When Balenciaga unveiled the campaign for its SS20 collection in a series of spoof political ads, it felt as though the brand was announcing its plans to run for the US presidency. Key looks from the SS20 range were paired with satirical campaign slogans like “We Vote For Tomorrow,” “Love Is For Everyone,” “Power Of Dreams,” and “Think Big.” One of its models was even made to look like an androgynous Bernie Sanders.
Fashion brands co-opting political themes and imagery nearly always comes across as lame, but Balenciaga’s new campaign is different. In contrast to most other clothing labels, which tend to adopt a kind of banal faux-punk politics, the SS20 promo is drenched in a knowing, sardonic snark that speaks volumes through its subtlety. Unlike Saturday Night Live or The Daily Show, which relies on low-brow, slapstick buffoonery to satirize current affairs, Balenciaga’s new campaign employs a quiet mockery as means of critiquing the current political moment. The brand’s tactically vapid slogans are completely meaningless word salads, yet are, at the same time, unnervingly similar to actual slogans used by real-life politicians on the campaign trail.
Lest we forget, it was only four short years ago that the Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson adopted “Our Best America Yet!” as his campaign slogan, as if Johnson’s party regularly builds new visions of America every few years to varying levels of success in much the same way that Apple manufactures iPhones. This might genuinely be more absurd than Balenciaga’s “We Vote For Tomorrow.” Meanwhile, this year, aspiring Democratic president Tulsi Gabbard opted for the hollow platitude of “Lead with Love,” which isn’t far removed from SS20’s “Love Is For Everyone.”
The word “genius” gets thrown around far too easily these days, but what makes the SS20 campaign so clever is how it reflects the genuine cynicism and disdain that so many people have towards politicians at the moment. Speaking as someone who earns a living from writing about politics, I clearly remember the 2016 presidential election being framed by the media as an epic battle between good and evil. This wasn’t merely perceived to be the most consequential vote in a generation — newspaper coverage made it seem like the final battle at the end of a Marvel movie. Yet, despite this supposed historical significance, only 55 percent of voters actually bothered to show up to the polls on election day. Nearly half of the electorate either couldn’t find time to do so or simply thought that it wasn’t worth the effort.
For many, if not most voters, the politicians they see on TV are barely distinguishable from those that appear in Balenciaga’s new campaign. They too talk in meaningless soundbites and empty platitudes that reek of insincerity. Turnout in elections has been steadily declining across much of the Western world for decades and politicians are regularly stuck to the bottom of “most trusted professions” tables, which hints at a growing disillusionment with the political process. Therein lies the brilliance of Balenciaga’s spoof propaganda: it captures the deadening nihilism that has infected contemporary democracy.
What makes this campaign even more interesting is that it doesn’t take the predictable route of attempting to mock Donald Trump or any of the other rightwing populists of the moment. Gvasalia quite clearly understands that Trump, as a kitschy TV show president, is beyond satire, and that the only person who can make him look any more ridiculous than he already is is Trump himself.
Instead, the Georgian designer takes his visual cues from more benign political actors: the US Democratic Party and the EU. When the SS20 collection debuted at Paris Fashion Week last September, Gvasalia described the runway show as a “Balenciaga parliament or assembly” and the whole runway was bathed in a shade of blue reminiscent of the European flag. Even the seating was arranged in a pattern reminiscent of the European Parliament’s hemicycle chamber. There could be a hidden significance to this. For the past 30 years or so, both organizations have been dominated by moderate, centrist politicians, most of whom tend to look the same, sound the same, and speak in the same hollow bromides that Balenciaga’s new collection satirizes.
Trump and other rightwing demagogues may be the beneficiaries of the widespread dissatisfaction that plagues modern democracies, but they did not cause it. The rot set in under their bland, sensible predecessors, who many voters dismiss as “all the same,” “just as bad as each other,” and “in it for themselves.” The men in suits who still make up the bulk of the Democratic Party and EU establishments sowed the seeds of the current populist era and Balenciaga’s SS20 collection could, therefore, be seen as a time capsule that will serve as an enduring reminder of the true culprits of our present political malaise.
But perhaps what’s most brilliant about this campaign is the fact that there’s an added potency in the fact that this critique has come from a clothing brand. Fashion is often dismissed as superficial and frivolous, whereas politics is supposed to be grownup and serious. So to have a fashion designer call out politicians for their perceived falseness is a pretty damning indictment of their current standing. Gvasalia is a man who hangs out at Fashion Week parties and trades in polyester, so there should be little doubt that he knows how to recognize fakeness when he sees it.