Last November, 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 and is now quietly reemerging into the public sphere. In May, with little fanfare, Demna both attended the Met Gala and released a line of resortwear. And most recently, 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 the sound of little, if any, public pushback.
Back in March, 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. And continued, “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.” Adding: “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.
What was the Balenciaga scandal all about?
Last November, 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.
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. Alexandra Gucci Zarini, a children’s-rights advocate and heiress of Gucci, criticized Gucci’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.)
Balenciaga has apologized for the ads featuring teddy bears.
In February, Balenciaga’s creative director, Demna, broke his silence on the photoshoots. The designer addressed both the Spring 2023 and Gift Shop campaigns, discussing the shortcomings that lead to such weighty missteps and apologizing to those hurt by the fashion house’s actions, in an interview with Vogue. Balenciaga and the Kering Foundation also announced that it would partner with National Children’s Alliance (NCA) for the next three years. The label was also “undergoing internal reorganization,” according to Cédric Charbit, president and CEO of Balenciaga, implementing new editorial controls and educational programs to ensure something like this doesn’t happen again. (On December 2, Demna had apologized on his Instagram, taking responsibility for the ads featuring the teddy bears, but did not seem to address the campaign featuring the court documents in his statement.)
Three months earlier, 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 right away. “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.”
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 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 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.
This post has been updated.