The Greats

The Greats

ON A WARM Paris night this past July, in the same neo-Classical palace off the Place de la Concorde where coronation balls were once held for Emperor Napoleon I and King Charles X, Balenciaga was hosting a dinner for Demna, its artistic director of seven years. Earlier that day, the 41-year-old Georgian designer had presented his second couture collection for the French fashion house founded in 1917 by Cristóbal Balenciaga, the Spanish designer whose bubble hemlines, sack dresses and cocoon coats offered an adventurous postwar alternative to Christian Dior’s hyper-feminine New Look of the late 1940s. Now, in a grand reception room of the recently restored 18th-century Hôtel de la Marine, the magician David Blaine was performing a card trick for the pop star Dua Lipa; the actor Alexa Demie was chatting with the reality star and real estate agent Christine Quinn, whose Balenciaga handbag, one of only 20 in existence, was also a Bang & Olufsen speaker; and Kim Kardashian, the brand’s most loyal and most famous customer, posed in one of the designer’s tinted polyurethane face shields, which made her look like she’d stepped out of a John Baldessari photograph.

Demna was seated at a long banquet table with Kardashian; her mother, Kris Jenner; the actor Michelle Yeoh; the supermodels Naomi Campbell and Bella Hadid; the rapper Offset; the country musician Keith Urban; and his wife, the movie star Nicole Kidman, who’d walked her first runway show a few hours earlier in a silver-coated silk taffeta gown with a long train knotted at the hip. To allay his sometimes-severe social anxiety at such events, Demna has always surrounded himself with a circle of confidants — including his husband, the composer and musician Loïck Gomez, also known by his stage name, BFRND, whom he met online in 2016 and married in 2017. But after weekly sessions with his life coach, he decided to try exposure therapy this time. (He’s been working with the same therapist since just before starting at Balenciaga; often he finds it easier to communicate emotion through a garment he’s made than with words.) “Am I going to say something wrong to Nicole?” he worried. But when I glanced over to check on him, I saw that Demna was face to face with Kidman, whom he’d only just met. Her hand was on his heart, and his hand on hers, neither of them moving or speaking. They stayed like that, silent and staring at each other, for almost two minutes; it’s her preferred way of connecting to someone, she says.

Balenciaga wool hourglass jacket and wrap skirt in black-and-white houndstooth, fluid blouse in white silk and boudoir thigh-high boots in patent calfskin from the fall 2016 collection.
Photograph by Lise Sarfati. Styled by Suzanne Koller

Across the room at the friends’ table, I found myself where Demna would usually be, with the painter Eliza Douglas, Demna’s longtime muse; her partner, the artist Anne Imhof; the pop singer Róisín Murphy, who would later perform a few songs in the courtyard; the model Julia Nobis; the photographer Nadia Lee Cohen, who shot Balenciaga’s fall 2022 campaign; Martina Tiefenthaler, the company’s chief creative officer and one of the founding members of Vetements, the influential fashion collective Demna started in 2014; and Tiefenthaler’s boyfriend, Gian Gisiger, the graphic designer behind the latest iteration of Balenciaga’s logo. Among other things, Demna is known for being loyal to his tribe, a creative gang — and informal focus group — of like-minded nonconformists who walk in his shows, star in his look books and cheer him on. “What a crazy carnival of people,” Tiefenthaler said to me with pride. “And there he is, in the middle of it all.” She motioned in the direction of the designer, whose gray cotton hoodie stood out amid all the sequins.

His sense of alienation isn’t incidental to his work or a talking point on a press release; it’s visible in every garment he makes — if you know where to look.

Demna was hired by Balenciaga in 2015 with a clear mandate: to make the clothes feel urgent again. As an heir to the legendary tailor once described by Dior as “the master of us all” and by Coco Chanel as “a couturier in the truest sense of the word” — as well as a more immediate successor to the urbane, forward-thinking French Belgian designer Nicolas Ghesquière, who spent 15 years at the brand’s helm before departing in 2012 — he was not an obvious choice. Cristóbal Balenciaga was a perfectionist intent on achieving sculptural purity through minimal construction, a feat he came closest to realizing in his spring 1967 collection, which included a wedding dress held together by a single seam. Demna, who looks like a headbanger, in torn jeans and ratty band T-shirts, with piercings in both ears, seemed to have emerged onto fashion’s biggest stage straight from a Rammstein concert.

