Purple Magazine
— The Future Issue #37 S/S 2022



interview by OLIVIER ZAHM

the georgian-born creative director has not only become the most acclaimed fashion designer of the new century, but also has radically transformed balenciaga into a mega-brand while expanding the creativity of the parisian house.

demna effortlessly redefines every aspect of balenciaga, from streetwear to haute couture, brilliant runway shows to virtual reality projects, and rigorous conceptual design to hard-core pop culture. all with a sense of fun. what’s his secret?

OLIVIER ZAHM — I want to speak about your personal success as one of the most important designers today. Without designer like you, it would have been boring to do a fashion magazine in 2022. We still need to believe in fashion as art.
DEMNA — Well, that’s my mission. I just try to be as good as I can in doing what I believe in. Fashion has always really excited me and triggered my curiosity. It’s always: “What’s next?” You can never really pause and be content with what you’ve done so far. That’s the force of fashion. It has to move forward constantly. Some people don’t like it; others love it. I don’t judge it. I just do what is my creative responsibility.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, you don’t have this sense of personal achievement? Personal success is five minutes after the show, but then you’re straight back to work?
DEMNA — I work all the time. We will have a show come out next week, but I’m already working on the next shows for the coming months. I’m in a permanent jet lag or fashion hangover, as I call it, because I always work in the future. This is why, for me, the success of one show, of one collection, is always in the past — because I’m already working on the next one. But that’s what I love about fashion: that you don’t have to look back so much.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, there’s no nostalgia?
DEMNA — Well, I have nostalgia about certain periods in the history of fashion. But it’s a poetic nostalgia. I like to remember the 2000s, when I was studying in Belgium, and I started to discover anti-fashion. I have some nostalgia about that, but then I try to put it into the context of today. It’s more inspiration than nostalgia. Same thing for the ’90s. That was a strong period in fashion, when people dared to dress and express themselves through clothes. I have a bit of nostalgia for that era … though I look back at it like a voyeur who is looking for inspiration.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Yeah. It’s more a poetic or mental trip.
DEMNA — Exactly. And it’s necessary to have these poetic trips for a creative brain.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, this issue is about the future, a dystopian and scary subject. Some people told me, “Olivier, the future doesn’t exist.” That was Eliza Douglas’s answer. She said, “Don’t bother, there is no future.” [Laughs] How do you see the future? You have lived in a post-Soviet society, so you have experienced social chaos, insecurity. Are you optimistic?
DEMNA — It’s hard to be optimistic about the future. I know what Eliza means by “the future doesn’t exist” because the most important thing is being in the present moment. We define the future right now, with what we do, with our actions, our lifestyle, and our consumption, especially when it comes to fashion. Today, we define what tomorrow will look like. But I believe in the future. I’m optimistic about the new generations. Young people today have such a different mindset from my generation. They are so much more aware and informed — although sometimes too much. Information can kill the human magic of being romantic, curious, and adventurous.

OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s interesting. But how do you feel?
DEMNA — I’m also very scared. For anybody who is more or less informed and understands what’s going on in the world, it’s hard not to be afraid. If I had a kid now, I would probably be even more afraid, thinking about the future for this next generation. Are they going to have to pay for our mistakes, and those of our parents and grandparents? We’re always afraid of the unknown. We’re afraid because we like to be in control, but we cannot control the future. What makes me hopeful is the awareness that things need to change. We need to be different. We need to act. And that awareness has become much more important than it was 10 or 15 years ago.

