Aesthetically protesting

It’s the show that captured the world’s attention. In the biggest week on the fashion calendar: A melancholic spectacle in the heart of Paris.

It is the morning of March 6, 2022. Windstorms blare in front of guests as they take their seats, many remain unaware of how the city of love is about to transform into a raging war memoir. Guests arrive at the exhibition hall to chairs dressed in T-shirts the colour of the Ukrainian flag, with a gentle note from the brand’s director: “It is a dedication to fearlessness, to resistance, and to the victory of love and peace,” the note reads. Once they are settled the show starts. Among a blistering snowstorm, models march through the glass-encased runway. There are leather trash pouches, sunglasses, and oversized fits showcasing the brand’s new collection. Ukrainian colours paint the runway. A runway guests had never seen before.
The show attendees view the collection from behind a glass screen. Photo: Balenciaga

It came about because Balenciaga creative director Demna Gvasalia found himself asking questions reflecting on the fact that “in a time like this, fashion loses its relevance.” He says he considered cancelling the brands’ 2022 Fashion Week show altogether, but instead, decided to address the horrors occurring in the world front-on, in a sombre way to honour Ukraine.

Curtin University fashion lecturer Dipesh Prasad says there’s a lot more to fashion than what’s perceived at face value. This stood true when the emotionally-gripping show echoed and evoked strong support for Ukraine.

The models carrying trash pouches through a man-made violent storm added a heartbreaking narrative that directly paralleled Gvasalia’s personal battles as a Georgian refugee being forced from his home grabbing all of his belongings as he wandered into uncertainty. The designer even came forth to recite a poem in Ukrainian, only to be fully appreciated only by those who understood it. For others, it was a taste of the sound of the place.



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A post shared by Balenciaga by Demna (@demnagram)

After Russia invaded Ukraine in February, hearts broke all around the world. For Gvasalia particularly, the humanitarian crisis, where more than 3.9 million Ukrainians are fleeing the country, hits close to home. “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 home country, and I became a forever refugee.” Emboldened by his personal history, he set out on a mission to use Balenciaga’s voice to bring awareness to the crisis.

This is not the first time we’ve seen fashion as a mechanism of political commentary.

It was London Fashion week in 1984 when designer Katharine Hamnett set out to challenge the status quo. Several designers were invited to a reception on Downing Street, where Hamnett prepared to smuggle in a handmade T-shirt emblazoned with the anti-nuclear statement ‘58% DON’T WANT PERSHING.’ The statement was a comment reflecting opposition to the prime minister granting the US permission to station nuclear missiles in Britain. Hamnett revealed the T-shirt by opening her jacket at the exact moment she shook Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s hand. Cameras flashed rapidly and before she knew it, the message had surfaced globally.’

Image of designer Katherine Hamnett. CC-BY-SA Wikimedia.
Designer Katharine Hamnett appeared on a television show four years after her public spectacle. Photo: Wikimedia

More than 30 years ago many viewed Hamlett’s advocacy as scandalous. Today we see a creator grab the attention of the world in a public forum to amplify his message. Prasad says there’s no doubt it is becoming more socially acceptable for brands and businesses to voice their stance on socio-political issues. With increasing pressures from consumers, activists, and legislation, “now more than ever in history there’s a large level of accountability with technical changes like social media.”

The Edelman Trust Barometer 2021 Global Report says 86 per cent of consumers expect chief executives to address societal issues. Consumers and employees are also paying close attention to business practices when making decisions on where to buy. While corporations have a stronger sense of prominence and power when it comes to competence in ethics and policies today.

Balenciaga isn’t the only brand using its platform to give currency to socio-political movements. In an act of solidarity, renowned labels around the globe, such as Estee Lauder, Hermes, Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Gucci, and Prada announced a halt on operations in Russia.

This raises the question, is brand activism becoming merely a conquest for popularity, or are brands being genuine in their advocacy?

University of Melbourne research associate of cultural studies Harriette Richards says a lot of brands can make tokenistic statements about political events.

“Think of the black lives matter movement. A lot of brands posted Instagram messages touting their support of the movement, yet, behind the scenes, these businesses had done nothing to change their practices in support of minority communities and employees,” she says.

“While it is encouraging … real and lasting change really needs to go deeper than public displays of ally-ship or performative solidarity.

“What is perhaps more important is what can be done to materially support Ukrainians going through the devastation of the crisis.”

Curtin University associate professor of management and marketing Htwe Htwe Thein says one way to check whether a business is being reactionary or proactive is by assessing brand image and how it’s previously upheld social responsibilities.

“We have more access to the history and the operations of brands now than ever.

“In the past, businesses existed for the economic bottom line, to make money. In today’s rapidly changing world, it has a triple bottom line, economic, social, and environmental.”

Although this triple bottom line has existed for decades, we are finally seeing businesses and brands honour social obligations.

A 2020 report by Deloitte Insights has found a 325 per cent increase in S&P 500 index companies reporting on sustainability and corporate responsibility over the previous eight years.

Visual representation of a collaborative business environment. CC-Zero Pixabay.
Organisations are putting a greater focus on environmental, social, and economic operations.

Thein explains “with corporate social responsibility, many have been pretty good at environmental matters until now but what they’ve been lacking is the social matters. Since we are now witnessing another level of a global crisis of human rights, social issues have come to the front.”

She says the war in Ukraine is the type to divide the world into different trading blocs. The level of exit from Russia has “never been seen before.” So, this has really woken up the corporate world in a way it can “no longer turn a blind eye to business and human rights.”

So, in a time like this, what gives fashion the right to exist?

Gvasalia’s presentation gave us a moment to ignore fashion as a business and view it as an artistic expression of what is going on in the world.

Richards says Gvasalia was in a “unique position to offer an important perspective on the conflict.” As a refugee himself, he has experienced what many Ukrainians were experiencing. Due to this personal connection, his show did not appear tokenistic but rather “heartfelt and genuine.”

Gvasalia continues to advocate “we, as a brand, have to do something…we cannot take weapons and go fight there, but we can use our voices.”

The brand has collaborated closely with the World Food Program since 2018. It has been raising funds for issues such as global hunger, racial brutality, and now world conflict. Its parent group Kering has also announced via social media it is making donations to the UNHCR and United Nations Refugees Agency. The company is working closely in monitoring the situation occurring and hopes for a ‘peaceful resolution.’