Balenciaga’s spring 2019 show included an immersive LED-screen-paneled tunnel by the Canadian artist Jon Rafman.

But since his appointment at Balenciaga, Demna has become, if not his generation’s most important designer, certainly its most exciting. In an industry where strategy teams struggle to get people talking about their brands, he can’t release a pair of shoes without them turning into a Cardi B lyric. What’s more striking, though, is how dexterously he has exhumed the archives, reinterpreting Cristóbal’s classic silhouettes with cheek and reverence, splicing house codes with streetwear style principles, making haute couture not just from satin and velvet but nylon and denim, as well. His contributions to the house have ranged from homage (his fall 2016 debut opened with a two-button gray flannel jacket that flared at the hips, a subtle take on the trademark Balenciaga bell shape of the 1950s) to histrionic (for spring 2020, he took the construction to its extreme, exaggerating the form so that models in matching gold and silver lamé gowns resembled a pair of Hershey’s Kisses on creatine).

Much as he might want to recede at times, Demna has found himself ever more scrutinized. In this way, too, he recalls his predecessor: Back in the 1940s and ’50s, Balenciaga the man became an international fashion star despite his best attempts at anonymity. As Mary Blume, author of “The Master of Us All: Balenciaga, His Workrooms, His World” (2013), told NPR, “Nobody knew how tall he was, if he was slim or fat. … Several French journalists thought he wasn’t one person but that he was a team of designers. And this is simply because he did not appear.” In 2021, Demna attended the Met Gala with Kardashian, both in matching black fabric face coverings. Although his attendance was meant to signal his emergence as an industry star, many people speculated that it was Kanye West, Kardashian’s estranged husband at the time. Still, the mask served at least two purposes: Wearing it calmed his nerves, and it prevented the flashing cameras from capturing unflattering photos of him. “I’ve always had a problem with myself in the mirror,” says Demna, whose somewhat stern features — pale skin, strong nose — are softened by his hazel eyes and a warm smile. Since then, he’s chosen to wear one whenever he has to have his picture taken.

Balenciaga ultraviolet low-neck pantadress, leggings and booties from the fall 2020 collection.
Photograph by Lise Sarfati. Styled by Suzanne Koller

Words like “rebel” and “iconoclast” are thrown around so often in the fashion industry that they might as well be the names of new fragrances. And while it’s impossible to think of the creative evolution of clothes without the contributions of such brilliant, genuinely tortured souls as Yves Saint Laurent or Lee Alexander McQueen, brands almost reflexively market their designers, especially the ones without name recognition, as misfit mavericks who’ve arrived, against all odds, to alter not just a dress but the very notion of fashion itself. In Demna’s case, however, this happens to be true. His sense of alienation isn’t incidental to his work or a talking point on a press release; it’s visible in every garment he makes — if you know where to look.

WHEN DEMNA WAS 11, he was convinced he was going to die. About a year after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, ethnic conflict broke out between Georgians and the people of Abkhazia, a disputed area of land in the northwestern region of the country. Early in the war, Abkhaz troops descended on the Georgian-held city of Sukhumi, where Demna was born, laying waste to the popular subtropical tourist destination on the Black Sea. For months, every night at 7 p.m., the wail of an air-raid siren signaled that it was time for him to join the rest of his family — his Georgian father, Guram, the owner of an auto repair shop; his Russian mother, Elvira, a housewife; his younger brother, also named Guram; a pair of uncles and their four combined children; and his paternal grandmother — in their underground garage, where Demna played music to drown out the thunder of exploding shells.

Before the area was reduced to rubble, Demna and his family evacuated their home, packed the car with only a few essentials — food, warm clothing and photo albums, as well as some weapons with which to protect themselves — and followed the other estimated 240,000 displaced Georgians into the Caucasus Mountains on their way to Tbilisi, the country’s capital, where they had relatives. They drove as far as they could, at which point they took what they were able to carry and started walking. When Demna’s grandmother became too weak to continue, Elvira, a natural negotiator, traded a machine gun for a horse.

