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The Demna Dilemma

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Eugene Rabkin of StyleZeitgeist released an article, once again revisiting his hatred of everything the Gvasalia brothers have ever laid their hands on. While I have shared my general distaste and disapproval for the duo, my opinion resembles annoyance and disappointment more than anger or hatred towards them. Simply put Demna (who will be the focus of this article) from an outsider’s perspective, seemed like he had the potential for better but turned out to be an unfortunate product of the system. For the sake of brevity, I have generally disliked the impact that the Gvasalias have had on fashion. However, is that disappointment and annoyance a product of my own unjustified expectations?

I was encouraged to revisit my thoughts about Demna after reading Guram Gvasalia’s embarrassingly comical interview with The New York Times, then reading Eugene Rabkin’s Op-Ed on StyleZeitgeist regarding the brothers and finally reading the top Instagram comment to said Op-Ed. Eugene’s article had the same jabs that he always has to make about Demna’s “fake-edgy and faux-intellectual provocations”. The top comment pointed out how the whole industry is a joke and that Balenciaga is the only honest one of the bunch. Rabkin labelled them as the epitome of the joke. But I found myself in agreement with the commenter. Rabkin’s article, and in retrospect most of his scathing pieces, is his means of venting his frustrations with the industry at large, which he sees most accurately personified by Demna and Guram.

“Demna remains the figurehead of a major corporate brand, and if we allow him to say that everything negative that’s been produced under it is a product of the corporatised fashion system, and everything positive is how he actually feels, we are not only letting him off the hook, but we are willingly destroying the parameters by which the output of a creative figurehead is judged.”

I did not think that such a thing existed, universal parameters by which the output of a creative figurehead is judged. I don’t believe that people who really care about fashion see Demna’s output as black and white as Rabkin has put it. It appears that Rabkin assesses creative figureheads in fashion as you would with an independent artist like a painter or sculptor. But nobody in fashion truly works independently of others, and even within the fashion system, it’s not fair to hold various figureheads to the same standards.

I think that the closest resemblance to a creative director in fashion from another medium is a film director. Both creative figureheads, the director of a film and the creative director of a fashion brand, engage in collective-based work. Typically, the bigger the budget, the bigger the team and the less power the individual creative figurehead holds. How many times have we heard of rows between directors and their producers or film studios? Therefore, I do not allocate as much of the output of Balenciaga to Demna as I would the output of Yohji Yamamoto to Yohji himself. While I could not find definite evidence regarding the business side of Yohji Yamamoto, it’s safe to assume that even if Yohji has shareholders to satisfy, as the brand is intrinsically tied to his name and image, he has a lot of creative freedom. Therefore the limitations of a creative director at a conglomerate-owned brand must be taken into account and not compared to a brand like Yohji Yamamoto, but it must also be realised that these limitations are somewhat self-imposed by the creative director who chooses to work for a conglomerate owned brand. But various circumstances engender this decision.

Alexander McQueen took his first stint at Givenchy because his brand was not making much money. In Demna’s case, his chains are much more self-imposed considering he left behind a very commercially successful venture in Vetements. But then the case of personal reasons arise which arguably should be taken as seriously as financial ones. It may seem like I’m giving Demna some slack here, but I think that he deserves the same treatment that most people in the industry would be given in the same position. The only reason that I see to shame his decision is because of what he has done at Balenciaga since heading it for the past 8 years. But it seems that the common practice towards hiring a new creative director these days is to demand a higher qualification of aptitude because there is a higher degree of risk now that these brands are so profitable. The appointment of John Galliano, Marc Jacobs and Tom Ford at their respective associated houses was a risk for the companies that hired them, but a risk worth taking as those houses did not have much to lose. Today, these companies deal with much more capital, and so the new standard is to hire people like Demna, Virgil Abloh, Ludovic de Saint Sernin or Tremaine Emory. People who have undoubtedly proven themselves. So while I have a general distaste for founders leaving their brands, I can’t spite Demna more than I should the environment in which he was raised. 

So back to the question, how do I evaluate a creative director’s output? Relatively. While the overpriced trash bags and logoed everything sticks out like a sore thumb, you must also look at the sharp-shouldered, oversized tailoring and creative use of Eastern European motifs to dissect Demna’s motives.

Balenciaga FW22
Balenciaga FW23

I think that parts of everything that he’s created have been subjected to the plights of the corporatised fashion system and to how he really feels. From a 25-page deep dive by The New Yorker into his career, pre and post-child abuse scandal, Demna said of his design, “I couldn’t miss an opportunity to make the most expensive trash bag in the world, because who doesn’t love a fashion scandal?” But he went on to say, “I realised I don’t like being a fashion designer at all. In some other life, I was probably a seamstress.” Can a contradictory duality not exist? Can Demna not be suppressed by the fashion system and use it to his strength? Can he not participate in the only system that he knows while feeling its wrath? Rabkin labels this as cognitive dissonance, but I see myself in Demna’s faults. As much as I desire to be a fashion designer, I continue to spend most of my time creating content and slowly working on clothes in the background. Because one keeps a roof over my head and food on my plate, and one only has the potential to have potential to do so.

