Last winter, Balenciaga creative director Demna Gvasalia attracted tremendous attention when he riffed on Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign logo in that label’s FW17 menswear show. Here, Gvasalia, no stranger to appropriating corporate graphics, spelled out the venerable Parisian couture house’s name in Sanders’ now-iconic logo, splashing it across tees and polos, hoodies and blankets, and even including it on lapel pins. Clearly, Gvasalia liked the results, later including this reworked “rip-off” logo on pumps in his women’s FW17 ready-to-wear collection, too.
What this all meant though was anyone’s guess. Gvasalia, who knows mystery generates interest, has remained mostly silent on the subject. And though Bernie Sanders himself chuckled and said he was no “fashion maven” when asked about Balenciaga by CNN’s Jake Tapper, no one has yet produced a cohesive explanation of Gvasalia’s likely intentions or what the so-called “Berlenciaga” logo might mean to the greater world. Seeking answers, we went straight to the source, asking a number of young Bernie Sanders supporters why they’d “felt the Bern” back in 2016 and what they thought of the collection and its now infamous logo.
Most of the people we talked to liked Bernie because of his leftist values and seeming refusal to respect a political establishment mired in corporate interests. “His campaign expanded people’s—especially young people’s—political imagination in a way that was exciting against the backdrop of neoliberal, centrist Democratic Party politics,” explained Anna Bisikalo, a recent graduate of Wesleyan University with a degree in political science and Russian and Eastern European studies.
Max Berlinger, a freelance writer who works for The New York Times and other leading national publications, liked that Sanders backed up his progressive viewpoints with years of experience in both the Congress and Senate. “He’d been in politics a long time, but didn’t subscribe to the moderate politics of the mainstream,” he said.
Indeed he didn’t. Though he ran as a Democrat in 2016, Sanders is actually an Independent and a self-proclaimed Democratic Socialist. Of course, Gvasalia has his own personal connection to Socialism, having been born in 1981 in the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic mere years before the Soviet Union collapsed. He’s also been hailed as one of the leading proponents of “Post-Soviet” chic, a style Highsnobiety named the most important trend of 2016, later acknowledging that it might also have its “problematic” aspects. The possible Socialist allusions to both Sanders and Demna’s own personal history contained in Bernie logo bite was not lost on respondents
“Socialism is trendy now, for better or for worse,” Ms. Bisikalo said. She also saw references to the tumultuous break up of the Soviet Union in Gvasalia’s work. “The style of this collection definitely brings to mind how people in the post-Soviet sphere dressed,” she said, noting that the “long, ill-fitting coats, sneakers, and general incongruity” of Gvasalia’s designs reminded her of her own experiences in the Ukraine.
Those we talked to also cited humor, subversion, and irony as possible motives for Gvasalia’s tweak on Bernie’s campaign logo, especially since it appeared on hoodies and windbreakers that are now retailing for $650 and $1,695, respectively. “Listen, I think it’s funny. I mean, Bernie has nothing to do with Balenciaga. They appropriated his iconography. It’s subversive,” Mr. Berlinger explained.
Others saw more complex, possibly political commentary in the juxtaposition between Sanders’ down-home, New England socialism and Balenciaga’s elite status and prohibitively expensive price tags. “That inaccessible, high-fashion price tag is the result of a number of factors adjacent to politics, including capitalism, class stratification, and the need for fair compensation for those involved in its production and for workers in general,” argued fashion industry staffer Anya Schulman.
“Actual, existing socialism is a lofty and, as we're often told, impossible ideal. I see a parallel between the inaccessibility of that ideal and the inaccessibility of high fashion,” Ms. Bisikalo maintained. “High fashion sells concepts and emotions in the form of clothing. Political ideology also has to be sold. Perhaps Gvasalia is calling attention to that high price tag.”
But some didn’t see such high-minded motives in Demna’s logo jamming. Freelance writer Ian Browning pointed out that, “as a skateboarder I’m used to people re-appropriating cultures that I’m interested in so they can make money off them. And I think this is a pretty clear example of that.” Mr. Browning further explained that this was nothing new for Gvasalia. “The [Vetements] Snoop Dogg T-shirt and the Bernie shirt are the same thing. Taking things truly stylish people have been able to look cool in on the cheap, and telling others that it’ll cost them a grand.”
Ultimately, however, the one thing respondents could agree on was that Gvasalia’s Bernie logo grab was masterful marketing, perfectly targeted to attract maximum attention. “Branding oneself with a political alignment is powerful commodification,” Ms. Schulman remarked.
Mr. Berlinger went a step beyond that, noting that Gvasalia understands that online clout is the primary social currency of the day. “I remember when that show was going on and you’re on Twitter and boom, immediately that image is out there,” he said. “A lot of people try and do a lot of things to get their stuff out there, but he knows what works. He knows how to take those cultural signifiers and turn them into something, for lack of a better word, ‘meme-able.’”
And, if we’re all being honest with ourselves, viral “meme-ability” just might be the most important factor in creating memorable fashion in 2017, no matter what it says about politics, history, luxury, or irony.