Demna wears his own Balenciaga clothing, Balenciaga Toe Low sneakers in Black Knit and Balenciaga Couture Engineered by Mercedes-AMG F1 Applied Science face shield.
Photograph by Lise Sarfati. Styled by Suzanne Koller

For nearly three weeks, they traveled from village to village, sleeping mostly outdoors or in the back of an abandoned truck. Before his displacement, Demna had been a good-natured boy who loved to put on musical shows for his family, give his grandmother fashion advice and draw pictures of the Miss Universe pageant contestants; now all he could think about was the “Chechen tie,” a particularly sadistic form of mutilation he’d heard about involving the tongue. One night on the road, Demna walked in on his father, a former soldier, explaining to an uncle what he’d do if they were ever taken hostage. “I have the grenades,” he recalls his father saying, by which Guram meant that he would sooner kill himself and his boys than risk being captured and tortured.

Until this point in our conversation, Demna — who no longer uses his last name, Gvasalia, professionally, to separate his private self from his work persona — has been recounting the story of his family’s escape like someone telling the plot of a war movie. But he utters those four words the way I imagine his father might have: steely voiced yet in pain. “Just the idea that he. …” Demna says, unable to complete the sentence. “I think he would never have done it, but it made me afraid of him. And I was never afraid of my father before that.”

The Gvasalias arrived safely, but penniless, in Tbilisi. Demna, wearing oversize hand-me-downs, the sleeves on his shirt dangling well past his fingers — a motif he would revisit later artistically — shared a mattress with his brother that first night. “Sleeping on a bed — I will never forget it. What more do you need in life?” he says. Just then, the waiter at our bar arrives with drinks, jolting Demna back to the present: a wood-paneled simulacrum of a Gilded Age drawing room in Manhattan’s financial district on a muggy May afternoon. The next day, he’d become the first designer ever to stage a show on the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange. “I’m sorry,” he says with a slightly embarrassed laugh. “I don’t mean to abuse you as a therapist.”

The fall 2022 show took place inside a glass-domed arena, with models battling wind and artificial snow.
Courtesy of Balenciaga

That child, that experience, is never far from him. This past March, 10 days after Russia invaded Ukraine, Demna presented Balenciaga’s fall 2022 show at an exhibition complex a few miles outside of Paris. Separated from an indoor arena by a glass dome, an audience of fashion editors and celebrities — including Kardashian, who wore a catsuit made from what appeared to be yellow barricade tape — watched like spectators in an operating theater as models in stretchy dresses and large hoodies, many of them hauling leather trash bags, struggled to stay upright against a battery of wind and artificial snow. Originally conceived by Demna as an indictment of our failure to address the climate crisis, the presentation had become an allegory for the plight of the roughly one million Ukrainians, mostly women and children, who in that first week of war had fled to neighboring European countries. In the accompanying show notes, Demna wrote, “The war in Ukraine has triggered the pain of a past trauma I have carried in me since 1993, when the same thing happened in my home country and I became a forever refugee. Forever, because that’s something that stays in you. The fear, the desperation, the realization that no one wants you.” Today, he tells me, “That’s why fashion has never really mattered to me. I love doing it, but I don’t care, to be honest. I’ve seen things that make fashion seem so irrelevant.”

Demna is often thought of as fashion’s playful saboteur, suffusing his work with comedy bordering on contempt — and yet behind it all is a kind of sincerity that can sometimes be difficult to discern amid the spectacle. No other working designer is as confessional; with each collection, what seems like irony is often a chapter in an ongoing autobiography. Take the $270 DHL-branded T-shirt he made for Vetements in 2016, which was alternately derided by critics as puerile and anti-fashion. “I’d see these guys every single day delivering parcels to our office, and then we’d have to pay DHL bills, which was a lot for us,” he explains. “It was so visually present in my daily professional life. And that’s what I often do. I take something and I make something.” Then there’s his resort 2023 collection for Balenciaga, which included models in wool coats and sequined gowns worn over full-body latex bondage suits — for another designer, the S&M gear might have been little more than an outré gesture, but that, he says, “was very personal to me, part of my sexual education.”

