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What to Know About the Balenciaga Ad Scandal

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Balenciaga

In November, Balenciaga dropped its holiday ad campaign featuring children holding teddy bears in bondage harnesses and costumes. (The BDSM accessories were also on the runway at Balenciaga’s show at Paris Fashion Week.) The backlash against the images has been swift, with the hashtag #cancelBalenciaga trending across Twitter and TikTok and many accusing the brand and its creative director, Demna, of condoning pedophilia and child exploitation. In a separate ad that dropped later that month, a bag from the fashion house’s collaboration with Adidas was photographed atop copies of what appear to be documents from the Supreme Court case United States v. Williams, a ruling that upheld the PROTECT Act, which increased federal protections against child pornography. Both campaigns quickly became a conservative talking point and sparked conspiracy theories.

Since then, right-wing conspiracy theorists have latched on to and circulated photos taken out of context from the Instagram account of stylist Lotta Volkova that portray scenes of violence and satanic images. According to a representative, Volkova hasn’t worked with Balenciaga since 2017. Meanwhile, Alexandra Gucci Zarini, a children’s-rights advocate and heiress of Gucci, recently criticized the brand’s “HA HA HA” campaign, which appears to show Harry Styles posing with a toddler on a mattress. “My concerns are that there seems to be a common ideology across Kering’s Fashion Houses,” she wrote. (Both Balenciaga and Gucci are owned by Kering.)

Here’s what to know about the controversy.

Balenciaga has apologized for the ads featuring teddy bears.

On November 22, the fashion house issued two statements via its Instagram Stories apologizing for the plush bears, which they said “should not have been featured with children in this campaign,” as well as the “unsettling documents” in the separate spring-summer 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 photoshoot. We strongly condemn abuse of children in any form. We stand for children’s safety and well-being.” (As of November 28, the bears no longer appear for sale on the company’s website.)

Meanwhile, Gabriele Galimberti, the photographer behind the holiday campaign, released a statement distancing himself from the imagery. “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.”

Demna later apologized on his Instagram, taking responsibility for the ads featuring the teddy bears: “As much as I would sometimes like to provoke a thought through my work, I would NEVER have an intention to do that with such an awful subject as child abuse that I condemn. Period.” The designer guaranteed steps will be taken to “avoid similar mistakes in the future” and protect children’s welfare. Demna did not seem to address the campaign featuring the court documents in his statement.

Meanwhile, Cédric Charbit, president and CEO of Balenciaga, apologized for the campaigns in a post to the house’s Instagram. Charbit outlined new internal methods in place, like hiring an external agency to “assess and evaluate” Balenciaga’s content, noting the “current process for content validation has failed.” The company also said it was creating a fund to “help make a difference protecting children.”

Kim Kardashian condemned the ads.

In late November, Kim Kardashian — a vocal supporter of the brand who recently included a cameo from Balenciaga’s creative director, Demna, on her Hulu show, The Kardashiansissued a statement on Instagram and Twitter. “I have been quiet for the past few days, not because I haven’t been disgusted and outraged by the recent Balenciaga campaigns,” she wrote. Her statement went on to say she is currently reevaluating her future relationship with the brand, “basing it off their willingness to accept accountability for something that should have never happened to begin with.”

Julia Fox made her own series of statements on TikTok. “I have zero relationship with the brand. I’ve never even been to one of their shows; they haven’t invited me,” Fox said. “Regardless, I think it’s horrific, and when I was reading and watching all the videos I literally felt sick to my stomach.” She went on to say this was not a problem of Hollywood or the fashion industry but an issue with “men.”

It’s not the first time Balenciaga has stoked controversy.

Balenciaga is known for its unconventional campaigns and shows, including runway presentations in which models have trudged through mud and blizzardlike conditions in expensive high-end clothing. In her review of the brand’s spring 2023 show, the Cut’s fashion critic Cathy Horyn wrote, “Of late, Demna’s choices have been sometimes morally questionable.” Balenciaga has become synonymous with subversiveness, and though the father of one of the child models featured in the campaign told the Daily Mail he believed it had been “blown out of all proportion,” for many consumers the campaign crossed the line from provocative to harmful.

What’s this about a lawsuit?

In November, Balenciaga filed a $25 million lawsuit against North Six, Inc. and set designer Nicholas Des Jardins over the controversial campaign image featuring the court documents (which was separate from the imagery of the teddy bears). The suit claimed the defendants had included the Williams documents “without Balenciaga’s knowledge or authorization” and went on to say that, as a result of the “defendant’s misconduct, 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.”

Some criticized the lawsuit as an attempt by Balenciaga to absolve itself of culpability. According to Des Jardins’s agent, Gabriela Moussaieff, her client was “being used as a scapegoat” by the fashion house. “Everyone from Balenciaga was on the shoot and was present on every shot and worked on the edit of every image in postproduction,” Moussaieff said in a statement to the Washington Post, noting that the documents in the photos “were obtained from a prop house that were rental pieces used [for] photo shoots.” The lawsuit has since been dropped.

The fallout from the campaign has continued.

Following the backlash to the ads, The Business of Fashion rescinded its 2022 Global Voices Award offer to Demna, noting that it holds “the safety of children in the highest regard.”

In late November, a street artist in London appeared to have defaced the storefront of Balenciaga’s flagship, stenciling “paedophilia” on one of the windows, according to Newsweek. There were also reports of a store near the Beverly Hills shop on Rodeo Drive being defaced.

“I did it due to the abhorrent photoshoots Balenciaga did,” the artist told the outlet.

A shop near the Beverly Hills store on Rodeo Drive. Photo: ROLO/Roger / BACKGRID

This post has been updated.

What to Know About the Balenciaga Ad Scandal