Nov 22nd, 2022, 02:00 PM

From Mud Pits to Snowstorms: Balenciaga’s Commentary Just as Performative as Its Shows

By Kelly Russo
A Balenciaga ad is displayed in a bus stop in New York City, featuring a man in a black windbreaker hoodie against a forest background.
Image Credit: Instagram/@demnagram
The fashion brand’s post-apocalyptic runway shows evoke the imminent threat of climate change. But is it all for show?

“The man is a genius and he knows how to keep us interested and talking,” comments TikTok user theruralchick. “Millionaires not knowing what else to do with their money,” responded mariashirley809. The topic at hand? A video of a grimacing model storming down a runway—its surface entirely covered in slick, nearly-black mud. This setting was indeed the site of Balenciaga’s most recent Spring/Summer (SS23) runway show in Paris. 

It’s almost a guarantee that Balenciaga’s runway shows will be sensational whether the settings are mud pits, manufactured snowstorms, or models encased in fetish masks as they strut down the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. The fashion house's creative director Demna, is known for sparking conversation. His pieces frequently carry a dystopian feeling and a sense of irony (see: a handbag modeled after a crumpled Lays chip bag), and his runway shows often aim to reflect a pressing social or political reality. But while he is known in part for raising awareness about serious issues, his half-baked ideas continue to miss the mark. To be blunt, Balenciaga’s social commentary is as much of a performance as the runway.  

For several years, Balenciaga shows have carried an apocalyptic air. In 2020, the floor was flooded with an oil-like substance, while overhead screens displayed images of carrion crows, fire, and billowing smoke. In 2021, models battled intense wind as they struggled through a manufactured snowstorm. Intended initially to be commentary on climate change, the show was altered days ahead of its debut to make a statement about the war in Ukraine. It was widely praised. In 2022, attendees endured the scent of decay, an “eau de peat” specially-created for the mud pit show—which utilized 9,700 cubic feet of mud from a peat bog. 

Overwhelmingly, the public and critics have interpreted these shows as commentary on the collapse of the world as we know it, with environmental disasters and climate change at the forefront. While many have praised Balenciaga for addressing these issues head on, others see the shows as hollow pandering. 

“I think when wealthy people make art about the world ending, it can come off as very convenient. Like, I think playing around with this narrative that society is collapsing really benefits people in power, because it gives them license to do whatever they want,” stated celebrity stylist and fashion content creator Timothy Chernyaev. 

Following generic statements by Demna, I have to agree. In the show notes for the SS23 mud pit show, Demna stated that he would no longer be explaining his collections and shows. He concluded with “let us let everyone be anyone and make love not war.” While most of us can all agree that love is far better than war and that we should seek to embrace one another for our differences, real life doesn’t work like that. General, performative statements like these show a lack of real commitment to serious issues facing our society.

Balenciaga’s commentary and action on climate change is emblematic of this mindset. While the brand’s parent company Kering is highly regarded for its action on environmental sustainability, the brand still struggles to make significant progress on increasing sustainability. 

A study by online publication The Business of Fashion examines progress toward industry-standard environmental targets, assessing 30 of the largest holding companies in the luxury fashion world. The 2022 study reviewed goals for transparency, emissions, water and chemical usage, waste, and workers’ rights. Balenciaga’s parent company Kering scored 47 points out of 100. 

Luxury fashion houses are in a tough position when it comes to sustainability. The act of making clothes comes with great consequences for our Earth, and that’s simply the business model that fashion rests on. However, until Balenciaga makes serious strides on environmental sustainability, Demna's commentary will always fall flat for me—especially when it’s positioned among scenes of a demolished Earth. 

Luiza Stones is an AUP Global Communications student on the Fashion track and has experience working behind the scenes during Paris Fashion Week. She expressed the immense value that fashion can provide as an art form. “There are a lot of artists and designers who speak on social justice and climate change and politics, and it’s incredibly impactful. The difference is that for them, it’s about the art and the message, it’s not about selling.”

But in reality, it would be difficult to place luxury houses in this category. “They’re a business at the end of the day. So even though they have the power to make social and political commentary, and many of them do, the only way that they can actually take action is to stop producing so much altogether,” said Stones. 

Although Balenciaga’s use of apocalyptic imagery and attempts to comment on climate change have sparked mixed reactions, one thing is true: its parent company far outpaces other companies in terms of sustainability efforts. Recent efforts launched by Balenciaga are promising. In September, Balenciaga launched a consignment program so that customers could resell their Balenciaga items and receive credit to shop further at Balenciaga. While this endeavor clearly benefits Balenciaga, it does provide an easy-to-find platform for authenticated and pre-loved Balenciaga goods. If Demna and Balenciaga want to make good on their public positions, much more work is needed. But if any entity has the resources and influence to make it happen, it’s Balenciaga.