HIS SEXUALITY IS something Demna can’t discuss without some degree of sadness creeping into his voice; an early encounter with a neighborhood friend ended abruptly when a family member walked in on them and forbade Demna from seeing the boy again. The first man he fell in love with, who introduced him to sex clubs and cruising spots, “taught me how to love him,” he says, “but unfortunately not how to love myself.” The most difficult indignity, though, is the one that hasn’t happened: “I can’t go back to Georgia because people have threatened to kill me if I return. … My own uncle is one of them.”

Balenciaga Couture swing-back trench coat in taupe gabardine, gloved top in white jersey and Collant Pantalegging in black stretch mesh from 2021.
Photograph by Lise Sarfati. Styled by Suzanne Koller

He didn’t come out to his parents until he was 32, although he had a boyfriend at 25. Demna studied international economics at Tbilisi State University but, even then, he was regularly sketching clothes. He befriended a group of “sort of criminals” who probably knew he was gay but didn’t care and protected him from anyone who did. “Growing up in a country where I couldn’t say I was gay, I always tried to look like the kind of tough guy who would survive in the neighborhoods where I lived,” he says. “But I didn’t feel like that on the inside.”

After graduating, Demna came across a newspaper article about Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts, the Belgian college that gave birth to the Antwerp Six: the influential fashion designers Dirk Bikkembergs, Ann Demeulemeester, Walter Van Beirendonck, Dries Van Noten, Dirk Van Saene and Marina Yee, who all graduated from the school in the early 1980s. Against his mother’s wishes, Demna applied. Van Beirendonck, who taught in the academy’s fashion department at the time and is a designer known for his own playful riffs on kink, found in Demna a kindred spirit. “We are both stubborn, and we want to dream out loud,” Van Beirendonck said in an email. “Being critical, making political statements and adding irony and humor in our work is important, but so is our love of perfect tailoring and beautiful fabrics.”

‘That’s why fashion has never really mattered to me. I love doing it, but I don’t care, to be honest. I’ve seen things that make fashion seem so irrelevant.’

Demna’s first big job out of fashion school was at Maison Margiela, known for being a laboratory of experimentation and a leader in avant-garde fashion. The hiring committee gave him a week to submit a project. He sent them 10 looks for consideration in a greasy pizza box; two weeks later, he was living in Paris. After a couple of years there, he was hired to work at Louis Vuitton in 2013 at the end of the Marc Jacobs era, during which the American designer introduced fashion to art, collaborating with Stephen Sprouse on graffitied monogram bags and Yayoi Kusama on a polka-dot collection. Although their time together was brief, Jacobs showed Demna that a luxury house could engage with pop culture, anticipating Instagram fashion even before the age of influencers. “I love Marc,” says Demna, who learned valuable lessons from Jacobs, like how to make an entire collection in three days. Plus it was fun: “He’d be working at midnight, doing Barbra Streisand karaoke.” When Ghesquière took over for Jacobs a few months later, the mood became more serious. Still, Demna found it helpful to watch Ghesquière execute his sophisticated and futuristic vision of luxury — one very different from his own. For a few seasons, he was charged with designing complex outerwear garments, including the most expensive piece he’d ever made. “I flew business class for the first time thanks to a crocodile coat,” he says. “You couldn’t fold it, so the coat had its own ticket.”

The spring 2020 presentation was made to resemble a parliamentary assembly.
Courtesy of Balenciaga

But he was growing weary of developing only other people’s ideas and, finally, he launched a label of his own with a group of friends. The name Vetements, which in French (with a circumflex) means “clothes” — a bit of a joke, since none of the collective’s members were French — came to Demna over lunch at a falafel restaurant as an alternative to his original thought, Factory of Found Ideas. “When I started Vetements, I was at a point where I was so frustrated with the industry,” he says. “I couldn’t pay my bills, but I didn’t care. I just wanted to make clothes.” During his five years as the brand’s creative director, and with his brother, Guram, as its C.E.O., he organized a show in the basement of a gay club, which one critic complained smelled like a lavatory (fall 2015); partnered with 18 different brands, including Manolo Blahnik, Brioni and Juicy Couture, for a single collection of dubious collaborations (spring 2017); and held what was referred to as a no-show with life-size photographs of nonmodels shot around Zurich, and presented in a parking lot in Paris (spring 2018).

