How Did Fashion Designers Respond to the Year of ‘Permacrisis’?

Balenciaga Winter 22 show. Photo: Thyago Sainte; courtesy Balenciaga

From ‘trash pouches’ to destroyed sneakers, why the fashion world can’t stop commodifying poverty

There are no metrics by which 2022 has been a good year. It began during a pandemic, swiftly saw the Russian invasion of Ukraine and accompanying spectre of nuclear war, and an enormous (and related) escalation of the cost-of-living crisis. All this against the backdrop of the ongoing and expanding energy crisis, refugee crisis and climate crisis. It’s little surprise that ‘permacrisis’ is the word of the year.

In April, it was predicted that 5 million English households could fall into ‘fuel stress’ by the end of the year. The following month, Parisian couture house Balenciaga released a limited edition run of their Paris Sneaker, billed as ‘a retooled classic design […] with distressed canvas and rough edges, affecting a pre-worn look.’ The result in the accompanying campaign was an almost completely destroyed shoe, retailing at $1,850.

There’s nothing new about distressed clothing, as anyone who has bought pre-faded or ripped jeans will know, and the notion of deconstruction has been popular with fans of conceptual dressing for decades. Previously this has been used to highlight the structure of clothing, or to reveal it was created from something else (Martin Margiela’s early designs are a good example of this, such as dresses made of reclaimed vintage pieces, deconstructed to be visibly reconstructed and now highly collectable), or for designers like Rei Kawakubo may also pay homage to older traditions of patching such as boro or visible mending like sashiko. Such approaches have gained popularity in recent years due to their ethos of sustainability. But the images of the destroyed, rather than deconstructed, Balenciaga Paris Sneakers do not do this. While arguably a conceptual statement (one could read it as a playful one-liner on use and longevity), was a luxury fashion house the best medium for this message? Why is the fashion industry so addicted to this crass aestheticization of poverty?

2022 has been a complicated year for Balenciaga. Creative director Demna (formerly known as Demna Gvasalia) has been lauded within the industry for his support of Ukraine, working with Volodymyr Zelensky to seek support for fundraising platform United24’s Rebuild Ukraine project. Born in Georgia, as a child Demna was forced to flee during the Abkhaz-Georgian conflict following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, a subject he previously explored through his co-founded brand Vetements. ‘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 in notes accompanying his Balenciaga show in March. The collection, set in a snowstorm originally referencing the climate crisis, took on new meaning in light of the invasion, creating a particularly apocalyptic vision.

Five months later, the ‘Trash Pouches’ from the collection hit stores, retailing at $1,790. Designed as literal bin bags, but rendered in calfskin leather, the bags and the show offer a conflicting vision: a designer, displaced due to war, wrestling with the trauma of his past through a medium that turns the refugee experience into an aspirational aesthetic at a luxury price point. Demna said at the time: ‘I couldn’t miss an opportunity to make the most expensive trash bag in the world, because who doesn’t love a fashion scandal?’

The answer, I imagine, is photographer Gabriele Galimberti, who is receiving death threats for his work on Balenciaga’s Spring/Summer 2023 ‘Gift Shop’ campaign which featured child models (children of Balenciaga employees, who were present) with bondage-tinged teddy bear bags. The furore around this misguided campaign was fuelled by the brand’s baffling (and entirely separate) ‘Garde-Robe’ Resort 2023 campaign which featured documents relating to a Supreme Court ruling on child pornography as part of the set dressing. (The set designer has claimed the documents were rented from a prop house and were meant to be fake.) Demna and the brand have apologised, but this has not stopped protests at stores in London and LA, and conspiracy theorists claiming #BalenciagaGate is the latest evidence that a global cabal of child sex traffickers are running the world. The theories appear to be spiralling, feeding on the perfect storm of fashion, politics, celebrity and popular culture to cement a new variant of satanic panic for 2022.

In yet another twist, Balenciaga’s S/S23 collection (featuring a mud-splattered runway created by artist Santiago Sierra) that initially previewed the teddy bags was opened by Ye (Kanye West) in his catwalk debut, just days before his Yeezy Season 9 show in Paris featured T-shirts emblazoned with a white supremacist phrase designated as a hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League. Ye’s subsequent tirade of antisemitic comments across a number of outlets had immediate devastating real world consequences, by which time Balenciaga had formally cut ties with the artist. (Ye, incidentally, has form in trading in the aesthetics of poverty, and in 2016 Anna Wintour was forced to apologise after describing his collection as ‘migrant chic’.)

While at Vetements, Demna rewrote the codes of fashion for the 21st century, playing with notions of taste, irony and irreverence by elevating the prosaic to the realm of the exclusive, and making the drab, deluxe. This was transferred to Balenciaga: when someone is willing to pay $2,145 for an almost identical version of the 99 cent Ikea bag, it’s difficult to know who the joke is on. But these days, marketing a shoe too destroyed to be worn, or a bin bag in luxury leather, feels less like a quip on the state of fashion under late capitalism, and more of a desperate attempt at scandal in a time of escalating inequality. And from their ‘preloved’ Adidas Stan Smiths, to Prada’s best-selling white vest (currently retailing for nearly £700), the conceit is wearing thin. It’s well past time that the fashion world leave the commodification of poverty behind.

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