The Button-Pushing Impresario of Balenciaga

The Button-Pushing Impresario of Balenciaga

Demna’s clothes argued that you could pour just as much craft into a T-shirt as you could into a ball gown. (Charbit told me, “Demna put creativity, innovation, and effort into things that, before, people were, like, ‘Uh, we need this to sell.’ ”) But he also respected the limits of how much T-shirt you could pour into the craft. Haute-couture shows traditionally end with a wedding gown. Demna said that he’d tried to come up with something clever. In the end, he decided to replicate the 1967 oval dress. “There was no way it could be better,” he said.

Demna has never been interested in producing what, echoing Duchamp, he calls “retinal” fashion—clothing that is only pleasing to the eye. His critics say that his designs are outright ugly. Some of his supporters do, too. “Usually, there’s a thing or two each season where I’m, like, ‘O.K., he’s gone too far. This is actually just fucking hideous,’ ” Eliza Douglas, the painter and model, said, laughing. “Then I’ll realize a few days later, I’m, like, ‘Oh, my God, that is the thing.’ ” Recently, she’d gone through this process with a pair of varnished snub-nosed clogs.

His wader boots and horn-shouldered turtlenecks are extremist takes on Francis Bacon’s observation that beauty derives from strangeness in proportion. His love for off colors, iffy prints, and ersatz details recalls the provincial market stall. “He has different references, and he had the courage to use them,” Sophie Fontanel, the critic, said. “He was convinced that there was something refined, chic, in what was considered kind of plouc.” (Plouc means something like “hick.”) What people called ugliness often amounted to tension: physically comfortable pieces that induced aesthetic unease; technically immaculate clothes with outward imperfections. “There’s a dress that we really tortured,” Demna once said of a gown made of delicate black lace that his team had spent three days riddling with holes. In a reversal of fashion precedent, he was practicing sadism toward the clothes rather than accepting it from them.

The goal, of course, was to get people talking. “If it doesn’t cause any kind of reaction, it just doesn’t exist,” Demna told me one day. “That’s my biggest fear, probably.” According to a 2021 paper published by a scholar at the University of Lisbon, Demna is responsible for “introducing the meme into fashion.” An obvious example of this is his clickbait bags: the Hefty-like calfskin garbage sack, a glazed-leather IKEA-style carrier, a crinkly fifteen-hundred-dollar clutch that was made to resemble a Lay’s chip bag and came in four varieties (Classic, Limón, Salt & Vinegar, and Flamin’ Hot). The analytics firm Launchmetrics found that the Hefty-ish bag generated a “media impact value” of two million dollars in a week.

Is he for real? Throughout Demna’s career, observers have tried to figure out whether he’s a heartfelt oddball or a wily cynic. The artist and critic Hito Steyerl has likened Balenciaga’s hype machine to the Trump and Brexit campaigns, pushing products using a “dynamic of shock and subsequent normalization.” Demna is finely attuned to the attention economy. A digital native, he understands the value of creating a conversation. It doesn’t always have to be positive. This knack for getting a rise out of people made it a little hard to believe that the mood of the Gift Shop pictures wasn’t a deliberate choice, even if the aim was to grab attention rather than to cause harm.

People often worry that Demna’s jokes are on them. Douglas told me, “Over time, I’ve figured out that he’s drawn to ambiguity and walking that line and us not really knowing.” Demna has written, “The beauty of some questions is that they don’t always have an answer.” But he is unusually articulate about the thinking behind his most outré moves. He told me that he had designed the IKEA bag in the Duchampian tradition, inverting cultural hierarchies. It harked back to Margiela’s Franprix-bag tops of 1990. Above all, it drew on Demna’s personal history, recalling the four years of fashion school he’d spent lugging around his portfolio in just such a bag. He even made the bag in yellow, a colorway that you could get only if you stole it from an IKEA store. “I’ve never felt that irony was a negative,” Demna said. “Instead of getting offended, you can also laugh about it and be, like, ‘That’s fun.’ ”

He was ambivalent, though, about some of his most ubiquitous creations. Of the Triple S sneaker: “I can’t see it anymore—you’re just sick of it.” The Speed sock-shoe: “It just makes me cringe now.” In Paris one day, he took out his phone and mentioned that he has a group chat with a few superfans who give him honest feedback on his work. One was a communications student in the U.K. Others lived in the U.S., doing who knows what. They’d never met in real life, but, Demna said, “they know more about my world than probably anybody.” One of them had just sent him a message about a skintight, bubble-gum-colored minidress with a repeating Balenciaga logo.