“ ‘I read the news,’ Demna told me. ‘I can’t disconnect from reality and just, you know, live inside my office space.’ Other designers take us to the Qing dynasty or the Belle Époque, to Djuna Barnes’s Left Bank flat or Talitha Getty’s Marrakesh villa. Demna had been willing to take us there, to the juncture of a violent world and the clothes that might make us feel better while hastening its collapse.” It’s true that Demna, like many others, capitalised on the ‘lows’ of human nature. This is where my disappointment starts to come in. He did cover reality because, at the end of the day, everybody falls victim to their vices. The reality that I hope to be true of morally superior beings only exists in that fantasy. Demna’s work toyed with the unfortunate realities of the human psyche which has resulted in the world around us. Our obsession with drama, gossip and our contradictory attraction to things that we find detestable is rampant. Rabkin engages with these things too because he is also human, and in being human finds the desire to disavow Demna every few months even though he proclaims that people like him shouldn’t be given the attention.

The article ended with Rabkin’s familiar touch of hopelessness “It is unfortunate that the narcissist class – lead by the likes of Donald Trump, Elon Musk, and Kanye West – has learned that the press will always take their bait, because the public loves them, or at least find them entertaining, and that they bring in the clicks that advertisers demand. That fashion would be better off without such people seems beside the point.” So what was the point of his article? What industry would not be better off with such people? But no industry can exist without such people because if the ruling narcissists at the top of their respective fields were to vanish, simply the ones below would take their place. And even the greats are not void of their selfishness and narcissism. Look deeper into the mind of any deified icon through their works, do you not always identify humanising hedonistic qualities? In fashion, revered figures like Yohji Yamamoto or Rei Kawakubo become instantly more human after reading any interview with them and being faced with their bitter attitudes. A small amount of research into Ghandi or Mother Theresa reveals a list of morally questionable ideas and actions. Read the carefully written works of Einstein and in between the lines, his flaws do arise. Do we blame these people for the public’s interest in them? Or do we blame the public? Do we blame Demna for feeding the world’s vices? Or would another figure have come about regardless and exploited the same flaws because deep down people are all very similar?

Without getting overly metaphysical, there is still reason to be upset with Demna. My reasoning comes from reading Albert Einstein’s “The World As I See It”.

“Only the individual can think, and thereby create new values for society — nay, even set up new moral standards to which the life of the community conforms. Without creative, independently thinking and judging personalities the upward development of society is as unthinkable as the development of the individual personality without the nourishing soil of the community.” Demna at the least fulfilled his role of being a creative, independently thinking and judging personality. However.

“What the individual can do is give a fine example, and have the courage to firmly uphold ethical convictions in a society of cynics.” As I believe that “the true value of a human being is determined primarily by the measure and the sense in which he has attained liberation from the self”. Demna got as far as becoming an influential figure with the ability to change his community, but he did not do enough to separate his work from the flaws of his own being. And frankly, I do not see many truly iconoclastic or transformative ideas in his work. All I see is a mirror of the person that he is and that we all are. To not only subdue that part but rise above to a greater state of being and channel that into your work is an extremely difficult task that is only made harder because of the world that we live in today. While I hold similar criticisms as I do of Demna towards Virgil Abloh, I found slightly more glimpses of hope which means a lot more.

As a child, I was obsessed with anything and everything otherworldly. It could come in the form of video games, books, movies or my own creations. While some of my obsession was a form of escapism from lows in my life, I genuinely found these other worlds enthralling. It’s ironic how I dropped my pursuit of science to chase the fantasy of fashion, only for me today to have more of an interest in clothing that’s based in reality. The Iris van Herpens and Rick Owens’ of the world have their place. So do the Louis Vuittons and the Pradas. But it rings true that Demna’s Vetements and consequently Balenciaga filled in new shoes. As much optimism as I try to project, I don’t shy away from the truth. I combat the idea that humans should be better than greed and selfishness, but I can’t not see it in myself as much as others. Is Demna in the wrong for capitalising on human faults (which fashion was invented to do)? As I’ve highlighted, my biggest disappointment regarding Demna was that in the end, he wasn’t above the horrible practices of the industry, his position is nothing to be praised for but nothing to be so hated for either. He could’ve tried to change things and failed and nobody would have known that he ever even tried if he ended up being a nobody to the world, except for in his own life, in which he would hold himself as a failure. So I understand why he would be attracted to a more potentially fulfilling life. Regardless, I am still an idealist, because even if my expectations fall short, it’s better to fall short of an idealist’s expectations than a realist’s. So I can acknowledge that Demna has opened many conversations around fashion that have shaped our community in many ways and may encourage individuals of this community to shape it in a better way moving forward. I know that Demna has shaped and influenced me, maybe not in his favour, but that still means that he has done something right.

Michael.

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