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Rebels With Applause: Balenciaga Cheers Bernie Sanders

By Jackie Mallon

Jan 19, 2017

Fashion

In the Balenciaga Fall 2017 menswear show yesterday, designer Demna Gvasalia plastered Bernie Sanders’s campaign-style graphics on the back of bomber jackets, on T-shirts, on scarfs as big as blankets, and even on nail art, leaving us to deduce that the “it boy” of international luxury fashion, the darling of press, buyers and parent company Kering, is also a Bernie Bro.

The Balenciaga show notes indicate corporate officewear as the designer’s inspiration and tailored suiting and Wall Street beige trench coats were on full display. But how ironic that Sanders, who stood for blue-collar, working- and middle-class, anti-corporate values, and who wore an ill-fitting department store suit and scuffed shoes throughout the election, should find himself transported into the upper echelons of Paris fashion, his imprint on 4000 dollar satin bomber jackets. These really are strange times. Then again, maybe not…

Blue Collar Style Icon

Gvasalia presented his collection in Paris mere days before the 45th president of the United States takes office and it’s safe to say there has never been a more controversial choice for the office. Balenciaga’s spotlight on Sanders is noteworthy given that the “also-rans” in any political campaign are usually the quickest forgotten, their loss rendering them immediately irrelevant, the sight of their promotional stickers on car windows and half-ripped posters on walls like seeing Christmas decorations still hanging in February. It’s unprecedented that a losing candidate (who, in this case, never made it past the primaries) suddenly becomes cooler. Al Gore after the 2000 election dived nobly into environmentalism while John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012 retreated back into the relatively unfashionable world of politics. Sweatshirts recalling their old campaign logos might have been worn to clean out the garage but were in no danger of becoming the latest global must-have, waiting-list item.

Independent spirit

To many, Bernie Sanders looms romantically as the one who got away, the symbol of an alternative reality, a Vaseline-edged sepia-toned vision of a future that also brings the best of the past. But that slipped through our fingers. Circles of friends continue to enthusiastically debate whether he would have won; countless memes have been created around the what if. Fashion deals in romance and aspiration to lift us from a dull (or frightening) reality. Fashion chases youth to be relevant and Sanders, despite being aged 75, was the most popular choice in that desirable Millennial age bracket. Fashion is endlessly inspired by the indie, the rebel, the outsider, and Sanders, while literally appealing to registered Independents, also embodied the anti-establishment lone hero that is eternally appealing in popular culture.

The Balenciaga collection is a striking statement from Gvasalia, a young man brought up in the former Soviet Union now residing in Paris’s ivoriest of towers as the crowned prince of high fashion. Is he holding up a mirror for us to take a look at ourselves? The U.S. fashion industry rallied almost unanimously behind Hillary Clinton, led by the ultimate cheerleader, Anna Wintour, whose Vogue magazine endorsed a candidate for the first time in its history. In our celebrity-filled culture, Clinton’s famous supporters––George Clooney, Madonna, Meryl Streep, Beyoncé––represented the Hollywood A-list outdazzling the most prominent supporters of Sanders––Susan Sarandon, Mark Ruffalo, Shailene Woodley, and Sarah Silverman. To put it in another context, in terms of profile, it was a battle of the Oscars versus Sundance. But with Gvasalia’s instacred among the cool kids, and Bernie’s on-the-ground galvanizing of college-age voters nationwide, one could argue that this is one visionary doffing his cap to another.

In the end the blockbuster concept of a female president was sexier in the furthering of today’s identity politics, and came with ready-made branding on the heels of the first African American. The rise of an old crotchety democratic socialist in much less colorful and poorer-tailored pant suits than his opponent was a harder sell to fashion’s corporate elite. But on the streets an anti-establishment movement grew to be almost as powerful as Anna Wintour’s, and the rest of the world, post-Brexit, watched anxiously, shouting at their TVs, in what became perhaps the most widely viewed reality TV show finale ever.

Fashion for a Reality TV Presidency

In the weeks before his inauguration the president-elect has been busy assembling a cabinet that represents big business for the bloated 1 percent. This was cleverly reflected in Balenciaga’s oversized tailoring, exaggerated shoulders and irreverently off-kilter shirt and tie boardroom combinations. Gvasalia’s corporate agenda does not go unchecked: it’s worn with dodgy dad-sneakers, nerdy glasses, demure leather Jackie O-style pocketbooks that loop around the wrist, slacks with awkward bunching crotches and super low-slung waists cinched with disco-glittery belts. A model carrying shopping bags in fine griege leather suggested a businessman skulking into his corner office after doing some clandestine lunchtime shopping, perhaps even a little slinky something for his mistress lurking inside that slim high-end tote.

The collection ultimately demonstrated a healthy disrespect for corporate culture that bordered on contempt, similar to the sentiment behind Sanders’s interrogation this week of Trump’s pick for Secretary of Education when he asked, “Do you think if your family had not made hundreds of millions of dollars of contributions to the Republican party, you’d be sitting here today?” or his chastisement of Trump’s Secretary of Health who responded to a question on universal healthcare with “We are a compassionate society.” “No,” interrupted Sanders, “in terms of our relationship to poor and working people, we are not a compassionate society. Our record is worse than virtually any major country on earth.”

Bipartisan Fashion

Balenciaga's placement of the Bernie-style graphics on both Republican red and Democrat blue could be seen as a manifestation of what many people continue to believe: that Sanders may have been the best shot at bringing together both sides of the aisle. That, we’ll never know. But It’s encouraging to think that cool young fashion-forward labelites in Paris and Berlin and Tokyo and Oslo will wear these color combinations, this new Balenciaga logo, with little regard for where the graphic originated or its political significance to the U.S. primaries. That’s the power of fashion. It trumps all partisanship and creates new tribes with new codes to unite people.

Meanwhile, post-election, Sanders continues to do exactly what he did during the election: travel the country, organizing and pushing his anti-corporate agenda wearing sloppy tailoring and scuffed shoes, questioning the ideologies of both parties, and popping up in the most unexpected of places.

Still, not even his most avid supporter would have predicted he’d make it to the Paris runways. Surely this is proof that an alternative reality isn’t as far off as it may seem. Sentez le Bern!

By contributing guest editor Jackie Mallon, who is on the teaching faculty of several NYC fashion programmes and is the author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.

Photos from Balenciaga Facebook. Jackie Mallon, Shailene Woodley Facebook.