The Balenciaga Scandal: A Fashion Industry Storm

balenciaga scandal
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Balenciaga — the century-old luxury label is famous for doing things differently. From runway presentations of models flaunting couture pieces in unusual conditions to shooting peculiar product campaigns. This brand certainly knows how to remain at the forefront in a sea of upscale fashion houses. But, undoubtedly, what it does best is attract controversies! After the very recent “Kanye West” scene, the new Balenciaga scandal is about engaging in child porn. As absurd as it might sound, it’s true! The company dropped advertising campaigns featuring its latest collections while illustrating children as sex objects.

Over the years, many luxury and fast fashion brands have gone to great lengths to achieve success and dominate the competitive fashion industry. Often they ended up in scandalous activities! From the Temu controversy, and Shein controversy, to the American Apparel scandal, labels can do everything to grab the world’s attention. And Balenciaga is no different! But this time, as the audience’s fury towards the ongoing Balenciaga kids scandal intensifies, it seems like they have gone too far!

What is Balenciaga?

balenciaga scandal
Source: balenciaga / Instagaram

Balenciaga, a renowned luxury fashion house with a rich historical background, has contributed tremendously towards shaping the luxury fashion world. Established in 1919 by Spanish couturier Cristóbal Balenciaga in San Sebastian, Spain, the label quickly gained prominence for its innovative designs and impeccable craftsmanship. With headquarters in Paris, Balenciaga’s avant-garde approach to fashion challenged traditional norms and redefined haute couture with its sculptural silhouettes and daring use of materials.

Throughout its journey to prominence, the high fashion label has been adorned by an elite clientele, including royalty, Hollywood stars, and style icons. From the likes of Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly to contemporary celebrities like Rihanna and Kim Kardashian, the brand’s pieces have graced red carpets and high-profile events worldwide.

Under the creative direction of influential designers such as Nicolas Ghesquière and Demna Gvasalia, Balenciaga is celebrated for its edgy streetwear aesthetic and iconic Triple S sneakers.

What is the Balenciaga Scandal About?

The Balenciaga Scandal is all about accusations on the brand for promoting child pornography. Oh yes! You read that right! So last year, Balenciaga launched two attention-grabbing ad campaigns: “Gift Shop” for its holiday collection and another supporting its Spring 2023 line. The Gift Shop campaign sparked intense reactions on social media, and for good reasons. People criticized the brand for featuring children holding teddy bear-inspired bags with studs and harnesses alongside adult items, raising concerns about sexualizing kids.

Shortly after, the Spring 2023 campaign was dropped, adding to the controversy when eagle-eyed internet users spotted props related to a Supreme Court ruling on child exploitation. The storm caught pace as critics accused Balenciaga of crossing ethical boundaries. These incidents led to a heated debate about the brand’s choices and their impact on society.

The entire collection was a creation of Georgian fashion designer Demna Gvasalia who has been an integral part of Balenciaga since 2015. Demna has garnered quite a reputation for his provocative designs. Ever since he took over as the creative director of Balenciaga, the iconic fashion house has been consistently attracted to controversies for coming up with weird, unconventional, and hard-to-digest styles.

The Balenciaga Child Scandal Explained

In November 2022, Balenciaga launched its Christmas holiday ad campaign, showcasing disturbing images of children holding plush handbags that looked like teddy bears donned in bondage gear, such as harnesses, collars with locks, fishnets, and leather harnesses similar to BDSM accessories. The images represented child sexualization and sparked immediate outrage among the audience, igniting the #cancelBalenciaga trend on social media platforms like Twitter, TikTok, and Instagram. Critics accused the brand of promoting pedophilia and child exploitation.

And it doesn’t end there! Adding fuel to the fire, another campaign was aired later that month for their Spring Campaign 2023 collection displaying a bag from the Balenciaga X Adidas collaboration. This handbag was placed in an office setting, positioned on top of documents resembling those from the Supreme Court case United States v. Williams, linked to the 2003 PROTECT Act. According to this federal law, child pornography does not fall under the protection of free speech. What’s worse is partially visible under the bag, was a book titled “As Sweet as It Gets” by the Belgian artist Michaël Borremans, known for his offensive artwork that has caused controversy, as it portrays gruesome depictions of children engaging in unsettling, deranged, or aggressive behavior.

These Balenciaga campaign scandals became a hot topic in no time, attracting both conservative discussions and conspiracy theories.

Public Outcry and Backlash

The social media storm erupted swiftly, with users on Twitter first pointing out the controversial document in Balenciaga’s campaigns around November 20. Critics, including influential fashion commentators like Diet Prada, voiced their fury on platforms like Twitter. The scandal quickly gained traction in major media outlets, like The New York Post and  Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who covered it on his show “Tucker Carlson Tonight.” The situation worsened as the campaigns were accused of mainstreaming QAnon, a notorious conspiracy theory.

