Can Balenciaga Find Redemption?

The fashion house’s controversial campaign imagery incited a catastrophic uprising, with accusations of child exploitation.

Fashion 
57,141 Hypes 87 Comments

Demna’s Balenciaga has found success through tongue-in-cheek provocation. But after the release of two controversial campaigns — one showing children with bondage-clad teddy bear bags and another featuring a SCOTUS document about child pornography laws — the brand has reached an unforeseen level of public abhorrence, sparking a massive social media uprising under the #CANCELBALENCIAGA hashtag.

On November 28, following two failed Instagram apologies and amidst heightened internet trolling, the brand came forward with a statement claiming responsibility for its actions. “We strongly condemn child abuse; it was never our intent to include it in our narrative. The two separate ad campaigns in question reflect a series of grievous errors for which Balenciaga takes responsibility,” the statement read. “We want to learn from our mistakes and identify ways we can contribute.”

Are the brand’s repentant moves under unprecedented scrutiny tantamount to a reputation redemption? Or, will Balenciaga be permanently tainted by this headline-hogging scandal?

Here are the facts: On November 16, Balenciaga published a holiday campaign, titled Balenciaga Gift Shop, that pictured six children holding plush bear bags with BDSM-inspired harnesses, fishnet tops and handcuffs. Five days later, the label dropped its separate 2023 Garde-Robe advertising campaign, which featured the Balenciaga x adidas Hourglass handbag on a desk along with a printed excerpt from the 2008 U.S. Supreme Court ruling United States v. Williams, which upheld penalties for the sexual exploitation of children and additional forms of child abuse. Fueling the storm further, the campaign included an art book, titled As Sweet As It Gets, by Belgian painter Michaël Borremans, whose work the David Zwirner gallery describes as “toddlers engaged in playful but mysterious acts with sinister overtones and insinuations of violence.”

Shortly after their debut, the images spurred an internet uprising for their inappropriate condoning of child exploitation. On Twitter, one user shared the inflammatory images from both campaigns, writing, “the brand ‘Balenciaga’ just did a uh ….. interesting … photo shoot for their new products recently which included a very purposely poorly hidden court document about ‘virtual child porn.’ normal stuff.” The tweet prompted a legion of subsequent social media posts accusing Balenciaga of promoting a “child pornography campaign,” and what followed can only be defined as one of fashion’s most intense firestorms that has not only traversed the internet, but also the dockets of political news outlets and right-wing conspiracy theorists.

On TikTok, the #CANCELBALENCIAGA hashtag has amassed more than 120 million views and is filled with creators cutting up their Balenciaga bags, burning the brand’s Speed Trainers and removing logo posters from their walls. Like any viral moment on the internet, the trend caught on like wildfire, catapulting the brand to its smeared state. As criticism surged, others pushed the narrative out of proportion: the Fox News show Tucker Carlson Tonight — which has helped publicize outlandish QAnon-propagated conspiracy theories (one of which accuses Balenciaga of practicing satanic rituals) — picked up the story, condemning the brand for promoting “sex with children.”

On November 23, one week after the pushback began, Balenciaga issued two apologies regarding the scandal on social media. The first addressed the plush bears, which the fashion house said “should not have been featured with children in this campaign.” Arriving hours later, the second applied to the “unsettling documents” present in the Spring 2023 campaign. The brand wrote, “We take this matter very seriously and are taking legal action against the parties responsible for creating the set and including unapproved items for our Spring 2023 campaign photoshoot. We strongly condemn abuse of children in any form. We stand for children safety and well-being.”

Gabriele Galimberti, the Italian documentary photographer behind the infamous holiday campaign, released his own statement the following day, claiming no responsibility over the controversial images. “I am not in a position to comment on Balenciaga’s choices, but I must stress that I was not entitled in whatsoever manner to neither chose the products, nor the models, nor the combination of the same,” he wrote. “As a photographer, I was only and solely requested to lit the given scene, and take the shots according to my signature style.”

On November 25, Balenciaga filed a lawsuit in New York court, seeking damages of at least $25 million USD from the production company North Six, Inc. and Nicholas Des Jardins, who designed the set for the Garde-Robe campaign.

The summons with notice document alleged that North Six and Des Jardins participated in “inexplicable acts and omissions” that were “malevolent or, at the very least, extraordinarily reckless.” To put it simply, Balenciaga claimed that the documents were included in the campaign without their knowledge or authorization, and that, as a result, “members of the public, including the news media, have falsely and horrifically associated Balenciaga with the repulsive and deeply disturbing subject of the court decision.”