OLIVIER ZAHM — One of the possibilities for the future is technology. You are one of the first designers to truly inform your fashion with technology. Not just as decor. The way you use virtual reality and video games seems to influence your aesthetic. Do you consider yourself a cyberpunk designer? Because cyberpunks in the ’80s were embracing technology, virtual reality, but they were also vehemently against the machine. They were embracing technological evolution but pushing it to the limit and fighting against this form of total control. How do you view the technological evolution that is part of your work and inspiration?
DEMNA — It’s also new for me because I was never really into high tech or trying to discover what’s possible, especially in the context of technology in fashion. The pandemic brought me to a situation where I had to think about technology because it’s in the DNA of Balenciaga. If we go back in history to the time of Cristóbal Balenciaga, he worked with the newest technologies of the time and invented new fabrics, like gazar. It was definitely not as sci-fi as technology today, but it was always in the DNA of this house to be advanced.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Advanced in what way?
DEMNA — Technologically, in the historical moment in which we are. When the pandemic started, I thought: “Okay, we probably won’t be able to do shows for the next two years. So, are we going to do fashion films all the time?” I love creating movies, but I find it repetitive sometimes. This is why we started to explore “Afterworld: The Age of Tomorrow.” Let’s do a computer game and create a whole new digital world. It was such a complex process but also super exciting to see how we could show the collection through a journey in a video game. Then we did the clone show that was basically Photoshopping the same person in the video. We always want to aspire to the sci-fi world of technology and to do things magically, but we are definitely not there yet. It’s amazing what’s happening with technology in fields like medicine and pharmaceuticals. But when it comes to fashion, we are still really behind. My interest is in trying to test the frontier and see how far we can go with technology. In the fashion context, it’s not so easy to do this. I’m lucky to be able to experiment with these things in Balenciaga because it’s complex, and it takes a lot of time and investment. But it’s the future. We cannot ignore the importance of technology. We just have to learn how to use it, so it doesn’t destroy us. Technology is great, but nothing is better than human interaction, than touching each other, than falling in love, and doing all the things that are quintessentially human. We should never let technology become more important than that.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you like the process of playing with technological tools? Did you get excited by this virtual world?
DEMNA — Absolutely, because it’s unknown and completely new to me. I’m a very curious person: I like challenges and adventure. And, of course, I got super excited, like a child, to make a video game to show my collection. But I will not always be making cyber-futuristic video games or cloning. What I’m going to do for this next collection is the opposite. It’s going back to VHS, an obsolete technology. It’s this contrast that I love. In fashion, we need to create dynamism in our storytelling.

