- ‘In a time like this, fashion loses its relevance,’ Balenciaga designer says. But Vogue Ukraine’s fashion director believes fashion does have a role to play
- Looking back, New York Fashion Week was cancelled after 9/11, yet Dior didn’t hesitate to debut its New Look in the ashes of World War II
How important is fashion during a time of crisis and war? The short answer is not very – and even major designers would agree.
“In a time like this, fashion loses its relevance and its actual right to exist. Fashion week feels like some kind of absurdity,” said Balenciaga‘s Demna Gvasalia in his press notes at his Paris show, which took place 10 days after the invasion of Ukraine. His country, Georgia, was invaded by Russian forces in 2008.
Gvasalia considered cancelling, in fact, “but then I realised that cancelling this show would mean giving in, surrendering to the evil”.
Vogue Ukraine‘s fashion director, Vena Brykalin – a man whose family is trapped in Odesa and who cannot himself return home – believes fashion does have a role to play and that Gvasalia brought awareness to the plight of his countrymen through his moving show, which was dedicated to Ukrainian refugees.
“I thought the Balenciaga show was stunning,” he says, on the phone from Paris. “As an editor and a Ukrainian citizen, it was very moving, and put him in a good light and other brands in a more damning light. Fashion has such a loud voice that industry leaders have to take a stance on what is happening.
“We as a public have been taught that luxury brands don’t just sell a dream. They are leaders of change and champion so many important causes in our society. But they have been apolitical for too long, and that has to stop.”
Looking back over the past 100 years, it is clear that fashion is often unsure of its place in a time of crisis – but, in general, the industry tends to keep showing collections and selling clothes without raising its head above the parapet too much.
“The fact remains that politics is divisive by definition, and major brands want to appeal to all people. Hence, they try to stay out of politics more often than not,” says Bernstein analyst Luca Solca.
But how do past choices look through the eyes of history? On a sunny morning in September 2001, at the same time as the World Trade Centre was hit by two airliners piloted by terrorists, the New York Fashion Week shows were about to start in Bryant Park.
Within hours, most were cancelled, although Vogue and Carolina Herrera joined forces to offer some of the younger brands the opportunity to show in smaller venues. In Europe a week later, the shows continued as planned – quieter and more reflective, but still on schedule.
Was this the right decision? Again, it is very difficult to tell. The show circuit 20 years ago was more important for designers than it is now and cancelling fashion weeks in cities outside New York was deemed to be too strong a reaction. Then again, the trauma caused by September 11 meant that said shows got barely any publicity.
And what about the fashion collections that were created in the wake of the second world war?
The best known of the 1940s shows was Dior‘s in 1947, when it showed its New Look collection, only a few years after the end of the second world war. This was a period when much of Europe was still living under desperately difficult post-war circumstances with the horrors of the Holocaust a very recent memory. Was it the right time to start a new fashion trend?
“It is a tricky one, but beyond just the industry, I do think fashion remains necessary in times like these,” says Sonnet Stanfill, a senior curator at the Victoria & Albert museum in London. “It is about a human craving for change and it becomes a refuge for people who are desperate for self expression.”
Dior’s look – which was about yards and yards of excess material – took the slimline war silhouette that was designed to adhere to strict rationing requirements and turned it on its head, thereby symbolising the start of a whole new era.
“The contrast between the war silhouette and Dior’s wasn’t just about perceived newness, but about giving women the opposite of what they had been wearing and saying firmly ‘this era is over’,” adds Stanfill.
“It wasn’t even new – it was actually looking back to the 19th century, to the bustles and exaggerated silhouettes from a period that looked plentiful from 1940s Britain. And just like that, one collection overpowered all looks for 12 years.”
All this raises complicated questions: is it OK to care about fashion and entertainment in times of uncertainty?
Can one really talk about dresses when suffering is taking place? Should Milan Fashion Week have gone ahead while Ukraine was being invaded and should French couturiers have been debuting new collections in 1947 when so much of Europe was living below the poverty line?
Of course, it is entirely possible to care about Ukraine and also care about a new collection or a major fashion campaign. And it is worth remembering that not only does fashion support hundreds of thousands of jobs – brands also have a megaphone to millions.
“The response we saw from brands only happened in my opinion because of fashion week,” says Brykalin. “Of course, it was difficult for me to watch people talking about clothes in a carefree way when I was getting terrible news from home, but I was glad these fashion events continued.
“That way, brands were forced to make a statement, and give over resources, time and money and promote the Ukrainian cause to the world.
“If they hadn’t been in the spotlight because of the shows, I’m not sure if they would have had the same response, and that says a lot …”
This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.
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