Toward the end of 2022, the Balenciaga scandal became the talk of the Internet. It wasn’t because they released some badass designs or championed a wonderful cause. It was all because of a campaign they released. And this campaign shook the public in ways the fashion house least expected.
What made up this campaign and why was it so provocative to the public? Let’s take a look at it.
What is the Balenciaga Scandal About?
Photo Credit: The Cut
Last November, Balenciaga released its holiday ad campaign featuring children holding teddy bears. These advertisements were a part of their Gift Shop Campaign to showcase their newest products. Normal, right? But there was something else about the photos that incited an uproar:
The teddy bears were dressed in bondage costumes, leather harnesses, spiked collars, fishnets, and other BDSM accessories.
Perhaps, if Balenciaga had employed adult models rather than minors for the shoot with documentary photographer Gabriele Galimberti, the campaign wouldn’t have received such backlash. But they didn’t. Instead, they put kids in the midst of sensitive adult materials and expected the world to embrace the photos.
Unfortunately, almost nobody embraced the images. The backlash they received didn’t end with mere condemnation. People clamored for Balenciaga to be boycotted with hashtags like #cancelBalenciaga trending across social media.
Furthermore, many accused the luxury brand and its creative director, Demna Gvasalia, of sexualizing children and supporting pedophilia. It didn’t end there though. Those who couldn’t limit their outrage to social media callouts vandalized shops and tore their Balenciaga clothes on social media.
Later that month, Balenciaga dropped another ad as a collaboration with Adidas. In the ad, the brand photographed a bag on an untidy desk filled with blank papers.
The pictures seemed normal at first glance, but on a closer look, you’d see all the papers were blank except one. And the one with words looked like documents from the Supreme Court case United States v. Williams. This was a ruling that upheld the Protect Act, a United States law that prevents child abuse and protects against child trafficking.
Apart from this picture, the Balenciaga X Adidas campaign also featured other controversial motifs. One of the pictures featuring Isabelle Hubbert had a stack of books in the background and one of those books contained paintings of Michael Borremans, a Belgian painter whose work comprised horrid portrayals of toddlers.
Aftermath of the Balenciaga Campaign Saga
And that was how the bondage bear and child abuse papers campaigns sparked different conspiracy theories among netizens.
Some even spread photos taken out of context from fashion stylist Lotta Volkova’s Instagram account that portray violence and satanism. But her spokesperson was quick enough to intervene by disclosing that Volkova hasn’t worked with Balenciaga since 2017.
Balenciaga responded to the uproar toward the gift shop campaign by taking down all the pictures, and admitting via their Instagram story that the teddy bears should not have been displayed with children. They apologized for and also acknowledged the wrongs with the documents in the Balenciaga X Adidas photoshoot.
In their words:
“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 the abuse of children in any form. We stand for children’s safety and well-being.”
As expected, the public didn’t accept their apology. Fans and non-supporters alike bashed the brand, including Kim Kardashian, a vocal supporter of the designer label. The media personality issued a statement via her Instagram and Twitter pages. She wrote:
“I have been quiet for the past few days, not because I haven’t been disgusted and outraged by the recent Balenciaga campaigns…I am currently reevaluating my future relationship with the brand, basing it off their willingness to accept accountability for something that should have never happened to begin with.”
Meanwhile, Gabriele Galimberti, the photographer who shot the holiday campaign, dropped a statement isolating himself from the images. He wrote:
“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 choose the products, nor the models, nor the combination of the same…As a photographer, I was only and solely requested to lit the given scene, and take the shots according to my signature style.”
Besides supporters renouncing the brand, The Business of Fashion revoked its 2022 Global Voices Award offer to Balenciaga’s Creative Director, Demna, stating that it holds “the safety of children in the highest regard.”
Also, according to Newsweek, in late November, a London street artist defaced the storefront of Balenciaga’s flagship. The artist stenciled “paedophilia” on one of the windows and when asked why, he blamed the “abhorrent photoshoots Balenciaga did.”
Balenciaga’s Actions Beyond their Apology
The brand filed a case against the production company North Six, Inc. and set designer Nicholas Des Jardins and his company. Both companies had worked on the campaign, for US$25 million.
Balenciaga blamed the defendants for the shoots. Per the lawsuit, the defendants had included the Williams documents “without Balenciaga’s knowledge or authorization” and, 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.”
But in their defense, the set designer’s company claimed that they had sourced the items from a prop house. Besides, Balenciaga’s executives were present during the shoot. They saw everything and oversaw production before putting the finished images out. In addition, the production company and the set designer weren’t the final decision-makers on the final photos. Perhaps, it’s why the brand dropped the lawsuit on December 3, a couple of days after being filed.
However, in February 2023, Demna finally spoke about the photoshoots. The designer, in an interview with Vogue, addressed both the Adidas collaboration and Gift Shop campaigns. He admitted the shortcomings that led to such a mistake and apologized to everyone hurt by the brand’s actions.
Furthermore, Balenciaga and the Kering Foundation also announced that it would partner with the National Children’s Alliance (NCA) for the next three years. And the Cédric Charbit, president and CEO of Balenciaga, revealed that the fashion house was implementing new editorial controls and educational programs to ensure the scandal won’t repeat itself again.
What to Learn from the Balenciaga Scandal
The Balenciaga scandal is a lesson to every business owner (whether small or big) to be careful with what they put out, especially with their marketing. And if things go wrong, always be ready to take responsibility and let your customers know you’re putting in the effort to ensure the mistake doesn’t happen again.
Remember, any little wrong move via advertising can affect your business reputation for a long time.