OLIVIER ZAHM — I remember maybe four years ago, when you worked with Jon Rafman on one of your shows, who made this video tunnel of screens…
DEMNA — Yeah. It was a challenge to produce that video tunnel. It was like the world record of screens in one place. We created an iconic set design to create this visual effect, which was futuristic but also completely unknown to fashion audiences. That was one of my favorite set designs.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It was incredible. But then, the next season, you put us in front of a dystopian landscape of water, submerging the show. That was a kind of post-apocalyptic vision.
DEMNA — Very dark, yes.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It was a strong message to people who don’t believe in climate change.
DEMNA — Yes. The whole arena was sinking. Not in water — it was actually meant to be oil. We even recreated the smell of oil for the show. It was conceptually tied to the idea of capitalism and its impact on the world. I wanted to bring a biblical darkness to it, where the models could walk on water, like Jesus. The idea of the real and the unreal: that was the big question that I wanted to have in the show. It was a deep, conceptual element that was a subliminal message of my vision.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And it’s more than storytelling, Demna, because when you conceptualize a show, it’s not just the decor. The way you imagine a show is not only spectacular or immersive — it’s a unique experience that you create for people. How do you find your ideas?
DEMNA — We are so privileged in fashion to go to shows and be able to do these things. This is what I miss about doing shows — that moment of triggering emotion, triggering memory. It’s about creating an iconic set and having a deeper conceptual message behind it. There’s always a political or sociopolitical aspect to what I do. Like the red carpet we did for The Simpsons premiere, questioning the idea of celebrity … but not criticizing. Who am I to criticize? I just question it. It’s up to you to judge who is the star. Is it the model who nobody knows? Or is it Cardi B? That’s really the question. For me, both are stars, and both can be stars if there is a red carpet. If there is no red carpet, maybe none of them are. Society gives us all these boxes, and I like to play with them. To question them. I’m really a voyeur because I like to observe, and this observation becomes an inspiration. I’m a tool for a higher creative power to use me, so I can absorb information, process it, and then put out an idea.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, for you, the fashion designer is a voyeur? Someone who observes.
DEMNA — You have to be because otherwise you become too much of a dreamer. I need to be connected to reality, to be able to dress this world around me in a way that makes people happy and cool and fashionable, and gives them an identity and style. Fashion needs to be much more rooted in society. That’s why people put me into the street… But the street is the reality. High society and the ballroom in Vienna — that’s not the reality of people. Reality is: you put on your hoodie, you go outside, and you need to protect yourself.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Yes. But when we are talking about the connection between your design and reality, there’s another level that is spectacular and interesting. Your fashion transforms reality because you have an impact on the street, on the way people dress.
DEMNA — That’s something I didn’t realize until recently, here in Switzerland, when I saw some skater kids on the street. They were probably 14 or 16, and the looks and the silhouettes of those kids literally looked like my designs. The contrast of the silhouette, the oversized, the play with proportions, super long sleeves, all the elements that I’ve built into my aesthetic — because it was the way I dressed as a teenager, as a student in Antwerp. But it was hard for me to bring it into fashion because people would often put me in boxes or say, “Oh, that’s ugly.” It has become the style of a generation. And this is the same style for which I was bullied, for which I would get in trouble and fights growing up in Soviet Georgia, and even while living in Paris. I had to suffer for this style because it was something I always loved. Now, it has become an acceptable norm. Not only in fashion, but on the street. And that, for me, is perhaps my biggest success in this industry — that something for which I suffered is now worth so much. It’s more of a réussite [success] for me than having made a beautiful, amazing couture dress because that’s easier to do.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, listening to you, I understand that the most important aspect of fashion is the silhouette.
DEMNA — I think so. It’s the silhouette, but it’s also the identity and the message it gives. Because people judge us by our appearance. They don’t ask who you are, what’s your name, what book did you read… They see what you wear, and this sends info to their brain saying, “Oh, this is a clochard [vagrant]” or “This isn’t a rich businessman.” I mean, so many interesting adventures still happen to me here in Zurich, where I live, where people don’t let me into the bank because they think I live on the street. Recently, a friend invited me to an upscale restaurant in Paris. I was wearing big rubber boots, dressed like a fisherman [laughs], and they didn’t want to let me in. My friend had to tell them, “It’s okay, he’s with me.” If she hadn’t, they wouldn’t have let me in because I look like a fisherman. And I don’t belong in a caviar restaurant. Society is so fucked up in the way it places us into these visual identity boxes. My job is to keep pushing those buttons because it’s exciting to be like, “Actually, I look like a clochard, but I can pay for this Michelangelo.”

OLIVIER ZAHM — It was Comme des Garçons who first introduced the clochard in a collection in ’84, right?
DEMNA — Yes, but what does it mean? Why do you look down at that style? Because a lot of people who don’t have money and who don’t have the possibility to buy designer clothes — they have much more understanding of style than the elite. I mean, there is a communist still in me, but I have to say that it’s true. When you have too much money, you lose that sense of style because you don’t have to be creative anymore. You can buy your identity by buying the brand, by buying a watch, a diamond, whatever. And when you don’t have it, when you have to be creative with a roll of toilet paper, that’s when you really can make something new.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, you are indeed a true cyberpunk designer, Demna. Because you still like to disrupt or to create a certain fear around your designs, right?
DEMNA — Fashion has to be a bit dangerous; otherwise it’s boring. That’s why I like to wear my fake fur slippers and go to a bank in Zurich. And everybody looks at me like I come from space, but now they know me. They know that I’m a customer, that I don’t live outside of the bank on the street, but it took some time. And this is changing the mindset of people. Even the security guy who works there — now he accepts people dressed like me.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And you still love black. Is it still your favorite color?
DEMNA — How can I not love black? Black contains all the colors when they are put together. And I saw this color so much when I was growing up because in Georgia people wear black. You cannot wear color there.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Especially for the boys, right? The boys are all in black.
DEMNA — Yeah. If I wore a red hoodie in Georgia, they would say, “Oh, you’re gay.” And I would get hit by someone on the street for that. So, to fit in, you wear black all the time. Since I was 10, I’ve worn black. So, it’s a bit in my culture, but black is also the Balenciaga color. And for me, a real fashion look — really, really, fashion — cannot be any other color.

