PARIS — Can you design a redemption narrative for yourself without dramatically changing your identity?
This was the question at the heart of the Balenciaga fall 2023 show, perhaps the most high-stakes collection of the whole fashion season that began in New York on Feb. 10 and ends, finally, on March 7.
It’s also, of course, a question posed repeatedly in this particular moment, where the bad behavior of our sacred cows gets adjudicated in the court of public opinion, and those who rise on virality fall on it, too.
That made the Balenciaga show less of a collection than a cultural test case: essentially the black mirror version of the grand spectacles of social commentary masquerading as shows that helped drive the brand’s stratospheric success and $2 billion in annual revenues, masterminded by the brand’s mononymic creative director Demna; shows about celebrity, war, capitalism and even dirt (in all its iterations). Only this time, it was personal.
A brief recap, for those who don’t remember how we got to here.
About a month after the dirt show in October, which had been opened by Ye, the artist formerly known as Kanye West (a relationship that created its own mini-story of controversy with Ye’s subsequent White Lives Matter show and spate of anti-Semitic and anti-Black remarks), Balenciaga published two ad campaigns. Of those, one involved young children holding bags that looked like teddy bears in bondage gear; the other depicted an office in which buried in a giant mess of papers were documents about a Supreme Court case on child pornography.
A maelstrom of internet outrage, chaos and conspiracy theories ensued and took on a life of its own, with Demna and the house’s chief executive, Cédric Charbit, at its center. The brand’s seemingly unstoppable rise was halted in its tracks.
Since then they have been quietly working to put things right, including one-on-one post-mortems with industry insiders and mea culpas about the systemic and judgment failures that allowed the campaigns to happen, but the show Sunday was the biggest public statement since the furor.