At the helm of Balenciaga, Demna is no stranger to courting controversy. Until last week, though, most of the controversy was related to his postmodern habit of flipping emblems of commercial consumerism—trash bags, Crocs—into expensive luxury items. (Casual observers might not pick up that Demna is fundamentally a humanist, which he cloaks under dark layers of internet-pilled irony.) It was in fact difficult to imagine anything standing in the way of Balenciaga’s cultural and commercial domination. Practically everything Balenciaga does becomes a huge story, every product a viral hit, every stunt a moment of creative clarity. Until Balenciaga released two photoshoots that intersected with an infectious strain of American moral panic. One featured children and an assortment of holiday gift products, including teddy bears adorned in leather bondage gear, pulled from the brand’s most recent runway show. Another featured a still life of a Balenciaga x Adidas bag on top of office supplies and documents, one of which was a copy of U.S. v. Williams, a 2008 Supreme Court decision related to child pornography laws. Weird? Sure. Indicative of a dark conspiracy in the elite levels of high fashion? Not exactly.
In the face of mounting criticism, Balenciaga issued a series of press releases, the third of which apologized for “a series of grievous errors for which Balenciaga takes responsibility,” stating that the bears should never have been included in a shoot with children, and that the papers—pulled from a prop house—had likely been originally produced for a television drama. But the damage had already been done. On November 22, Tucker Carlson devoted a segment of his primetime Fox News show to accuse Balenciaga of promoting the exploitation of children. By then, the conspiracy theory had already been subsumed by right wing provocateurs and their followers, and soon even well-meaning moms were chiming in—including Kardashian, who vowed to re-evaluate her relationship with the storied French house.
There was a time when you could imagine Demna responding to such a controversy by putting out a T-shirt with a “Faux News” graphic splashed on the front. Instead, Balenciaga sued the production designer responsible for the office shoot for $25 million.
So what does all this mean? After a period of unfettered, boundary-bursting creativity, is men’s fashion set to enter a safer era, where corporate minders nudge designers away from artistic risks? It’s certainly become harder to picture Demna utilizing his signature brand of shock in the near future, and other designers will surely take notes. Or maybe we’re entering a totally unpredictable new phase of menswear history, where these upheavals re-stack the industry’s decks. Last week’s events occurred against tremors of change that had already been rattling the industry. Over a year since Virgil Abloh’s death, his position at Louis Vuitton Men’s remains open, and the rumors of who might be in contention—from star musicians to upstart talents—changing by the day. Other designers believed to be making moves include LVMH stablemates Jonathan Anderson and Matthew Williams. This might all be a good thing: the last time the track stopped on high fashion’s game of musical chairs was in spring 2018, when Abloh went to Vuitton, Kim Jones to Dior Men, and Hedi Slimane to Celine. Those three designers, along with Demna and Michele, more or less set the agenda for the era of menswear we’ve been living through—and that might be coming to an end. That’s the upside: designer shake-ups tend to birth periods of intense creativity and re-thinking of high fashion paradigms. (Abloh’s appointment to LV, for one, finally legitimized the luxurious potential of streetwear.)
Meanwhile, the next generation of commercial heavyweights are waiting by their phones. Teddy Santis of Aimé Leon Dore has built a menswear empire on two continents by selling handsome staples to budding taste gods, all without doing much traditional press. Charaf Tajer of Casablanca has quietly established a legitimate contender for Paris’s next luxury house. Glenn Martens of Y/Project has successfully imprinted his avant-garde construction on Diesel. London stars Martine Rose and Grace Wales Bonner’s names keep coming up in conversations related to job openings. And then there are dark horses like Tyler the Creator and Frank Ocean, artists who have proven to be savvy fashion entrepreneurs.
Of course, it’s always possible to hop off the fashion merry-go-round entirely. Just ask Tom Ford, who earlier this month sold his independent namesake brand to Estée Lauder for $2.8 billion. Which did nothing to quell the hope, dressed up as rumor, that Ford would soon return to Gucci.