Amid backlash for ‘sexualising kids’, Balenciaga apologises, files $25-million lawsuit

When High Fashion Meets QAnon Two new Balenciaga campaigns sparked outrage that spread from the internet to Fox News, fueled by allegations that the brand condoned child exploitation.

Balenciaga addresses controversial ad campaign
Image Credit Owner

Since Demna took over as artistic director of the famous Balenciaga brand in 2015, the brand has often been used on purpose to stir up trouble. See: making IKEA’s 99-cent shopping bag into a luxury item, putting heels on Crocs, selling worn-out sneakers for $1,850 dressing Kim Kardashian in black body stockings from head to toe for the Met Gala, and sending models down the runway carrying expensive leather trash bags that made them look like refugees.

Often, it seemed like the whole point of these situations was to make people angry. Each added to Demna’s Balenciaga’s reputation as a brand that makes people think about what “taste” even means.

Now, though, two new campaigns from Balenciaga, which is owned by the French luxury conglomerate Kering, which also owns Gucci and Saint Laurent, have made people even more angry. In one campaign, pictures of children holding handbags that look like teddy bears in prison clothes were used. In photos from another campaign, there was information about child pornography laws. Together, they started a firestorm that spread from the internet to Fox News. The firestorm was fueled by claims that Balenciaga was okay with the exploitation of children. The debate has become one of the clearest examples of how internet culture, politics, fashion, and conspiracy theories can all come together.

On Nov. 28, almost two weeks after the storm started, and after a series of Instagram apologies didn’t stop it, the brand released a statement admitting “a series of grave errors for which Balenciaga takes responsibility.” The fashion house said it was starting “internal and external investigations” and putting in place “new controls.” It also said it was reaching out to “organizations that protect children and work to stop child abuse and exploitation.”

The statement said, “We want to learn from our mistakes and figure out how we can help.”

Which came first?

On November 16, Balenciaga put out a campaign called “Balenciaga Gift Shop,” which caused a lot of trouble. Gabriele Galimberti, an Italian documentary photographer whose work is mostly about the stories our things tell about us, took the picture last month. Mr. Galimberti had made a book with pictures of kids with their toys, but he had never taken pictures for a fashion campaign.

In his pictures, six kids were holding broken teddy bear handbags, which had been seen for the first time at the brand’s Paris spring 2023 runway show. Around the fluffy bears were wine glasses and other gifts. The bears had black eyes, fishnet tops, and leather harnesses. Mr. Galimberti said that Balenciaga chose the objects, the children, and the location for the shoot. During the two days of photography, there were many people from the company there.

Not long after the Gift Shop campaign went online, a lot of people were upset by the pictures of children with what looked like items used in bondages.

Five days later, on November 21, Balenciaga released a separate campaign called 2023 Garde-Robe. People on social media zoomed in on campaign photos that seemed to use paperwork from a Supreme Court decision on child pornography laws as a prop.

What? There were two separate advertising campaigns?

Balenciaga Explains How TF Court Docs Ended Up In
Its Campaign
Image Credit Owner

Yes. Nicole Kidman, Isabelle Huppert, and Bella Hadid were models for the Garde-Robe campaign, which was shot in July, months before the Gift Shop campaign. It took place in an office. In May 2022, looks from the campaign were shown at the New York Stock Exchange. In one of its pictures, a $3,000 Balenciaga x Adidas Hourglass handbag was sitting on a desk next to printed copies of the U.S. v. Williams ruling from 2008. The case looked at whether laws against “pandering,” or promoting, child pornography hurt people’s freedom of speech rights under the First Amendment.

The books “The Cremaster Cycle” by Matthew Barney and “Fire from the Sun” by Michal Borremans, whose work has been shown at the David Zwirner gallery, were also used in the Garde-Robe campaign. The gallery has said that Mr. Borremans’s paintings look like “toddlers playing but doing mysterious things that have dark undertones and hints of violence.”

Some criticisms have used pictures from both campaigns in a way that makes it look like they are the same. One Twitter user who posted photos from the two shoots wrote, “The brand “Balenciaga” just did a, uh, interesting photo shoot for their new products, which included a very poorly hidden court document about “virtual child p*rn.” Normal stuff.” Among other things, this tweet led to accusations that Balenciaga was promoting a “campaign for child p*rnography” and making violence against children look cool.

There are a lot of trolls on the web. Why did this fight get going?

As criticism of the campaigns spread online, right-leaning news outlets like The New York Post and “Tucker Carlson Tonight” on Fox News picked up the story. The show has helped spread the internet conspiracy theory QAnon, which says that “a group of Satan-worshiping elites who run a child s*x ring are trying to control our politics and media.”

On November 22, Mr. Carlson told his viewers, “Here you have a major international retail brand promoting kiddie p*rn and sex with children, and not in a sneaky way, but right out in the open.”

How did Balenciaga respond?

The brand’s first response to the backlash was on November 24, when it apologized for the Gift Shop campaign and said it would take the ads down from its social media channels.

“We’re very sorry if our holiday campaign made anyone feel bad. The kids in this campaign shouldn’t have been shown with our stuffed bear bags. “We have taken the campaign down right away from all platforms,” Balenciaga said in a statement on Instagram on November 24.

A second apology about the Garde-Robe campaign was put on the brand’s Instagram Stories a few hours later.