However, some believed the court filings were the brand’s attempt to absolve itself from any fault. According to Amelia K. Brankov, an attorney for Des Jardins and his company, “there certainly was no malevolent scheme going on.” In a statement, she noted that the documents were sourced from “numerous boxes” in a prop house, adding, “representatives from Balenciaga were present at the shoot, overseeing it and handling papers and props, and Des Jardins as a set designer was not responsible for image selection from the shoot.” Any decision of this magnitude would need to make its way to Balenciaga’s top executives.

On Friday, Balenciaga President and CEO Cédric Charbit released a statement to the press detailing the brand’s action items, which included the immediate establishment of an Image Board “responsible for evaluating the nature of [the brand’s] content from concept” as well as grants for organizations that protect children. Elsewhere, however, he stated that the Spanish luxury house will no longer pursue litigation, raising questions as to what exactly bolstered Balenciaga’s decision to rescind its serve. Is Balenciaga simply taking ownership over its defaming campaign imagery? Or, would a lengthy lawsuit worsen the brand’s public image? Regardless, to court, Balenciaga will not go.

While Balenciaga has expertly followed the handbook for responding to a controversy, with prompt apologies and concrete action items, the aftermath is still writing itself. On November 28, Business of Fashion announced that it would no longer present its 2022 Global Voices Award to Demna. “At BoF, we hold the safety of children in the highest regard,” the publication said. “And like many, we have been seeking the truth about how children appeared with BDSM-inspired products in Balenciaga’s recent campaign images, which are wholly inconsistent with our values.”

As the social media ire continues, Balenciaga’s reputation could be permanently damaged. The internet’s decision to slash, ablaze and tear their Balenciaga items is unequivocally rooted in moral righteousness, but it’s important to note that creators have not exhibited such a fiery response toward previously disgraced designer labels. Why didn’t people cut up their Alexander Wang pieces when he was taken down with several sexual assault allegations in 2020? Where were the lighters for YEEZY’s sneakers when Ye showed a “White Lives Matter” T-shirt during the brand’s Season 9 show in Paris, this October? Of course, the social media movement is backed with good intentions, but it’s fair to say that Balenciaga’s defamation has moved into uncharted territory because of it.

And what will that mean for sales? Kering does not disclose the annual revenue for Balenciaga, but HSBC estimated that the brand made roughly $1.81 billion USD in sales last year. This run of controversy, coupled with Balenciaga’s recently-severed relationship with Ye, puts the brand at high risk of experiencing a financial dip. For example, after Gucci released a turtleneck sweater that resembled racist blackface tropes in 2018, BoF reported that the brand’s sales had only risen 20% when the brand had seen a 49% increase the year prior.

One of the more pressing questions, though, is the fate of Balenciaga’s creative director Demna, who took to social media on Friday to share an official statement. “I want to personally apologize for the wrong artistic choice of concept for the gifting campaign with the kids and I take my responsibility. It was inappropriate to have kids promote objects that had nothing to do with them,” he wrote, before stating that he needs to “learn from this” and “engage with child protection organizations” to help halt child abuse.

The lead designer, who oversaw both of the brand’s controversial campaigns, could be nearing the end of his stint at Balenciaga’s helm. Kering has already nudged Alessandro Michele out of the high seat at Gucci due to slipping sales, so it’s not unreasonable to think they’ll show Demna the door as well. The future of Balenciaga, and Demna’s place in it, remains uncertain, though it looks like its headed for financial decline and executive change. Sure, the brand has checked all the boxes on its apology tour, but that’s as much as it can do. Some like to think that fashion has a bad memory, and in some cases, that statement holds true. But in this instance, it’s clear that Balenciaga’s disturbing imagery will never be forgotten.

Read Full Article

What to Read Next

Demna Addresses Balenciaga's Ad Campaign Controversy
Fashion

Demna Addresses Balenciaga's Ad Campaign Controversy

“It was inappropriate to have kids promote objects that had nothing to do with them.”

Balenciaga's Latest Runner Sneaker Will Get Your Spidey Senses Tingling
Footwear

Balenciaga's Latest Runner Sneaker Will Get Your Spidey Senses Tingling

Peter Parker’s perfect kicks could be yours for $1,150 USD.

Balenciaga's Winter 2022 "360° Collection" HD Sneaker Arrives in "Fluo Pink"
Footwear

Balenciaga's Winter 2022 "360° Collection" HD Sneaker Arrives in "Fluo Pink"

Available for pre-order now.


