Provocation’s cost: What lies ahead for Balenciaga?
Conspiracy theories, allegations of child pornography, and demands for cancellation. Balenciaga’s predicament serves as a sobering example of how fashion’s propensity for scandal can trap everyone in the area, from influencers to contractors and executives.
Two Balenciaga ad campaigns unveiled in the same week are at the center of the controversy; their imagery has been criticized for being suggestive of child sex abuse and pornography. After the fact, the brand’s executives have not yet responded to the crucial query: who conceptualized and approved the campaigns?
The controversial Balenciaga brand, owned by Kering, has a history thanks to creative director De mna’s edgy, satirical, anti-fashion, and occasionally political stances. Some of the brand’s provocative moments, such as the snowstorm Autumn/Winter 2022 show held one week after Russia invaded Ukraine, a commentary on the refugee crisis that some thought was distasteful, or the destroyed Paris sneakers that some idea fetishized poverty, have been met with mixed reactions.
The history of fashion shows that provocative attention-seeking attempts frequently cross the line. A lack of diversity in the decision-making process is often the cause of racially and sexually offensive products or imagery. The Balenciaga campaigns, however, cross the third line of provocativeness. Nobody denies that sexually abusing children is wrong.
The response came quickly and was remarkably widespread. Demna has positioned Balenciaga as more approachable and familiar than some of its luxury competitors through partnerships with mainstream brands like The Simpsons, Adidas, and Ikea. However, this has also exposed it to criticism from groups outside the fashion industry.
In a statement released on Monday, Balenciaga stated that although investigations are ongoing, it is updating its organizational structure, methods of operation, and the frameworks around its creative processes. It also indicated that it collaborates with organizations that focus on child protection.
According to Mike Sitrick, a well-known crisis public relations specialist in Los Angeles, “the public wants to know why it happened.” When it comes to damage control, the details matter; you can’t only apologize.
Two distinct marketing campaigns are the cause of the scandal. The first, which was unveiled on November 16 for the Balenciaga Gift Shop campaign, positioned kids next to tote bags from the brand’s spring 2023 runway show on a set decorated with what many perceived as BDSM memorabilia, including wine and beer glasses and was captured by Italian photographer Gabriele Galimberti. Following the backlash, Balenciaga quickly took down the marketing pictures and apologized for any “offense [their] holiday campaign may have caused.”
Galimberti made the following statement on Instagram: “I am not in a position to comment [on] Balenciaga’s decisions, but I must emphasize that I was not in any way qualified to choose the items, the models, or the mix of the same. I was explicitly asked to light the scene as a photographer and take the pictures in my manner. As is customary with commercial photography, the photographer has no control over the campaign’s direction or the items depicted.
The business then launched its Garde-Robe ad on November 21. Upon closer study, one can see that the campaign included pages from the Supreme Court’s 2008 ruling in the US versus Williams, which determined that First Amendment rights did not protect the promotion of child pornography. Then, investigators came across another picture where a book about Michael Borremans’ artwork was resting in the backdrop.
Balenciaga’s predicament is a sobering example of how fashion’s propensity for provocative behavior may escalate into a scandal.
The luxury brand, owned by Kering, acknowledged running two recent ad campaigns with several “grievous blunders.” But it’s choice to file a lawsuit against the production company responsible for one of them is only fueling the debate.