“We’re sorry that our campaign showed upsetting documents,” the statement said. “We’re taking this very seriously, so we’re going to court against the people who made the set for our Spring 23 campaign photo shoot and put in things that weren’t approved. We are very against any kind of child abuse. We stand up for the safety and well-being of children.”

Balenciaga sued the production company North Six and the person who designed the set for the Garde-Robe campaign, Nicholas Des Jardins, for $25 million on November 25. (North Six had made ads for Balenciaga before; its website says that Dior and Zara are among its other clients. Recent work by Mr. Des Jardins includes the disco horse on the cover of Beyoncé’s “Renaissance.”

The document, a summons with notice, said that the production company and set designer did “inexplicable acts and omissions” that were “malicious or, at the very least, extraordinarily reckless.”

In effect, the brand said that the documents were put in the campaign photos without their knowledge, which made people think that Balenciaga was related to child pornography when it wasn’t.

The New York Times tried to get North Six to say something, but the company, which handles things like catering, permits, and crew, refused.

So, where did the copy of the Supreme Court’s decision come from? Who gave the okay to use it as a prop?

Amid backlash for ‘sexualising kids’, Balenciaga apologises, files $25-million lawsuit
Image Credit Onwer

A lawyer for the set designer, Mr. Des Jardins, said in an email statement that the documents came from “many boxes” rented from a prop house.

But all of them were supposed to be “fake office documents,” Balenciaga said in a statement on November 28. “They turned out to be real legal documents, most likely from the filming of a TV drama,” the company said. Balenciaga had the images for months before they were made public. They said that including the Supreme Court page was “unauthorized” and “the result of reckless negligence.”

In her statement, Mr. Des Jardins’s lawyer said, “There was definitely no evil plot going on.” Representatives from Balenciaga were on set during the shoot, “overseeing it and taking care of papers and other props,” she wrote. As a set designer, Des Jardins was not in charge of choosing the best photos from the shoot. (She also said that her client had nothing to do with the other Gift Shop campaign.)

In the end, it would have been up to the brand, which said in a statement on November 28 that it was “fully responsible for our lack of oversight and control” and that it “could have done things differently.”

Is Balenciaga also suing the photographer for the Gift Shop campaign?
No. The Garde-Robe campaign had nothing to do with Mr. Galimberti. He also didn’t make the choice for the Gift Shop campaign to show kids with bear bags. He said that Balenciaga told him that “punk” was the theme of the photo shoot.

In a statement released on November 28, Balenciaga said, “Our plush bear bags and the Gift collection should not have been shown with kids. Balenciaga made a bad choice, and we didn’t do a good job of judging and validating images. Balenciaga is the only person to blame for this.” Don’t blame the photographer, in other words. But in the heat of the reaction, the nuances were lost.
Mr. Galimberti said that since the Gift Shop campaign photos were made public, he has gotten a lot of hate mail and death threats, lost jobs, and had personal information, like his phone number, posted online.

“Right now, nobody wants to be linked to me because my name is everywhere linked to the word pedophilia,” said Mr. Galimberti. “I’ve been working on my own projects for 25 years, and now this campaign has ruined everything. I’m not sleeping well. My whole family is very worried.”

What’s the next step?

When High Fashion and QAnon Collide
Image Credit Owner

The long-term effects are still unknown, but on November 28, the trade publication Business of Fashion took back an award it was going to give to Demna because “the safety of children is of the utmost importance.” In the U.S., which has the largest luxury market in the world, Balenciaga’s reputation could take a big hit from the ongoing firestorm. This is a brand that is more used to being praised for its ability to tap into the culture of the moment than criticized for its mistakes.

Balenciaga’s annual sales are not broken down by Kering, but HSBC thinks that the fashion house made about 1.76 billion euros, or $1.81 billion, in sales in 2021. As of Monday, Balenciaga’s website didn’t have any plush bondage bear handbags for sale. But there was a dog bowl with spikes for $848, a set of three Christmas tree ornaments that included a puffer jacket, a sneaker, and a handbag for $740, and a candleholder that looked like an empty soda can for $625.

Social media anger has spread beyond the brand to large parts of the global fashion industry, including the celebrities who are often its billboards, for not being more openly critical of Balenciaga’s provocative marketing strategy.

Have Ye or Kim Kardashian had anything to do with it?

Balenciaga Explains How TF Court Docs Ended Up In
Image Credit Owner

Ye, the artist who used to be known as Kanye West, and Ms. Kardashian, his ex-wife, have been pulled into the controversy, which might not be too surprising since they have both known Demna and Balenciaga for a long time.

Balenciaga ended its business relationship with rapper and fashion designer Ye a few days after the Gift Shop campaign was shot last month. This was because Ye made offensive and anti-Semitic comments during and after Paris Fashion Week. Even so, Ye talked to paparazzi on November 26 about the controversy over Balenciaga’s ads.

He said, “You don’t hear any famous people talk about the Balenciaga situation.”

Ms. Kardashian is one of the most famous people in the world. In July, she walked in the Balenciaga couture runway show, and many people say that Demna helped her change her style after her divorce.

After being criticized for not saying anything sooner, she said on November 27 that she was “re-evaluating her relationship” with the brand.

“As a mother of four, the disturbing images have shaken me,” Ms. Kardashian said on Twitter. “Children’s safety is the most important thing, and attempts to normalize any kind of child abuse have no place in our society, period.”

“I’m glad that Balenciaga took down the ads and said sorry. “After talking with them, I think they understand how serious the problem is and will do what needs to be done to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” she said.

Write A Comment