Welcome to our column, "Hey, Quick Question," where we investigate seemingly random happenings in the fashion and beauty industries.
Over the past few weeks, Balenciaga has released two campaigns that spurred online controversy, faced accusations of child abuse, trended on Twitter (not in a good way), filed a lawsuit and issued a multitude of statements. So... what happened? The answer is long and a little bit complicated, but we're breaking down the timeline of the luxury fashion house's latest scandal.
Mid-November: Release of holiday and Spring 2023 campaigns — and subsequent backlash
On Nov. 16, Balenciaga released the Balenciaga Gift Shop campaign, photographed by Gabriele Galimberti, to showcase a range of new gift-able products including homeware, petwear, scent, collectibles and furniture, all "staged around children dressed in the Balenciaga Kids line," per the brand. The press release said it was an extension of Galimberti's existing Toy Stories series, which is centered around children.
As images started circulating online, many on social media called out the styling, which included children carrying handbags of teddy bears wearing harnesses and posing among empty wine glasses, accusing the brand of sexualizing minors and putting them in inappropriate positions. That led people to Balenciaga's office-themed, Joshua Bright-lensed Spring 2023 campaign — released on Nov. 21 (and covered by a range of outlets) — which, among a variety of props strewn across a desk, included a printed copy of the 2008 United States v. Williams decision on child pornography laws.
Soon, Balenciaga and #BalenciagaGate were trending online, with controversial figures such as Andrew Tate and Oli London, plus conservative commentators like Candace Owens and Tucker Carlson, bringing even more attention to both campaigns.
Nov. 22: Balenciaga apologizes for both campaigns
Following the backlash, Balenciaga pulled the Galimberti-shot holiday campaign on Nov. 22 and issued an apology on Instagram Stories, which has been saved in a "Highlight" on its Instagram page, titled "Statement."
"We sincerely apologize for any offense our holiday campaign may have caused," the brand wrote. "Our Plus Bear bags should not have been featured with children in this campaign. We have immediately removed the campaign from all platforms."
A second apology followed, specifically for its Spring 2023 campaign — which, according to the Washington Post, was photographed in July: "We apologize for displaying unsettling documents in our campaign. We are taking 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 safety and well-being."
Nov. 23: Gabriele Galimberti issues a statement
Galimberti, the photographer behind the holiday campaign, posted a statement to his Instagram account. In it, he writes that he had no say in the products featured or how they were styled and reiterates that he had no involvement in Balenciaga's Spring 2023 campaign.
Read the full text below.
“Following the hundreds of hate mails and messages I received as a result of the photos I took for the Balenciaga campaign, I feel compelled to make this statement.
I am not in a position to comment 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.
As a photographer, I was only and solely requested to lit the given scene, and take the shots according to my signature style.
As usual for a commercial shooting, the direction of the campaign and the choice of the objects displayed are not in the hands of the photographer.
I suspect that any person prone to pedophilia searches on the web and has unfortunately a too easy access to images completely different than mine, absolutely explicit in their awful content. Accusations like these are addressed against wrong targets, and distract from the real problem, and criminals.
Also, I have no connection with the photo where a Supreme Court document appears. That one was taken in another set by other people and was falsely associated with my photos.”
Nov. 25: Balenciaga sues production company and set designer for Spring 2023 campaign
On Nov. 25, Balenciaga filed a lawsuit against North Six and Nicholas des Jardins — the production company and set designer, respectively, that worked on its Spring 2023 campaign — in the New York State Court, stating that the "inexplicable acts and omissions [were] malevolent or, at the very least, extraordinarily reckless" and done without the brand's knowledge, Washington Post’s María Luisa Paúl reported. It's seeking at least $25 million in damages as a result of the "false association" between Balenciaga and the "repulsive and deeply disturbing subject of" the 2008 Supreme Court decision.
Gabriela Moussaieff, des Jardins' agent, told the Washington Post that his client was "being used as a scapegoat," and that "everyone from Balenciaga was on the shoot and was present on every shot and worked on the edit of every image in post production."
In its analysis of the case, The Fashion Law suggests that, while it's likely that Balenciaga did approve the campaign — and maybe even sent it through multiple rounds of approval, as it often is in large companies — it's just as likely that "in approving and subsequently releasing the campaign, the Balenciaga team missed the relatively hard-to-spot document that appears to be at the heart of Balenciaga's suit and its damages claims."
