Lately, it seems, we are ever oscillating between doom and absurdity. It's interesting to see how that manifests in advertising. Which brands will continue as normal (in some cases, a perfectly reasonable approach)? Who will ride the wave of social upheaval like it's trendy? Who will seize on all this chaos to make something surprising?
Ponder those rhetorical queshies while watching Balenciaga's Summer 20 video.
Context: Balenciaga's creative direction is now led by Georgian designer Demna Gvasalia, a self-avowed "creative activist." In 2017 he released a line inspired by branded corporate wear, whose distinctive look and feel was conflated with the Bernie Sanders campaign logo—itself an unintended message about how closely campaign design codes model corporate ones. (Oops!)
Late last year, Gvasalia told the Financial Times, "I try to channel people … Like that horrible movie What Women Want, where Mel Gibson hears women's thoughts and it gives him this magic power."
He's certainly channeling something. The video is long and hypnotic. The music jaunts; it's brainwashy. We're looking at a reel of canned news—repetitive, but creepy as you settle on details. The reporters talk, but we can't hear them; their mouths are black voids.
What they have to say doesn't matter. The stories scroll along the ticker, somehow both clickbaity and ambivalent. They interchange, reflecting how most local news is just pre-purchased filler, indistinguishable from entertainment.
They rehash the same messages, over and over.
Planets realign. Sunglasses required. No more traffic jams! Where is the water going? Pedestrians are back.
Is any of this good or bad news? Under "Planets realign," figures who recall the sharp silhouette of Karl Lagerfeld gaze into a solar eclipse, eyes obscured by sunglasses. Sometimes we talk about planetary alignment in a positive way: When a conversation clicks, the planets align. But it's also used as a cue to predict the arrival of the antichrist.
"Where is the water going?" This ticker topic is the most visibly terrifying; it's accompanied only by the sight of a huge natural basin swirling downward. Scylla and Charybdis come to mind, and sinkholes. Water scarcity is among the least-discussed topics in our apocalyptic media diet, yet it ever worsens somewhere nearby, waiting to matter to us personally.
We're reminded of the existential horror of the BP oil spill. In the same way people couldn't stop watching live footage of oil bleeding into the sea, infecting marine life with sticky tar, our eyes followed the swirling water with the dreaded sense that "nature" is actively running away from us. That's where the water is going: somewhere we can't follow.
Even the seemingly positive "Pedestrians are back" brought the French transport strikes to mind. They disrupted Parisian mobility for so long that pedestrian activity had no choice but to rise. The spike in pedestrian, bicycle and scooter traffic led to more accidents in a city where walking is already a tricky proposition at best.
We thought of this while watching Balenciaga's stylish pedestrians traverse roads, decked head to toe in discordant fashion. The pleasant sight of so many people on foot can signal or obscure less positive signs: a struggle for diminishing pensions in the latter case, or more opportunities to get hurt in the former—road rage also rose during the strikes.
All this makes a bleak backdrop to Balenciaga's Summer 2020 line—we literally watch the sun disappear! But hey—huge shoulders are back, and sunglasses come in all shapes. In one scene, a guy appears in the background and sets a Hello Kitty Balenciaga bag on his desk.
So-called marketing experts would be hard pressed to label this approach as favorable for the clothes. Luxury defines aspirational industry, doesn't it? But here, the silhouettes are harsh, and the lighting brings basic cable to mind: It's grim, gray and dull, cut only by the shades of blue used to denote tickers and news interstitials.
But it's also echoing something deep, dark and undeniably present in the current cultural egregore. I don't know about you, but for me, it's hard to go about life as I understood it growing up: buying the home, making 2.5 kids, shooting car porn and pretending House Earth isn't raging all around me. All this while our politics hinge on who can give better meme.
That's what draws the eye, really. This hundred-year-old institution of fashion isn't going to content itself with infuriating aspirational fairy tales. It acknowledges the chaos and accompanying sense of mild insanity that comes with it. More than that, it calls out the media drones and cogs of the everyday—figurants of personal or corporate branding, posing meaningfully onscreen as the tickers beneath belch their ambivalent prophecies.
We're being gaslit, even as our emotions are stirred to boiling.
Watching it feels unpleasant, even morbid. But I also feel galvanized, angry in a useful way. I feel less crazy.
With no words, the video seems to say, Here is where we are. We hold space for it, even as the show goes on. Maybe by acknowledging this new reality, we can acknowledge how we, too, feel like cogs, play-acting a normalcy that increasingly feels absurd. Maybe we can begin to console each other, start hearing again instead of yelling.
And maybe, after those first uncertain steps into the void, we can agree on what we value now. Not before, but now.
Frankly, what's more aspirational than that?