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In the month leading up to the Fall-Winter shows in Paris, it was widely believed that the event would mark a significant return to business as usual — a celebration for the fashion world after two years of pandemic-related disruptions. Coronavirus cases were relatively low, international travel to and from France had opened up and more brands were scheduled to stage physical instead of virtual shows.
But days before Paris Fashion Week was due to begin, the optimistic mood shifted. On February 24, the world watched in disbelief, then in horror, as Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his brutal attack on Ukraine. In Kyiv, a three-hour flight from Paris, pictures of families camped out in subway stations were akin to historical images of people in London seeking shelter below ground during bombing raids in World War II.
Ralph Toledano, president of Paris Fashion Week’s organizing body, the Federation de la Haute Couture et de la Mode (FHCM), issued a statement on March 1 urging attendees of the event to “experience the shows of the coming days with solemnity, and in reflection of these dark hours
Speaking a week later, after fashion week had wrapped, Toledano told CNN that on the Sunday night before the first day of shows, he had two clashing images in his mind. On the one side, the excitement of fashion week’s return with live runways unhampered by the pandemic. On the other, images of war and “a country being attacked in a very cruel and savage way… and people dying, and people suffering.”
Simply put, a glitzy week of shows, parties and celebrity cameos was at complete odds with a war in Europe.
In direct acknowledgment of this tension, the mononymous creative director of luxury house Balenciaga, Demna, issued a statement ahead of his collection reveal, which took place during the second half of the week. “Fashion feels like some sort of absurdity,” he wrote in a note to guests, adding that he had considered canceling the event altogether.
“The war in Ukraine has triggered the pain of a past trauma I have carried in me since 1993, when the same thing happened to my home country and I became a forever refugee,” wrote the Georgian designer.
In the early 1990s, the designer and his family were among tens of thousands of people to flee Sukhumi, a city in Georgia, amid conflict in the disputed region of Abkhazia, which is considered independent by Russia despite being internationally recognized as part of Georgia.
Ultimately the show went ahead on Sunday, but not without a couple of symbolic gestures — some of the more pronounced seen during the week-long schedule of events. The Ukrainian flag was draped on guests’ seats and the designer recited a poem in Ukrainian by one of the country’s treasured poets Oleksandr Oles. In his note, Demna said “I realized canceling the show would mean giving in, surrendering to the evil that has already hurt me so much for almost 30 years. I decided I could no longer sacrifice parts of me to that senseless, heartless war of ego,” he concluded.
While the collection was designed before the war broke out, it was hard not to draw parallels and, speaking to reporters backstage, Demna said the set and staging — a shocking and stirring production — deliberately reflected his own experience of conflict and displacement 30 years ago.
Models trudged through a set designed to mimic a bitterly cold snowstorm clutching oversized trashbags made of leather during a show that was also a comment on climate crisis.
The label’s owners Kering (the parent company of Saint Laurent, Gucci and Alexander McQueen, among others) had announced two days before that it was suspending all operations in Russia.
Hermes and Cartier owner Richemont was the first to make a pledge to temporarily close stores and cease operations in Russia. LVMH (the luxury conglomerate with 14 luxury fashion houses in its portfolio, including Louis Vuitton and Loewe) and Chanel also followed suit. Many brands announced donations — LVMH, for example, gave €5 million ($5.5 million) to the International Committee of the Red Cross to help support direct and indirect victims of the conflict.
Supermodel Gigi Hadid also pledged to donate all her earnings from fashion month to relief efforts in Ukraine, following on from a similar announcement by model Mica Argañaraz.
Summing up the week, Toledano said he believed the brands took a respectful approach. It was not the “festive” atmosphere he had worried about on the eve of fashion week.
When asked about fashion’s place in a world filled with conflict and crisis, Toledano said that the industry is filled with “sensitive people,” starting with the designers, who feel things deeply.
One such designer is Pierpaolo Piccioli, Valentino’s lauded creative head who presented a simple yet radical idea — an all-pink collection, focused on silhouettes above all else finding “expressive possibilities in the apparent lack of possibilities,” according to show notes.
Before the models stepped out onto the pink runway, Piccioli’s voice filled the room as he read a statement to the audience. “It was a hard week, it is a hard moment. We reacted the only way we know — by working. We reacted by not feeling paralyzed by war, trying to remember that the privilege of our freedom is now bigger than ever. Our thoughts go to those who are suffering, we see you, we feel you, we love you.” He concluded his remarks by saying “love is the answer, always.”
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