“He was, like, ‘Did you actually do this, or did the commercial team make you?’ ”

“What did you answer?” I asked.

“I said that I did it, but, obviously, it wasn’t something that I woke up and felt like I had to do.”

In 2021, Demna agreed to accompany Kim Kardashian to the Met Gala, the prom of fashion. He was feeling anxious about having to walk the red carpet and then make small talk with a bunch of very famous people he had never met. The dress code was “American Independence.” Demna and Kardashian showed up in matching all-black ensembles, their faces obscured by opaque black masks. All that was missing were Grim Reaper scythes.

“I was kind of terrified,” Demna told me. “So that was my solution. Of course, there was a conceptual twist to it, given the person that I was with.” Until recently, he has insisted on being photographed in an ovoid polyurethane face shield that he developed with engineers at Mercedes-Benz. (I tried one on at the brand’s Avenue George V salon. It was surprisingly light. I felt invincible. I would wear it, supposing that I had fifty-six hundred dollars for a face shield and a completely different life.) He said that he covered his face because he had issues with his body, especially after seeing a picture of himself, taken at a conference, “with, like, a triple chin.” I pointed out that wearing a mask was likely to make people look at him more. “Yes, ultimately it does,” he admitted. “I feel that sometimes I do that—somehow subconsciously looking for that attention.” He giggled a little. “Oh, my God, it’s weird. This is something I discussed with my therapist a lot.”

“I absolutely do not believe there will be a loss,” Demna said, sitting at his usual table at Kronenhalle, a wood-panelled restaurant in Zurich with Matisses and Mirós hanging on the walls. He had ordered plant-based chicken and rösti. To drink, a tiny pitcher of lemon juice. He was fully embalenciagado, with silver ball hoops in his ears. I had asked him whether the advertising scandal might result in a new era of lost nerve and chastened creativity. “I’m very much back on the autoroute of dressmaking,” he said, pushing a sleeve all the way to his shoulder, revealing a tattoo of his name. “But my dilemma right now is finding a balance between being about clothes but also not being too conservative or classic.”

It was a gray, misty Monday in February. Before lunch, we had gone for a walk. Demna had chosen as our meeting place the Fraumünster, a copper-spired church not far from the garden where he and Gomez married, in 2017. “Looks like Hogwarts, doesn’t it?” he said. The couple had spent the weekend bingeing a Netflix thriller called “Alice in Borderland.” They were packing for an impending move to the French countryside, near Geneva. Demna had just had an appointment to take care of some paperwork, and an official had asked the reason for their move. “I don’t speak Swiss German, so it was a bit awkward,” he recalled. “Well, actually, that was kind of an answer. I was, like, ‘Yeah, that’s one of the reasons: because I cannot understand what you’re saying.’ ”

As we toured Zurich’s shopping district, Demna’s cocooning hoodie and club-kid pants drew a look or two. (The feeling was mutual. “I think people are especially badly dressed in Zurich,” he told me. “I don’t know what it is. It’s really—I am quite amazed.”) The silhouette, I realized later, was classic Cristóbal, with a too-long T-shirt peeking out from a sweatshirt, adding volume like the underlayer of a baby-doll dress.

At Kronenhalle, the plates looked familiar—white porcelain, with cobalt rims and a stodgy monogram. I remembered drinking tea, the first time I met Demna, from a similar set, except that cup had read “Balenciaga Hotels & Resorts.” (There is, of course, no such thing.) The teacup had mildly irritated me at the time. Does everything need to be a gag? I’d thought. Does everything need to be a product? Now, in his oldfangled hangout, I saw it more as a wry expression of fondness.

Troll or truthteller, idealist or ironist? Demna has been all and none, playing in the uncomfortable, fertile space of the accepted paradox. Now he was declaring his “mask period” over. Memes were out, as were flashy shows and all the other “easy but exciting” distractions that had “lured” him away from the fundamentals. “I could make ten IKEA bags, but it’s by letting go of that comfort zone that you can grow,” he told me. “What would be the most shocking thing for my audience? I’m talking about people who know my work. Would it be another provocative thing? Or would it be actually going back to my roots and making the coat that you never want to stop wearing?”

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