Balenciaga: Husbands, Bondage Teddy Bears and the Arrogance of Luxury

By Dominik Böhler

Demna Gvasalia (originally from post-soviet Georgia), the Balenciaga creative director has proven himself one of the most adept and blunt bottlers of our zeitgeist for the past decade, and his artistic interpretations are among the most polarizing and debated in fashion.

Balenciaga creative director Demna says the principal aim of his fashions is “creating desire.”

He and his husband are sitting in a sunlit corner of the Los Angeles mega-mansion he’s been working out of since coming to the city from Paris. Demna’s wearing his own designs, as he always does — Balenciaga hotel slippers in royal blue, baggy denim camo pants, a hoodie bearing the tagline of Balenciaga’s latest ad campaign, “Be Different.” Perched next to him is his husband, Loïk Gomez, who goes by the name BFRND and composes the music for Balenciaga’s shows, in a red McDonald’s T-shirt and oversize Homer Simpson slippers, nodding attentively as he understands everything. This is the picture. What is the backstage of life?

The musician features alongside Kim Kardashian in the house’s latest series. BFRND (pronounced boyfriend) has popped up in a whole bunch of Balenciaga projects across the years. From soundtracking its blockbuster shows, and becoming an avatar inside its Afterlife videogame, to getting animated for the house’s very special episode of The Simpsons circa SS22, Demna’s husband has been there, done that, got the (very oversized, possibly logo-emblazoned) t-shirt. Before Loïk Gomez met Demna Gvasalia eight years ago, the French musician would never have thought of creating the music for the shows of the most influential fashion labels of our time. As a matter of fact was unknown.

“Through Demna, I learned what meditation is – and realized that I have actually been meditating all my life without knowing it. I probably acquired this when I lived in my own bladder and had to learn not to let the external aggressions approach me. I just didn’t have a name for it.” he says in a magazine interview.

“But all the people I spoke with from told me they completely related to it,” Demna says. “I can say it was a good response.”  BFRND adds, “They also talked a lot about shopping. All the people I talked to after the show were like, ‘Oh, my God. Let’s go shopping!’”  “It was very much about creating desire,” Demna continues. “And I think that’s all I want.”

Demna’s husband goes by the name BFRND and composes music for Balenciaga’s shows

Balenciaga’s creative director Demna Gvasalia says in the same magazine he can’t return to his mother country Georgia because he’s been receiving death threats over his homosexuality. Gvasalia stated this in an interview with New York Times. Gvasalia is a refugee from Sukhumi. In 1993, when Abkhaz troops captured Sukhumi, his family managed to escape. Gvasalia recalls that at first they went to Tbilisi by car, and then they had to walk. And to get to the capital of Georgia, it took a total of 3 weeks. Demna was 11 at the time. This context makes his tide connection with Kanye West, the homophobic raper, very hard to understand.

Now, in Los Angeles, it’s also one of Demna’s first visits back to the U.S. after a year of controversy. The troubles began with a pair of Balenciaga editorials at the end of 2022. One featured children holding teddy bears clad in what looked like bondage gear, and a second included documents referencing a child pornography court case. The images unleashed a fierce hysteria, with the internet vowing to #CancelBalenciaga.

François-Henri Pinault, the CEO of Balenciaga’s parent company Kering (who owns also Gucci, Bottega Veneta, Yves Saint Laurent, Creed and Alexander McQueen), called the campaigns an “error of judgment.” Kim Kardashian, the most visible wearer of Balenciaga on the planet, released a statement saying the images had left her “shaken,” adding that she was “reevaluating” her relationship with the brand.

At the end of 2022, Kering fourth-quarter sales had dropped by an eye-popping seven per cent, and Balenciaga’s impressive sales growth, which had soared to 2.5 billion euros that same year, seemingly stalled, according to luxury-market analysts. (The company doesn’t offer specifics on its speciality houses like Balenciaga.)

Following the flap, Demna offered penance for his misdeeds. In an interview with Vogue, he called the campaign “a huge and stupid mistake” and vowed to focus on the “craft” of making clothes. He swore to ease up on playing games with his audience, promising to pivot away from the aesthetic populism that defined his career. “I’m not interested in pop culture, to be very honest,” he said, surprisingly. “I cannot say that my creative vision or approach to design has been influenced by it.” And then he staged a stately and modest-ish Paris couture show in March, which he then admitted to not really liking.