Vetements became a sensation because of the confusion it caused: No one could tell if Demna was joking or not. Although there was the sense that he was having a good time, there was also the fear that he might be laughing at the industry, a community that, despite its tolerance for frivolity, takes itself extremely seriously. Some of the clothes were ill-fitting, others covered with corporate typefaces — all of them embraced … not ugliness, exactly, but not beauty, either. “It was more of a provocation,” Demna says. “What I wanted was to trigger an emotion. It didn’t matter to me which one.” As more people began paying attention to his off-balance prairie dresses and big bomber jackets, which were immediate hits at stores such as Dover Street Market, journalists started drawing parallels between Demna’s deconstructions and those of Martin Margiela. “I was really mad,” Demna says. “Suddenly I was in a place to do what I wanted, and it was getting reduced to those two years [I spent] at Margiela.”

So for his fall 2019 collection, unsubtly titled the Elephant in the Room, Demna dragged his audience to the Paul Bert Serpette flea market on the northern outskirts of Paris to show them where these so-called Margiela designs were really born — from someone else’s clothes. He laughs now thinking about all the stunts he pulled: For his spring 2020 show, another response to feeling misunderstood and marginalized, he paraded models in law enforcement gear around a Champs-Élysées McDonald’s to the sound of attack dogs. “I felt barked at by this industry,” he says. He even added an umlaut to the reappropriated Bose logo on a T-shirt, translating the name of the audio equipment company into the German word for “angry.”

Balenciaga Couture high-collar jacket and godet skirt in blue denim, opera gloves in black viscose and space pumps in black glossy rubber from the 2022 collection.
Photograph by Lise Sarfati. Styled by Suzanne Koller

In 2015, on the heels of Vetements’ initial success, he was approached by an executive at Kering, the multinational corporation that owns Balenciaga, Gucci, Saint Laurent, Alexander McQueen and Bottega Veneta. He recalls being asked, “ ‘Would you be willing to give up what you do now and go to a big house in Paris?’ He didn’t tell me where it was.” Demna said that he might be, on the condition that he could keep running Vetements. In the taxi going home, he opened his phone to the news that Alexander Wang was stepping down as Balenciaga’s creative director.

DEMNA COMPARES THE experience of being at Balenciaga to that of Jesus carrying his cross. “The legacy is amazing and nourishing,” he says, “but it’s also very heavy.” When he arrived at the house in 2015, Paris, he says, “was asleep.” Like Alessandro Michele, who took over at Gucci that same year, Demna knew what was expected of him. “My job was and is to create desire,” he says, although it’s notable that neither brand has relied heavily on sex for sales: Michele’s Edenic universe celebrates romance rather than lust, and even when Demna explores kink, it’s more about the exchange of power than of fluids. In 2019, four years after his appointment, Balenciaga reported record annual revenues, surpassing €1 billion (about $1.12 billion) for the first time.

Every designer of a major luxury house has a fiscal responsibility. But they’re supposed to do something else, as well: create clothes that not only bring in profits but that become somehow symbolic of a cultural moment. And Demna has had plenty of those in the past decade. For Balenciaga’s fall 2020 collection, a deranged twist on Cristóbal’s ecclesiastical garb — the designer tailored one of his first velvet dresses for a marchioness to wear in church — he sent models in blacked-out contact lenses, chastity belts and flowing clerical robes wading through recycled Paris gray water as the sound of a storm echoed throughout the auditorium and lightning forked across a digital sky. During the early days of Covid-19, when shows could no longer be presented live, he partnered with Epic Games on “Afterworld: The Age of Tomorrow,” a video game set years in the future whose characters battle it out in Balenciaga’s fall 2021 collection, which included NASA-stamped outerwear, his signature red puffer coat and boots recalling medieval-style armor. Following the return to in-person assemblies for spring 2022, Demna transformed the red carpet into a runway — or maybe it was the other way around — using the footage of celebrities arriving at his show as the show itself by broadcasting the images inside a theater filled with editors, buyers and friends of the house. The “show” culminated in the premiere of a special mini-episode of “The Simpsons” that follows Marge and Bart as they pursue modeling careers in Paris (all dressed in Balenciaga, of course).