Every Item Dropping From Balenciaga's adidas Spring 2023 Collection
Fashion

Every Item Dropping From Balenciaga's adidas Spring 2023 Collection

Gimp mask not included.

First Look at the Footwear in Tremaine Emory's Guest Capsule With Dior
Footwear

First Look at the Footwear in Tremaine Emory's Guest Capsule With Dior

Set to be revealed in Dior’s Fall 2023 menswear collection.

Houston Man Arrested and Charged With Murder of Takeoff
Music

Houston Man Arrested and Charged With Murder of Takeoff

Police arrested 33-year-old Patrick Xavier Clark on Thursday evening.

Free & Easy Links with Lusso Cloud For Lavish Lampin' Footwear
Footwear

Free & Easy Links with Lusso Cloud For Lavish Lampin' Footwear

The ultimate house shoes.

Aries x XOUXOU Brings Street Style to Phone Accessories
Fashion 

Aries x XOUXOU Brings Street Style to Phone Accessories

Appearing in exotic green snake print.

Maison Margiela and Reebok Present the Classic Leather Tabi Nylon
Footwear

Maison Margiela and Reebok Present the Classic Leather Tabi Nylon

The latest from the luxury and sportswear brand crossover.


adidas Basketball Unveils Its New “Remember The Why” Collection
Fashion

adidas Basketball Unveils Its New “Remember The Why” Collection

The Three Stripes’ Latest hoops apparel collection carries heavy Fear of God influences.

Nike Air Max 1 "Ugly Duckling" Pack Adds a "Ceramic" Colorway to Its Arsenal
Footwear

Nike Air Max 1 "Ugly Duckling" Pack Adds a "Ceramic" Colorway to Its Arsenal

Referencing the brand’s “Ugly Duckling” Dunk collection from ‘01.

Balenciaga Issues Statement on Ad Campaign Controversy, Will Not Pursue Litigation Against Production Company
Fashion

Balenciaga Issues Statement on Ad Campaign Controversy, Will Not Pursue Litigation Against Production Company

The statement also notes the company will put “new control instances” into practice and that executives will go on a “listening tour.”

Closer Look at the SOULGOODS x Nike Dunk High "'00s"
Footwear

Closer Look at the SOULGOODS x Nike Dunk High "'00s"

The final entry in the duo’s three-part series.

Latto, GloRilla and Gangsta Boo Team Up for Fast-Paced Club Banger “FTCU”
Music

Latto, GloRilla and Gangsta Boo Team Up for Fast-Paced Club Banger “FTCU”

Arriving with an official music video.

More ▾
 
Subscribe to our Newsletter

Gain access to exclusive interviews with industry creatives, think pieces, trend forecasts, guides and more.

By subscribing, you agree to our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.

Looks like you’re using an ad-blocker

We charge advertisers instead of our readers. Support us by whitelisting our site.

Whitelist Us

How to Whitelist Us

screenshot
  1. Click the AdBlock icon in the browser extension area in the upper right-hand corner.
  2. Under “Pause on this site” click “Always”.
  3. Refresh the page or click the button below to continue.
screenshot
  1. Click the AdBlock Plus icon in the browser extension area in the upper right-hand corner.
  2. Block ads on – This website” switch off the toggle to turn it from blue to gray.
  3. Refresh the page or click the button below to continue.
screenshot
  1. Click the AdBlocker Ultimate icon in the browser extension area in the upper right-hand corner.
  2. Switch off the toggle to turn it from “Enabled on this site” to “Disabled on this site”.
  3. Refresh the page or click the button below to continue.
screenshot
  1. Click the Ghostery icon in the browser extension area in the upper right-hand corner.
  2. Click on the “Ad-Blocking” button at the bottom. It will turn gray and the text above will go from “ON” to “OFF”.
  3. Refresh the page or click the button below to continue.
screenshot
  1. Click the UBlock Origin icon in the browser extension area in the upper right-hand corner.
  2. Click on the large blue power icon at the top.
  3. When it turns gray, click the refresh icon that has appeared next to it or click the button below to continue.
screenshot
  1. Click the icon of the ad-blocker extension installed on your browser.You’ll usually find this icon in the upper right-hand corner of your screen. You may have more than one ad-blocker installed.
  2. Follow the instructions for disabling the ad blocker on the site you’re viewing.You may have to select a menu option or click a button.
  3. Refresh the page or click the button below to continue.