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 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.
Small but necessary gestures
Vena Brykalin, fashion director of Vogue Ukraine, was at the Balenciaga show and various others throughout the week in Paris. He had flown from Kyiv to Milan for fashion week the day before Russia’s invasion of his country. Now in Paris, without a plan for where he would go next, he found himself in limbo – dividing his time between worried calls home to family and friends, online activism (he’s been using his Instagram to share news, information about Ukrainian designers and various relief efforts led by his friends in the creative community) and the occasional fashion show.
Speaking in a car ride through Paris after the Coperni show, Brykalin reflected on attending a fashion week while a war was happening in his country.
“Fashion is a trillion-dollar industry and we know fashion weeks are a big vehicle for that, so I wouldn’t expect them to shut everything down,” he said, though adding he felt brands needed to show a sense of “correctness and decency…a sense of context would be very great to see and feel .”
He used the Coperni show, which was staged in a warehouse in the city’s suburbs, as an immediate example. The brand released a statement dedicating its show to the Cap Est Sarl atelier in Kyiv, whose tailors produce some of the label’s clothing. They also sent one blue and yellow look down the runway in a show that celebrated teen spirit (lockers surrounded the square runway and the soundtrack pumped out classic high school house party tracks by The Offspring and other 90s bands).
“It’s not going to change the world,” Brykalin said, but he believes these moments are important and that silence from brands is not acceptable. “Businesses today can’t be operating in a vacuum,” he said, noting that he disagrees with the notion that fashion is fantasy, or fashion is escapism. “No it’s not. Fashion is real,” he said. “And when you choose not to reflect that, I don’t think it’s a very modern thing to do.”
He praised Balenciaga for stating its support for Ukraine via social media in the early days of the Russian invasion, believing the brand “set a standard” for others and pointing to the fact that it might have even made good business sense. “(Business) is not a dirty word here,” he said, believing that, “Brands who avoid the conversation because they consider it as being an economic risk for their operation,” have got it wrong – it’s “on the contrary,” he said.
Some brands did lean into the idea of fashion as escapism (Loewe’s show was filled with playful, surreal designs such as a duo of trapeze dresses that flowed into the shape of a car). And at the bigger shows, the usual celebrities still caused a scene (Rihanna’s attendance at Dior had crowds outside screaming and guests inside craning their necks). But in this mixed bag of responses, several houses found subtle ways to acknowledge the unfolding crisis.
At the end of the Nanushka presentation, for example, three models stood on a pedestal with their eyes closed revealing blue and yellow eye makeup while a string quartet played the Ukrainian national anthem.
The brand, spearheaded by Hungarian designer Sandra Sandor, also released a statement detailing various charitable endeavors, including donating revenue from its e-commerce sales to the launch of projects the brand said will offer support to Ukrainians. A spokesperson for the label also confirmed that it has temporarily stopped sales in Russia.
Other signs of solidarity with Ukraine were more subtle.
Danish designer Cecilie Bahnsen, who, in a huge moment for any designer, made her debut at Paris Fashion Week this season, orchestrated a moment of pause at the end of her show. Models stood shoulder to shoulder in what the designer called a “quiet moment of togetherness,” during a brief interview backstage.
Later in the week, Stella McCartney – daughter of Paul McCartney – closed her show to the music of John Lennon’s anti-war song “Give Peace a Chance,” and the last look at Nicolas Ghesquière’s Louis Vuitton show featured an oversized polo in blue and yellow stripes. He dedicated the show to young people who inspire, “idealism, hope for the future, for a better world.”
Petar Petrov, a Vienna-based designer who was born in Ukraine (he left at a young age, moving to Bulgaria with his family) was also in Paris to present his latest collection. Speaking the day after he unveiled his new garments via a short video, he chose his words carefully when reflecting on the industry’s response. “We’re not politicians,” he said, saying there’s only so much that fashion designers, particularly the smaller, independent houses like his, can do to help. His company announced it would donate 10% of profits from online orders to the UN Refugee Agency and Caritas.
Quiet moments stood out
Of the shows that didn’t make any obvious gestures, the quieter, more thoughtful collection unveilings stood out and felt better aligned with the overarching mood.
Petrov’s new collection was filled with beautifully crafted wardrobe staples made for women looking to buy pieces they can wear for years to come, regardless of shifting trends. He told CNN he had spoken to friends of the brand who said, “we are real women, we know who we are and we need products that we love and that we want to wear more than once.” This approach is a more “quiet way of dressing,” he said, but “it’s also more relevant.” He believes people became accustomed to comfortable clothing during the pandemic and now they don’t want to compromise on this comfort, even when dressing up and wearing more high fashion pieces.
At Chloé, Uruguayan creative director Gabriela Hearst, one of fashion’s most dedicated climate activists, presented her collection in a large greenhouse-like structure. An enormous light set up outside shone down on the space, like the sun, possibly in reference to global warming. The collection was a display of earthy tones – black, browns, reds and citrus shades. And in what is becoming a signature move, the brand released a fact sheet detailing information about where materials are sourced from and how its products are created. This season, for example, 56% of the collection was made using what they call “lower impact materials” including recycled cashmere.
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.”