The spring 2022 show featured a special mini-episode of “The Simpsons.”
Courtesy of Balenciaga

Although he has many fans, Demna is not without his detractors. One journalist called his work at Vetements “the bastard attire of a broken generation,” while another recently admonished him for selling an $1,850 pair of torn and stained Balenciaga sneakers, a “barely wearable shoe costing more than some people’s monthly rent.” Demna was surprised by the reaction. “It’s just a dirty shoe,” he says. “But if you want it to be my shoe, it has to look like somebody just dug it out [of the ground].”

It’s not hard to understand why the designer frustrates some critics. It can feel at times like he’s throwing out too many ideas all at once, making it impossible to absorb any one of them. As he works through the attendant concerns of his own identity — as a Georgian refugee, an outsider with impostor syndrome and a gay man with body issues — he’s simultaneously expressing a broad spectrum of emotions and creating content for his fans the way they consume it: with the relentlessness of a million open tabs. Taken together, what Demna has accomplished isn’t just a selfie of the first designer who truly understands internet culture. It’s also a snapshot of a chaotic digital world.

And yet he is also a great assembler, decontextualizing, then recontextualizing, logos and memes — a $2,145 leather Balenciaga bag inspired by the big blue plastic totes sold at Ikea for 99 cents; a raincoat with a logo recalling the one from Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign for Balenciaga’s fall 2017 men’s wear collection; a T-shirt advertising a fictional outpost of the now-defunct Planet Hollywood restaurant chain for Vetements’ spring 2020 collection — to create new logos and more memes. Part of what Demna has been able to do so well is poke fun at, while also being openly complicit in, fashion’s endless loop of iteration. Nothing is too banal to be copied. And therein lies something else that separates him: Whereas most designers are inspired by a pretty artwork or landscape, he’s more interested in the industrial, the unpretentious, the everyday. “I don’t like that luxury is always intended to communicate that you’re rich,” he says. “I’d rather wear a bag that doesn’t make me look like the rare bourgeois bitch who can afford it.”

The fall 2021 presentation came in the form of a video game titled “Afterworld: The Age of Tomorrow.”
Courtesy of Balenciaga

ON THE WAY to Demna’s new pied-à-terre in the Eighth Arrondissement of Paris, I pass by the string of luxury fashion stores, including Maison Margiela, Louis Vuitton and Balenciaga, that line the Avenue Montaigne. Although he moved away from the city six years ago — he and Gomez bought a home outside of Zurich, where Elvira now lives, too, and where, Demna says with relief, “everything is neutral and beige” — his work requires him to spend about half his time here. After walking a few flights up a grand marble staircase, I enter his apartment, which feels almost punitive in its emptiness yet somehow lived-in, too. From the foyer, a long hallway with herringbone parquet flooring leads to a balcony overlooking the Eiffel Tower just across the Seine. Along the corridor, there’s a Tejo Remy bench composed of neatly stacked Balenciaga blankets; a blue airbrush painting of a parent embracing their child titled “Hold” (2022) by the New York-based artist Austin Lee; and a vase of yellow chrysanthemums and carnations atop an antique console.

What Demna has accomplished isn’t just a selfie of the first designer who truly understands internet culture. It’s also a snapshot of a chaotic digital world.

