There were no mud pits nor faux blizzards. Kim Kardashian didn’t show up covered head-to-toe in caution tape either. Balenciaga’s Fall 2023 ready-to-wear show signaled a brand new era for Demna, the mononymic designer, who since becoming the artistic director of Cristóbal’s storied house in 2015, has mastered the concept of creating conversation in the social media era, generating discourse season-after-season with his non-traditional shows and polarizing collections that almost seemed deliberately designed to provoke.
Instead, the Georgian designer decided to take a more pared-back approach for 2023, following the scandal kicked off by online advertising campaigns posted last November, one of which depicted children holding teddy bears dressed in what looked like bondage gear, and another where documents about a Supreme Court case on child pornography appeared buried on an office desk. What followed was a global outcry that saw netizens denouncing the brand and accusing the artistic director of all sorts of things, while the brand’s $2.3 billion revenue under the aegis of Demna dipped as consumers sought to #CancelBalenciaga.
No one could have guessed that the burning home from Kanye’s third listening party for Donda, produced by Demna who collaborated on the controversial show with the polarizing rapper in 2021, would ultimately go on to serve as a metaphor for the current state of the designer’s own fashion house.
In a bid to set things right, Balenciaga took down the controversial ad campaigns, wiped its Instagram clean, issued several public apologies, and signed a three-year partnership with the National Children’s Alliance in order to help children who have been affected by trauma. The house also took a step back from the public eye, breaking its silence only twice— once to announce its National Children’s Alliance partnership and again to tease the Fall 2023 runway show, which took place over the weekend during Paris Fashion Week.
Set inside Paris’ Carrousel du Louvre, a venue purpose-built for fashion shows back in the 1990s before brands decided to only show in special venues, it was probably Balenciaga’s most stripped-back offering since Demna took over the brand seven-years-ago. There was no latex or branding in sight. Show notes left on the guest’s seats explained that Demna had gone back to one of his earliest fashion memories, when he was given the money to go get a pair of pants made by a neighboring tailor in Georgia, which was also depicted by the show invites that doubled as a pattern that can be taken to the tailor and made. “This was the very beginning of my love affair with clothes: what predefined my relationship with them and made me want to become a designer,” it read. According to the printed text, the designer felt that his collections were being overshadowed by the theatrics of his shows, and now he can no longer see “fashion as entertainment, but rather as the art of making clothes.”
Thus, the collection opened with a sequence of black oversized tailoring looks, which upon first glance looked nearly identical. As usual, there were architectural silhouettes and excellent tailoring that have become synonymous with the brand, and plenty of classic and subdued looks nodding back to Cristóbal’s heritage. Aside from some oversized silhouettes, a padded moto jacket, and metallic excavator boots, the brand’s latest offering felt very sanitary and drab, making it clear that the house is playing it very safe (although Demna supposedly began working on this collection six-months before the scandal detonated).
In an alternate dimension where the controversial ad campaigns never came into fruition, Balenciaga’s Fall 2023 ready-to-wear collection would undoubtedly enjoy phenomenal success, especially with the accessories, including the stiletto boots that looked like fishnet stockings and the oversized flap bag with silver chain straps. Say what you want about Demna, but his knack for producing coveted clothing is undeniable as he single-handedly succeeded in modernizing the heritage fashion house, boosting its annual revenue from $427 million to over $2 billion— and likely the reason why Kering, the conglomerate that owns Balenciaga, has remained by his side during the global backlash. However, following the show, we couldn’t help but wonder if beautiful clothes are enough to absolve Demna or if he will be permanently tainted by the headline-hogging scandal. After all, people have been canceled for much less. In this world, social media and clients will have the final say.