OLIVIER ZAHM — I wanted to ask you about your casting. I realized that the best way to approach the future is through people — by defining a category of people with attitudes, bodies, and faces prepared to move toward the future.
DEMNA — It’s a bit like casting a movie, and it’s evolving all the time. How I choose my models is: I see the people, their attitude, the way they move, the way they talk. I don’t follow ideal standards of beauty. For me, everyone is beautiful in some way. I don’t concentrate on that — I concentrate on personality. These are the people I would like to hang out with because they’re cool, they have personality, they have opinions. Gender doesn’t matter, and there is no age. There are people who are older, who are very young, in the middle. And now we have a big family that represents Balenciaga in a way that sometimes a celebrity can’t.

OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s beautiful and inspiring for an editor like me. I had this discussion with Juergen Teller about the next Balenciaga story in Purple. I said to him: “Juergen, the most interesting thing right now is the casting. And this idea of the red carpet, which suddenly gives a moment of being a celebrity to every cast member. We don’t know who these people are, but suddenly they are wearing Balenciaga next to a celebrity. It’s incredible.” He said, “Okay, I will do the same thing with my studio.” He wanted me to tell you that. There are around 20 people working in his studio, and they will all wear Balenciaga.
DEMNA — I love that. That’s smart. The red carpet was an interesting experience because I never really did that before — mix celebrities and the fashion industry. The cast and some of the team members were also on the red carpet. Suddenly, society thinks you are a celebrity, just because of two minutes… I love that. This is the magic of what fashion can do. And I’m happy to be able to play this magic game because it brings us further.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s fun, and it’s also a reflection of where we are now because of the power of the media, and fashion is itself part of the media now.
DEMNA — Absolutely. Fashion has become entertainment — like music, movies, and everything else.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s incredible how fashion has become so powerful. But it’s also a responsibility because you have to use this power in an interesting way. And that’s a real responsibility, no?
DEMNA — Exactly.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Because now, as a designer, you’re not just part of the art world — you’re part of pop culture.
DEMNA — Yes. Pop culture is also interesting at the moment, what you can do with it. It’s cool to mix everything together and play with that.

OLIVIER ZAHM — How do you feel about pop culture?
DEMNA — I’m critical of it, but I embrace it because it’s part of my culture as well. This is why it’s easy and natural for me to put those things together. But pop culture can also be dangerous and horrible in some ways. So, we have to put a spotlight on it and say, “This is something to think about.”

OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s why I see you as a very Warholian designer. It makes sense with your work because you absorb pop culture, but you transform it. There’s a bit of irony in the way you approach it, which makes pop culture interesting.
DEMNA — Yes. Warhol is a big influence on my conceptual thinking, and Warhol was very influenced by Duchamp and the ready-made and all the things that ultimately created today’s pop culture. It’s part of my artistic upbringing and what I can identify with easily. I’m not an artist, I’m a designer, but I use those elements and tools in my fashion design, in a similar way that they were used in Pop Art many decades before. Art used to be much more advanced than fashion. I don’t think it is today.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Interesting. When you received the CFDA [Council of Fashion Designers of America] prize, you stood up for American fashion. I didn’t know that American fashion was so important to you. Can you expand on that?
DEMNA — [Laughs] When I’m talking about American fashion, I’m talking about t-shirts, jeans, and hoodies, about all these elements of today’s wardrobe, of today’s society — all the things that were invented in America and that are so important in the way we dress today. But for me, style — if we can place it in one country — is only French. It’s only in Paris.





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The Future Issue #37 S/S 2022

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