In the dining room to the right, alcove shelves display assorted tchotchkes: six porcelain figurines of Diana, Princess of Wales; a glazed ceramic object made to resemble a Balenciaga sneaker; and a piggy bank. Demna leads the way into his kitchen, a mostly white box, where he brings a bottle of water and two Baccarat crystal tumblers to the table. He sighs contentedly. “I feel really empty in a good way,” he says. It’s the morning after his second couture show — and the nerve-racking dinner that followed — and he seems relieved. (It’s also the day of the show for Vetements, where his brother took over as creative director last year, but Demna, who left the brand in 2019, wouldn’t be attending: “I’ve had to learn to let that go,” he says, admitting that it took him about a year to do so. “It’s not my story anymore.”) The previous day, editors and clients gathered at 10 Avenue George V, the site of Balenciaga’s original salon, and watched, mesmerized, as he sent out models in molded black neoprene scuba dresses, pants composed of upcycled vintage leather wallets, sculptural aluminum-infused jersey shirts and a massive bell-shaped wedding gown with 820 feet of tulle that took 7,500 hours to embroider. The looks, which Demna refers to collectively as “a heritage-inspired futuristic extravaganza,” demanded as many as 10 fittings per garment, as opposed to the three or four he normally does for ready-to-wear.

Demna wears his own Balenciaga clothing, Balenciaga Toe Low sneakers in Black Knit and Balenciaga Couture Engineered by Mercedes-AMG F1 Applied Science face shield.
Photograph by Lise Sarfati. Styled by Suzanne Koller

Over the phone a few weeks after the show, Nicole Kidman tells me that she ranks Demna among such designers as John Galliano, Jean Paul Gaultier, Karl Lagerfeld and Alexander McQueen. “He uses fashion to communicate the world at this time,” she says, and compares Demna to the filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. “Stanley would always say to me, ‘Don’t ever put me on a pedestal. Let me have bad ideas and make mistakes, otherwise we’re done for.’ ”

But it’s another compliment, given to him by Naomi Campbell over dinner the night of the show, that makes him emotional. “I felt in your approach,” he recalls her saying, “the way you made that dress” — creating a silhouette by pinning it down to the exact millimeter — “how important this work is and how much you were putting into it. You weren’t just making a dress with a Cristóbal collar. You understood the coutureness of it all.” He adds, “She said the last time she felt that was with Azzedine,” referring to the French Tunisian couturier Azzedine Alaïa, who died in 2017.

It’s then that Demna starts to cry. Between apologies, he wipes away tears with his sweatshirt sleeve; he normally saves this type of vulnerability for his work. “They just think I’m good at making sneakers and selling,” he says about his critics in the fashion establishment, although he seems to be referring, as well, to a longer, deeper history of rejection: the classmates who bullied him, the men who didn’t return his affection, the family members who turned on him. He pulls himself together and sits a little taller in his chair. “I’ve given myself a mission in fashion to make it move forward by questioning it, by never being satisfied, by challenging the status quo and whatever the rules have been telling us we’re supposed to do for the last 100 years.

“The roughness of certain silhouettes and the moods of my collections express a lot of [what] I went through,” he adds. “It’s easier to show pain or joy through my work than to say it out loud.” Though he is working on that, too. At the couture presentation, before the show got underway and the music began to swell, a poem was broadcast over the sound system. Demna had written it in French with the author Sophie Fontanel. “I love you,” said the A.I.-generated voice reading Demna’s words. “I have loved you for 30 years. I’ve been waiting for you since I was 10 years old. … I closed my eyes and I thought of you.” It was a love poem, of course, but also one of longing. And then the models started coming down the runway.

Models: Shivaruby at Storm Management, Toni Smith at Elite, Blessing Orji at IMG Models and Barbara Valente at Supreme. Hair: Gary Gill at Streeters. Makeup by Karin Westerlund at Artlist using Dr. Barbara Sturm. Set design by Giovanna Martial. Casting by Franziska Bachofen-Echt. Production: White Dot. Manicurist: Hanaé Goumri at The Wall Group. Digital tech: Daniel Serrato Rodriguez. Photo assistants: François Adragna, Jack Sciacca. Hair assistants: Tom Wright, Rebecca Chang, Natsumi Ebiko. Makeup assistant: Thomas Kergot. Set assistants: Jeanne Briand, Vincent Perrin. Styling assistants: Carla Bottari, Roxana Mirtea. All product images in this story courtesy of Balenciaga