WARNING: Graphic footage: Fox News host Tucker Carlson rips the sexual exploitation of children and the media for ignoring Balenciaga child ‘bondage’ ad controversy on ‘Tucker Carlson Tonight.’

Kim Kardashian, a longtime Balenciaga ambassador, expressed her dismay with the brand and posted a story:

She added, “I am currently re-evaluating my relationship with the brand, basing it off their willingness to accept accountability for something that should have never happened to begin with.”

Julia Fox shared her thoughts through a series of statements on her social handles as well. She said, “I have zero relationship with the brand. I’ve never even been to one of their shows; they haven’t invited me,” Fox continued, “Regardless, I think it’s horrific, and when I was reading and watching all the videos I literally felt sick to my stomach.”

Meanwhile, Demna Gvasalia was all set to be honored with the Business of Fashion’s Global Voices Award. But as the scandal escalated, he faced severe backlash, leading to the rescinding of the prestigious award.

The fashion house eventually removed the campaigns from social media and issued an apology. But even after doing so, the public remains unforgiving. In fact, the recent statements have reignited the matter, with some accusing the brand of evading responsibility and others seeing it as another calculated marketing gimmick.

The Impact on Balenciaga’s Reputation

Several prominent personalities and media houses have criticized the Balenciaga ad scandal for such explicit and misguiding commercial shootings. Leading to the uproar, internet users have called out the brand and urged everyone to boycott it. Not just that, fans of the high-end label shared videos of themselves destroying their valuable Balenciaga items as a symbolic gesture.

As reported by Newsweek, a London street artist vandalized Balenciaga’s flagship store, spray-painting “pedophilia” on one of the windows. He said, “I did it due to the abhorrent photoshoots Balenciaga did.”  In addition, there were indications of another store close to the Rodeo Drive location in Beverly Hills being similarly defaced.

Addressing the Balenciaga Ad Scandal

Company’s Response

Balenciaga expressed regret for the entire string of events through an Instagram story, saying, “We sincerely apologize for any offense our holiday campaign may have caused. Our plush bear bags should not have been featured with children in this campaign. We have immediately removed the campaign from all platforms.” Shortly after, another statement addressing the Garde-Robe campaign (Balenciaga X Adidas) appeared on the brand’s Instagram Stories. It read, “We apologize for displaying unsettling documents in our campaign.” “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 23 campaign photo shoot. We strongly condemn the abuse of children in any form. We stand for children’s safety and well-being.”

balenciaga scandal

The luxury label’s President and CEO, Cédric Charbit, further explained in a statement to Vogue, “The artistic director oversees the creative. I take all the business decisions, have the final cut and responsibility. In between there are many steps, in terms of creation and validation, and several teams are involved in a collaborative way. All this was unintentional, but we collectively failed. I made the wrong judgment and take responsibility. We all learned from this and have taken actions and changed our ways of working so this never happens again.”

The artistic designer in question, Demna, too issued a statement as part of his interview, saying, “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.”

balenciaga scandal

On November 25, Balenciaga took legal action and filed a $25 million lawsuit against the production company North Six Inc. and set designer Nicholas Des Jardins, for the Balenciaga X Adidas campaign. The brand said that the documents were included in the campaign photographs without their knowledge, leading to false associations with child pornography. However, North Six Inc. defended itself, stating that the items were sourced from a prop house. The case had loopholes because many Balenciaga employees were present during the shoot and supervised the props themselves. Moreover, North Six Inc. stated that had no say in selecting the final release photos. As a result, the lawsuit was dropped on December 3, just a few days after it was registered.

Photographer Gabriele Galimberti, who captured the images for the “Gift Collection” campaign, proved his stand on Instagram by releasing a statement, “I am not in a position to comment 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. As a photographer, I was only and solely requested to lit the given scene, and take the shots according to my signature style. As usual for a commercial shooting, the direction of the campaign and the choice of the objects displayed are not in the hands of the photographer.”

Road to Redemption

Balenciaga, in collaboration with its parent company Kering, has announced a partnership with the child protection organization, National Children’s Alliance (NCA) for the next three years in support of the newly established Mental Health Institute. The objectives are centered on aiding children in recovering from child abuse, trauma and enabling NCA to provide guidance to the brand in enhancing its knowledge about child protection.

Furthermore, to rebuild its image and regain trust and credibility, the company has started to work on establishing a more innovative creative process in which it will appoint dedicated individuals, both from internal and external sources, to assess its content thoroughly before making things public.

To Wrap it Up…

The Balenciaga scandal stresses the consequences of problematic imagery in advertisements and the need for business owners to exercise caution at every stage of the marketing process. While being ambitious is great, sticking to values is what makes a company successful in the truest sense. Because nothing eludes public scrutiny, and a single misstep (even multiple, as in Balenciaga’s case) can permanently stain a company’s reputation. So fashion brands should always take accountability for their actions, demonstrate tangible steps, and maintain transparency to prevent such errors. It’s reassuring that Balenciaga has taken full responsibility for the issue, but only time will tell whether it can rebound from this blunder or not.

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