Demna’s Balenciaga has found success through tongue-in-cheek provocation. But after the release of two controversial campaigns – one featuring children with bondage-clad teddy bags and another featuring a SCOTUS document on child pornography laws – the brand has reached an unforeseen level of public revulsion, sparking a massive social media outcry under the #CANCELBALENCIAGA hashtag .
On November 28, after two failed Instagram apologies and amid increased internet trolling, the brand issued a statement accepting responsibility for its actions. “We strongly condemn child abuse; it was never our intention to include it in our narrative. The two separate ad campaigns in question reflect a series of serious errors for which Balenciaga takes responsibility, the statement says. “We want to learn from our mistakes and identify ways we can contribute.”
Under unprecedented scrutiny, does the brand’s repentant move amount to a redemption of its reputation? Or will Balenciaga be permanently tarnished by this headline scandal?
Here are the facts: On Nov. 16, Balenciaga released a holiday campaign, titled Balenciaga Gift Shop, that featured six children holding teddy bear bags with BDSM-inspired harnesses, fishnet tops, and handcuffs. Five days later, the label dropped its separate 2023 Garde-Robe ad campaign, which featured the Balenciaga x adidas Hourglass handbag on a desk alongside a printed excerpt from the 2008 US Supreme Court ruling United States v. Williams, which maintained penalties for sexual exploitation of children and additional forms of child abuse. The campaign further stoked the storm and included an art book with the title As sweet as it getsby Belgian painter Michaël Borremans, whose work the David Zwirner gallery describes as “toddler engaged in playful but mysterious actions with sinister overtones and insinuations of violence.”
Shortly after its debut, the images spurred an internet outcry for their inappropriate tolerance of child exploitation. On Twitter, one user shared the provocative images from both campaigns, writing, “the ‘Balenciaga’ brand just did a uh ….. interesting … photo shoot for their new products recently, which included a very deliberately poorly hidden court document about ‘virtual child porn’. usual stuff.” The tweet led to 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 to cross not only the internet, but the political news as well. 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, consigning the brand to its smeared state. As criticism mounted, another pushed the narrative out of proportion: the Fox News show Tucker Carlson tonight — who has helped publicize outlandish QAnon-promoted conspiracy theories (one of which accuses Balenciaga of practicing satanic rituals) — took up the story and condemned the brand for promoting “sex with children.”
On November 23, a week after the backlash began, Balenciaga issued two apologies regarding the scandal on social media. The first dealt with the teddy bears, which the fashion house said “should not have featured children in this campaign.” When it arrived hours later, the second concerned the “disturbing 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 kit and including non- approved elements for our campaign photography in spring 2023. We strongly condemn abuse of children in any form. We stand for children’s safety and well-being.”
Gabriele Galimberti, the Italian documentary photographer behind the infamous holiday campaign, issued his own statement the next day, claiming no responsibility for the controversial images. “I am not in a position to comment on Balenciaga’s choice, but I must emphasize that I had no right in any way to choose either the products, the models or the combination of the same,” he wrote. “As a photographer, I was solely and exclusively asked to light the given scene and capture the images according to my signature style.”
On November 25, Balenciaga filed a lawsuit in New York court seeking at least US$25 million in damages from production company North Six, Inc. and Nicholas Des Jardins, who designed the set for the Garde-Robe campaign.
The summons alleged that North Six and Des Jardins engaged in “unexplained acts and omissions” that were “malicious or at 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 appallingly associated Balenciaga with the repulsive and deeply disturbing subject of the court decision .”
However, some believed the court documents were the brand’s attempt to absolve itself of any wrongdoing. According to Amelia K. Brankov, an attorney for Des Jardins and his company, “there was absolutely no malicious plan going on.” In a statement, she noted that the documents were taken from “many boxes” in a prop house, adding: “representatives from Balenciaga were present at the shoot, supervised it and handled the papers and props, and Des Jardins as set designer was not responsible for image selection from the recording.” Any decision of this magnitude must go to Balenciaga’s top management.
On Friday, Balenciaga president and CEO Cédric Charbit released a statement to the press detailing the brand’s action points, which included the immediate creation of an image board “responsible for evaluating the nature of [the brand’s] content from concept” as well as grants to organizations that protect children. Elsewhere, however, he stated that the Spanish luxury house will no longer pursue litigation, raising questions about what exactly underpinned Balenciaga’s decision to withdraw the service. Is Balenciaga simply taking ownership of its defamatory campaign images? Or would a protracted lawsuit tarnish the brand’s public image? Anyway, Balenciaga will not go to court.
While Balenciaga has expertly followed the manual for responding to a controversy, with immediate apologies and concrete action points, the aftermath is still writing itself. On 28 November Business of Fashion announced that they would no longer present the Global Voices Award 2022 to Demna. “At BoF, we have the highest respect for children’s safety,” the publication says. “And like many, we have sought the truth about how children appeared with BDSM-inspired products in Balenciaga’s recent campaign images, which are completely contrary to our values.”
As the outrage on social media continues, Balenciaga’s reputation could be permanently damaged. The internet’s decision to cut, burn and tear its Balenciaga items is unequivocally rooted in moral righteousness, but it’s important to note that creators haven’t shown such a fiery reaction to previously disgraced designer brands. Why didn’t people cut up their Alexander Wang pieces when he was brought down with multiple sexual assault allegations in 2020? Where were the lighters for YEEZY’s sneakers when Ye showed off a “White Lives Matter” T-shirt during the brand’s Season 9 show in Paris in 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 annual revenues for Balenciaga, but HSBC estimated the brand earned about $1.81 billion in sales last year. This controversy, combined with Balenciaga’s recently severed relationship with Ye, puts the brand at high risk of experiencing a financial downfall. For example, after Gucci released a turtleneck sweater that resembled racist blackface tropes in 2018, BoF reported that the brand’s sales had only increased by 20% when the brand had enjoyed a 49% increase the previous year.
One of the more pressing questions, however, is the fate of Balenciaga’s creative director Demna, who took to social media on Friday to share an official statement. “I would like to personally apologize for the wrong artistic choice of concept for the gift campaign with the children, and I take my responsibility. It was inappropriate to allow children to promote items that had nothing to do with them,” he wrote, before stating that he needs to “learn from this” and “engage with child welfare organizations” to help stop child abuse.
The head designer, who oversaw both of the brand’s controversial campaigns, may be nearing the end of his tenure at Balenciaga’s helm. Kering has already pushed Alessandro Michele out of the top job at Gucci due to failing 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, although it appears to be headed for financial decline and leadership change. Sure, the brand has ticked all the boxes on its apology tour, but there’s only so much it can do. Some people like to think that fashion has a bad memory (and in some cases the statement is true), but in this case it is clear that Balenciaga’s disturbing images will never be forgotten.