Nov. 27: Kim Kardashian issues a statement
As the backlash against the brand mounted, many awaited a response from Balenciaga's frequent collaborators and ambassadors — specifically Kim Kardashian, who walked its haute couture runway this summer and has appeared in its campaigns. On Sunday, Nov. 27, she posted a statement to social media and confirmed she was "re-evaluating" her relationship with the house.
"I have been quiet for the past few days, not because I haven't been disgusted and outraged by the recent Balenciaga campaigns, but because I wanted an opportunity to speak to their team to understand for myself how this could have happened," she wrote. "As a mother of four, I have been shaken by the disturbing images. The safety of children must be held with the highest regard and any attempts to normalize child abuse of any kind should have no place in our society — period."
"I appreciate Balenciaga's removal of the campaigns and apology. In speaking with them, I believe they understand the seriousness of the issue and will take the necessary measures for this to never happen again," she continued. "As for my future with Balenciaga, I am currently re-evaluating my relationship with the brand, basing it off their willingness to accept accountability for something that should have never happened to begin with — [and] the actions I am expecting to see them take to protect children."
Nov. 28: Business of Fashion cancels Demna's appearance at annual Voices conference
Balenciaga's creative director Demna — who has been the public face of the brand since joining in 2015 and heralded as a visionary within the industry, but who has largely stayed silent on this controversy — was set to appear at Business of Fashion’s 2022 Voices conference, taking place from Nov. 29 to Dec. 1, and receive the Global Voices Award. However, on Nov. 28, the publication announced it would no longer present him the honor, and that it had "asked the leadership of Balenciaga to come to Voices to take responsibility for releasing these images and offer an explanation" — but that the brand declined.
Nov. 28, part two: Balenciaga issued another statement
The brand issued a second statement to press and to its followers on social media.
"We would like to address the controversies surrounding our recewnt ad campaigns. We strongly condemn child abuse; it was never our intent to include it in our narrative. The two separate ad campaigns in question reflect a series of grievous errors for which Balenciaga takes responsibility.
The first campaign, the Gift Collection campaign, featured children with plush bear bags dressed in what some have labeled BDSM-inspired outfits. 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 included in this shooting were provided by third parties that confirmed in writing 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.
While internal and external investigations are ongoing, we are taking the following actions:
- We are closely revising our organization and collective ways of working
- We are reinforcing the structures around our creative processes and validation steps. We want to ensure that new controls mark a pivot and will prevent this from happening again.
- We are laying the groundwork with organizations who specialize in child protection and aims at ending child abuse and exploitation.
We want to learn from our mistakes and identify ways we can contribute. Balenciaga reiterates its sincere apologize for the offense we have caused and extends its apologies to talents and partners.
We will continue to update this story as it develops.
Update, December 2: Demna, Balenciaga's creative director, issued his first statement on the controversial ads, issuing an apology on his personal Instagram page. You can read it in full below.
"I want to personally apologize for the wrong artistic choice of concept for the gifting campaign with the kids and I take responsibility. It was inappropriate to have kids promote objects that had nothing to do with them.
"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.
"I need to learn from this, listen and engage with child protection organizations to know how I can contribute and help on this terrible subject.
"I apologize to anyone offended by the visuals and Balenciaga has guaranteed that adequate measures will be taken not only to avoid similar mistakes in the future but also to take accountability in protecting child welfare in every way we can.
Shortly after, Balenciaga published a second action plan signed by President and CEO Cédric Charbit on Instagram. In it, the brand announced it had dropped the lawsuit it filed on Nov. 25 against production company North Six and set designer des Jardins, in regards to the Spring 2023 campaign.
The brand also detailed new controls (such as an image board "responsible for evaluating the nature of our content from concept to final assets" and an external agency to "evaluate our content"), departmental re-organization within its image team, a donation of "a significant fund for grants to organizations so that we can help make a difference in protecting children," "trainings on responsible communication across teams" and a "'listening tour' to engage with advocacy groups who aim to protect children."
"I want to personally reiterate my sincere apologies for the offense caused and take my responsibility," the letter by Charbit read. "At Balenciaga, we stand together for children safety and do not tolerate any kind of violence and hatred message."
You can read the post in full below.