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Balenciaga distances itself from child pornography associations, but is the damage done?

By Don-Alvin Adegeest


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Image: Balenciaga | Credit: Unsplash

Balenciaga has directly addressed the controversy regarding its latest ad campaign, which features plush bears in leather harnesses and children in the background as well as court documents pertaining to a well-publicised child pornography case. In a grovelling statement the Kering-owned luxury house said it wants to learn from its mistakes and identify ways the company can contribute to end child exploitation.

Thriving on controversy

Controversial narratives have long been embedded into art and fashion’s DNA, and Balenciaga has never been shy to joust opinion or toe the fine line of good taste. Remember the heels on Crocs? Fashion has a history of pushing buttons, think back to Tom Ford’s pubic hair shaved Gucci logos, Sisley’s Fashion Junkie campaign, American Apparel’s teenage bedroom images and Benetton’s Unhate campaign, which featured kissing political and religious leaders, but news of this campaign ricocheted from the US to Europe, from Fox News to the BBC and all of social media in between.

When the images were released a fortnight ago, the artistic merit and perhaps dark humour of a teddy bear in a leather harness as a tongue-in-cheek BDSM pun could be forgiven as such, even if dubious in taste. Juxtaposing children alongside was, of course, ill-advised and shortsighted. But while some may find the image laden with humour, others have taken justifiable offence with the documents referencing child pornography in its office campaign. An earlier apology from Balenciaga failed to suss the backlash, culminating in a grander mea culpa and announcing “internal and external investigations.”

Grievous errors for which Balenciaga takes responsibility

Balenciaga on Monday evening released a statement on its Instagram account, stating: “We strongly condemn child abuse, it was never our intent to include it in our narrative. The two separate ad campaigns in questions reflect a series of grievous errors for which Balenciaga takes responsibility.”

“Our plush bear bags and the gift collection should not have been featured with children. This was a wrong choice by Balenciaga, combined with our failure in assessing and validating images. The responsibility for this lies with Balenciaga alone.”

“The second, separate campaign for Spring 2023 which was meant to replicate a business office environment, included a photo with a page in the background from a Supreme Court ruling ‘United States v. Williams’ 2008 which confirms as illegal and not protected by freedom of speech the promotion of child pornography. All the items in this shooting were provided by third parties that confirmed that these props were fake office documents. They turned out to be real legal papers most likely coming from the filming of a television drama. The inclusion of these unapproved documents was the result of reckless negligence for which Balenciaga has filed a complaint. We take full accountability for our lack of oversight and control of the documents in the background and we could have done things differently."

It was the second campaign, however, that has led to Balenciaga filing a 25 million dollar suit to “redress for extensive damages” from North Six, Inc., the production company hired by Balenciaga, along with set designer Nicholas Des Jardins and his LLC.

The filings states “Balenciaga believes that Defendants’ inexplicable acts and omissions were malevolent or, at the very least, extraordinarily reckless. As a result of Defendants’ 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.”

Balenciaga has gone to great public lengths to redress the backlash, extending the blame to the production team and set designer. Ultimately a brand like Balenciaga, a company which spends millions of euros on shooting and publishing advertising campaigns, is responsible for the images it releases, whether or not a stylist puts an unapproved prop on a desk. For all the photoshop editing and retouching of models, the documents in the image could easily have been altered and no backlash would have ensued. Balenciaga failed to make a final edit prior to release.

Why didn’t Balenciaga retouch the image documents?

Balenciaga said it was “closely revising our organisation and collective ways of working” and “reinforcing the structures around our creative processes and validation. Yet by suing a production company so publicly instead of aiming for a discreet out of court settlement, it seems not to accept full responsibility. The brand's most high profile ambassador, Kim Kardashian, has publicly distanced herself from the brand, stating she would be “re-evaluating her relationship.” While Balenciaga has given Ms Kardashian kudos and luxury affiliation, her brand persona extends far and wide, particularly in the US. It remains to be seen how the backlash impacts Balenciaga, especially in America, a key market for Kering and luxury.

The controversial props, while certainly badly selected and placed, have caused a hurricane of condemnation across social media. Publicly suing the production designer may not be enough to alleviate the damage to Balenciaga’s reputation.