discomfort came via three models, who wrapped towels around their shoulders like blankets. 

Some in the audience audibly gasped, and later questioned whether this was a step too far – anything that turns war into an aesthetic is always going to be a contentious subject, no matter whose hands it’s in. But fashion – just like theatre, art, and music – has the power to send strong messages far beyond the runway.

If this was a way of confronting people with what refugees are facing not just in Ukraine, but in Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, and just an hour away from Paris, in the sprawling campsites of Calais, then Demna, who himself once climbed a mountain wrapped in blankets in the dead of night, has perhaps done his job.

Head here to revisit the SS19 Vetements show, in which Demna explored his war-torn childhood.