Demna Gvasalia’s Balenciaga has never shied away from controversy. This week, the internet is rife with criticism of the self-proclaimed “world’s most expensive garbage bag,” which first appeared at Balenciaga’s AW22 parade in March, which Gvasalia dedicated to refugees from Ukraine.
The bag itself is a calfskin version of the typical black trash bag and is now on sale for $1,790 (about £1,500).
In May, the fashion house faced similar controversy when it released its ‘destroyed sneakers’ – battered, muddy and falling apart – which sold for $1,850 (about £1,500) a pair. While Gvasalia ditched items that should have been in the trash and instead took inspiration from the trash bag itself, he’s far from the first designer to base couture on what you can find in a tip.
I’m not talking about up-cycling here. In London, especially, there is a wonderful array of talented young designers pushing for sustainability in fashion: Helen Kirkum, Ahluwalia, Bethany Williams, Paolina Russo and Tolu Coker, to name just a few. But this article is not about them, nor about sustainable materials and practices. I’m talking about rot. Garbage, garbage, real garbage. Clothes that were deliberately ruined. Clothes that were once beautiful, that were deliberately twisted into something with a more poignant meaning or purpose.
With the help of the grunge aesthetic, the nineties had a particular fascination with trashed clothes. At the beginning of the decade, a designer put himself at the forefront of our minds and our nostrils. Mold is generally avoided by most (unless it’s on a stiletto piece), but for Cypriot stylist Hussein Chalayan, that was the whole point of the game.
Models never know what they’re going to win at the Central Saint Martins graduation show. When Chalayan showed his collection in 1993, I can’t imagine that they were overjoyed to find out that they would be walking down the catwalk in rusty, rotting rags. Months earlier, Chalayan had buried his entire collection in a friend’s garden, only to dig up days before the final show. Titled ‘The Tangent Flows’, its ambition was to highlight beauty in decay. To this day he remains one of London Fashion Week’s most legendary and innovative designers.
During the same year, Lee Alexander McQueen also showed his debut fashion collection. Long before the Balenciaga ‘garbage bag’, McQueen carried his belongings in garbage bags out of necessity. ‘Taxi Driver’ AW93 was his first graduate collection and was shown at the Ritz. After the show, McQueen and his friend Simon Ungless quickly piled the entire collection into garbage bags before heading to a party to celebrate editor Michael Roberts. Instead of paying the locker room fee, McQueen and Ungless decided to store the garbage bags behind some dumpsters around the building. When they left the party, the bags had been taken. None of this collection remains to this day.
McQueen, in particular, had a penchant for destroying his own creations. Taking something perfect and ripping it apart, making it as ugly as possible – in beautiful, mesmerizing ways. One of the most famous examples of this is her notorious ‘spray paint dress’, part of her spring 1999 collection titled ‘No. 13’. The only moment that made McQueen cry at one of his own shows was when model and dancer Shalom Harlow spun between two mechanical arms that sprayed her white dress with thick smears of black and yellow paint. He allowed robots to graffiti his collection and it became one of the most memorable moments in the history of fashion shows.
Before that, in 1998, Issey Miyake had a similar idea. Imagine a white dress, sleeveless and column. Now imagine burying it under explosives and lighting a match. That’s exactly what the Japanese designer did in 1998, when he collaborated with Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang, who used gunpowder to burn dragon images in the Pleats Please collection. It’s a show that it’s worth watching if you haven’t seen it yet (skip to 6m 20). These pieces, burned with dark splashes and explosives, are now worth around £3,000 each.
Burning has also become a feature of Jeremy Scott’s Moschino AW16 collection – inspired, of course, by cigarettes. Models, including Anna Cleveland, strutted down the catwalk while their dresses were alight, smoke billowing from their skirts as the edges curled and burned. Arguably, many of Scott’s Moschino collections include items that can also be found in the trash, but for his AW17 collection he literally sent a model dressed as an American trash can down the runway. Her black latex dress was made to look like the lining of the trash, while her hat was (literally) a large silver tin lid.
Personally, my favorite ‘trashion’ story belongs to John Galliano, who in 1985 showed his legendary Fallen Angels collection. Moments before the models walked out, Galliano made a rash decision that the shoes were too clean. He demanded that everyone get out and drag their shoes in the mud. Patrick Cox, who put blood, sweat and tears into making the shoes, confronted Galliano about the decision: “Don’t worry, they’re worth more money now because it’s designer mud, honey,” was Galliano’s response.
Whether it’s clothes that belong in the trash or fashion inspired by the trash, Balenciaga is not the first and will not be the last to take it out of the trash. But whether charging that much for an item inspired by and dedicated to people displaced by war is in good taste is up for debate.