In 2022, an ad campaign featuring children holding teddy bears in bondage harnesses and costumes embroiled both Balenciaga and its designer, Demna, in controversy. Since then, the company has been on an arduous journey toward rehabilitation. Four runway shows, six collections, and a handful of red-carpet outfits later, fashion and celebrity circles alike seem to have warmed back up. In January, the brand came full circle: Just over a year after Kim Kardashian claimed to be “reevaluating” her long-standing relationship with the brand in the wake of the scandal, she’s launched her first campaign as Balenciaga’s official ambassador. By all appearances, the brand is at the end of its road to redemption — at least for now.
What was the Balenciaga scandal all about?
In November 2022, Balenciaga released 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 was 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.
Right-wing conspiracy theorists also 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. Alexandra Gucci Zarini, a children’s-rights advocate and heiress of Gucci, criticized Gucci’s “HA HA HA” campaign, which appeared to show Harry Styles posing with a toddler-size 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.)
Kim Kardashian and Julia Fox condemned the campaign.
Following the backlash to the ad, Kim Kardashian — a vocal supporter of the brand who had recently included a cameo from Balenciaga’s creative director, Demna, on her Hulu show, The Kardashians — issued 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 was 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.”
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.” The fallout even extended to one of Balenciaga’s brick-and-mortar stores in London, where a street artist appeared to have defaced the storefront of its 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.
It wasn’t the first time Balenciaga had 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.
Balenciaga and Demna both released apologies.
In the immediate aftermath, Balenciaga 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 appeared 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.”
Balenciaga’s creative director, Demna, also apologized on his Instagram, calling it the “wrong artistic choice” to “have kids promote objects that had nothing to do with them.” His post did not mention the campaign featuring the court documents.
Balenciaga briefly pursued legal action against one of the set designers involved.
Following the backlash, 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 unrelated to 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 was dropped about a week later, with president and CEO Cedric Charbit stating the company had “decided not to pursue litigation.”
Demna later attempted to explain the brand’s missteps.
In February, Demna elaborated on the photo shoots in an interview with Vogue, addressing both the Spring 2023 and Gift Shop campaigns. He apologized to those hurt by the fashion house’s actions and admitted that he “didn’t realize how inappropriate it would be to put these objects [in the image] and still have the kid in the middle.” Discussing the prop documents for the first time, he said, “I don’t know how they ended up there. They were not supposed to be there.” Charbit told the magazine that the label was also “undergoing internal reorganization” and implementing new editorial controls and educational programs to ensure something like this wouldn’t happen again.
Around the time of the Vogue interview, Balenciaga and the Kering Foundation announced that it would partner with National Children’s Alliance (NCA) for the next three years.
Balenciaga tentatively opened a new chapter last spring.
In March, less than six months after the campaign, Demna tepidly showed his first collection since the debacle, marking a significant departure from his former signature approach. Unlike other shows he had done, which have included elaborate sets covered in mud (the work of Spanish artist Santiago Sierra) as well as wind and snow, it was held in a cavernous white room with no embellishments. On every chair was a note from Demna. “Fashion has become a kind of entertainment,” he wrote. “In the last couple of months, I needed to seek shelter with my love affair with fashion and I instinctively found it in the process of making clothes.” He added: “This is why fashion, to me, can no longer be seen as entertainment, but rather as the art of making clothes.” The label showed 54 looks, mostly in black and gray.
A few months later, the designer attended the Met Gala and released a line of resortwear, both with little fanfare. Later in May, Balenciaga dressed several celebrities, including Michelle Yeoh, Alton Mason, and Salma Hayek (who happens to be married to the chief executive of the house’s parent company, Kering), for the Cannes Film Festival to little, if any, public pushback. The fashion house seemed to pick up steam in July: Cardi B sat front row for a couture show at the brand’s newly expanded atelier, and in the fall, Demna gathered a glamorous group of family members, friends, and colleagues (including the Cut’s Cathy Horyn) to model his next collection at Paris Fashion Week.
Balenciaga closed out 2023 with a well-attended show in L.A. that riffed on celebrity pap walks with UGG-like boots, low-rise sweats, and takeout coffee cups. Kardashian was there with Kendall Jenner, alongside Tracee Ellis Ross, the Peltz Beckhams, and Nicole Kidman, who was announced as a brand ambassador the same day. Cardi B closed the show in a huge blue fur coat, marking her runway debut.
And now, the brand has officially found its way back into Kardashian’s heart and closet — which, according to a new campaign video, holds 129 Balenciaga bags. On Monday, Kardashian announced via Instagram Stories that she’d signed on as a brand ambassador, praising Demna’s “innovative approach to design” and “commitment to doing what’s right.” The following day, she led the brand’s Closet Campaign, which also included Paloma Elsesser and Nicola Peltz Beckham. I guess she — along with the rest of the world — is done reevaluating?
This post has been updated.