Balenciaga’s controversial teddy bear campaign sparked criticism and uproar.

It was a surprising about-face. Since his appointment as Balenciaga’s creative director in 2015, Demna (who prefers to be called by his first name) has injected a kind of grimy — and cheeky — hyper-realism into everything he designs. The New Yorker has called him a “button-pushing impresario,” which accurately describes the pressure he exerts on culture. However, I would add he’s a playful button-pushing impresario. The kind who can both baffle civilian onlookers and enrage high-fashion gatekeepers while turning the rest of us into excited obsessives, even if we can’t quite articulate why. Maybe it’s his ability to acknowledge directly, without breaking into a laugh, that style is, at its core, a game, and that the adults who want to join in his spectacle must embrace play. Albeit a game for the economic select who can shell out for $1,800 Lay’s potato-chip clutches, $4,800 padded bathrobes, $1,780 trash-bag purses made of calfskin, or 95-cent Ikea bags transformed into $2,000 totes.

“I don’t want to give people a proposition that makes them look rich or powerful,” Demna announced last March in the show notes. “My fashion works from down-up and not up-down.”

Instead of following this conceit, one of the most unique propositions in luxury fashion, it’s not totally clear what Demna is after with yesterday’s show. Is he here to reassert his marketability? Calm the shaken A-listers? It’s all as clear as a desert mirage. But where better to conduct a reset than in L.A., the land of reinvention and image rehab?

Nicole Kidman with François-Henri Pinault, the CEO of Kering, Balenciaga’s parent company. The group owns Gucci, Balenciaga, Bottega Veneta, Yves Saint Laurent, Creed and Alexander McQueen. Today the luxury brands of fashion are owned basically by Bernard Arnault (richest man in the world and owner of Louis Vuitton, Moët & Chandon, Tiffany & Co., Christian Dior, Fendi, Givenchy, Marc Jacobs, Stella McCartney, Loewe, Loro Piana, Kenzo, Celine, Sephora, Princess Yachts, TAG Heuer, and Bulgari among others) and François-Henri Pinault.

The city, critic Thom Andersen once noted, is “a fat target for outsiders.” It’s not surprising that Demna, who came of age in the upheaval of post-Soviet Georgia, would find it an alluring target. He tells me that when he first began putting together the ideas for this fall collection, he realized he was making a collection for Los Angeles. The visual references for the designs were mostly paparazzi shots — people running out of grocery stores, yoga studios, weaving through parking lots, and Justin Bieber. “He was like 20 per cent of our mood board,” Demna says.

He had, for years, fed himself on this image. It was a constant in what he’s described as a traumatic childhood, one in which he became a refugee following Russian-backed ethnic violence in his hometown. As early as the age of 10, Demna was buying “trashy magazines” about Hollywood celebrities and gorging himself on heavy metal coming out of the city’s music scene. He tells me about his fascination with the “blue tone” seen in films made here in the Nineties, about “sexy girls,” about filmmaker David Lynch, and the Fast and the Furious franchise, which he counts as one of his favourites.

Demna works closely with his husband, BFRND, to curate the sounds for a Balenciaga show, which are as reference-laden as the collection on the runway. BFRND generally keeps the music in a familiar Euro-club zone — driven by beefy geometric percussion and icy synths. There’s a friendly goth menace to his sounds, too, which he describes to me as “overstimulating.

He tells me how much he loves traffic jams because they give him a chance to disconnect. Even more, he loves the drive-thrus throughout the city. Have I used the drive-thru at Starbucks, he asks excitedly. Demna, for once, sounds like he’s at home. “They’re everywhere!” he says. “I never knew I needed a Starbucks drive-thru until I came to L.A.”

If you like behind fashion brands you can read a fascinating piece on John Galliano and Lucky Love here.

Dominik Böhler is the Chief Adviser of GAY45. PhD candidate, passionate about the transcendence of science in the philosophical stance that emphasizes the individual and social potential and agency of human beings. Works in Vienna and commutes to England at the University of Oxford where to continue the DPhil (doctoral) programme in Information, Communication, and the Social Sciences. Böhler does not have a social media presence.

The article is created through research in Vogue, New York Times, Die Zeitung and others.

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