Having fled war as a child, Georgian designer Demna made fashion a sort of battleground of provocative ideas at the helm of Balenciaga. It was tremendously successful — until it wasn't.
The 41-year-old, who dropped his last name Gvasalia in 2021, returns to the catwalk at Paris Fashion Week on Sunday for the first time since his hot streak was brought to a screeching halt late last year by a spectacularly ill-considered publicity campaign.
The ads featured children with teddy bear bags that had studs and harnesses — supposedly meant to evoke a punk aesthetic but looking a lot like bondage gear.
It coincided with another ad campaign that included a strange background detail — a print-out of a US Supreme Court judgement about child abuse.
Demna apologised profusely in the pages of Vogue, denying any intention to reference child abuse, but the damage was done, with a slump in fourth-quarter sales and criticism from celebrity friends such as Kim Kardashian.
He vowed to drop the provocations.
"I have decided to go back to my roots in fashion as well as to the roots of Balenciaga, which is making quality clothes -- not making image or buzz," he told Vogue.
- 'Unbridled creation' –
It is an unexpected moment of contrition for a designer who was named among the world's 100 most influential people by Time less than a year ago.
Demna is on thin ice: "We are allowed to make a mistake in a group like Kering," said the boss of Balenciaga's parent company, Francois-Henri Pinault. "We don't have the right to make two."
He also barely escaped contagion from the controversies around his friend Kanye West, who opened Balenciaga's last show in Paris in September. The label cut ties with the rapper after his outbursts about Jews.
Before then, Demna's playful and inventive campaigns had made Balenciaga one of the hottest brands around.
A 2021 show saw guests arriving along a red carpet and then presented with a film of their entrance that revealed the models had been secretly mingling among them, wearing the new collection.
One campaign was done in the style of a dystopian newscast; another playing with the tropes of reality TV.
His daring designs included the head-to-toe black shrouds worn by Kardashian at the Met Gala in 2021.
"The unbridled creation has worked well but he will have to tame it down a little bit," said Arnaud Cadart, of fashion consultancy Flornoy Ferri.
- Ugly luxury –
It will be a tough reinvention, not least since one of Demna's tricks has been to turn the ugly into luxury, from his pimped-out Crocs to his notorious $1,500 garbage bags.
"Demna uses his radical approach to overturn stereotypes of what is normal and what is luxury," said Serge Carreira, a fashion expert at Sciences Po University in Paris.
It is an approach that worked, attracting all kinds of stars from cerebral French actor Isabelle Huppert to brash US rapper Cardi B.
There was a fascinating backstory, too.
A year ago, Demna's Paris show fell just after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, recalling his traumatic departure from Georgia at the age of 12, forced to flee ethnic cleansing by pro-Russian separatists.
The show saw under-dressed models walking out in an artificial snowstorm, carrying those infamous trash bags.
Some found it distasteful but it was deeply felt.
The invasion "triggered the pain of a past trauma I have carried in me since 1993, when the same thing happened in my country and I became a forever refugee", he said.
Trained at the Beaux-Arts Royal Academy in Belgium, Demna worked for Maison Margiela and Louis Vuitton before creating his own label, Vetements, with his brother in 2014.
He was named creative director at Balenciaga in 2015.
For many years, his trauma affected his work but he told Vanity Fair in 2021 that counselling, meditation and exercise had helped exorcise some demons.
"Fashion used to feel like a battle for me. That is why there was a lot of aggression and darkness in what I did. Today I feel at peace with the system," he said.