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Accusations of child pornography, conspiracy theories and calls for cancellation. Balenciaga has found itself embroiled in crisis, offering a stark lesson in how fashions’ penchant for provocation can snowball into scandal, ensnaring everyone nearby, from influencers to contractors and executives.
At the centre, two separate Balenciaga ad campaigns released in the same week, whose imagery has been accused of being suggestive of child sexual abuse and pornography.
In the aftermath, the brand’s leaders have yet to answer the central question: who conceived of and approved the campaigns?
Kering-owned Balenciaga is no stranger to controversy, having gained a reputation from its edgy, satirical, anti-fashion and sometimes political stances under creative director Demna. A number of the brand’s provocative moments have been met with mixed responses, with some criticised for aestheticising suffering — for instance, the snowstorm Autumn/Winter 2022 show held one week after Russia invaded Ukraine, a commentary on the refugee crisis which some thought was distasteful; or the destroyed Paris sneakers, which some thought fetishised poverty.
Fashion at large has a history of stepping over the line in attention-getting attempts to be provocative. Typically, racially and sexually insensitive products or imagery stem from a lack of diversity in the decision chain. However, the Balenciaga campaigns step on the third rail of provocation. No one is unaware that child sexual abuse is wrong.
The backlash was swift and notably widespread. Through tie-ups with mainstream brands such as The Simpsons, Adidas and Ikea, Demna has positioned Balenciaga as more accessible and familiar than some of its luxury peers – but this has also opened it up to criticism from circles far beyond fashion.
Balenciaga, in a statement on Monday, said it is revising its organisation and ways of working, the structures around its creative processes, and engaging with organisations that specialise in child protection while the investigations are ongoing.
“The public wants to know why it happened,” says Mike Sitrick, a prominent crisis public relations executive in Los Angeles. “It’s the nuances that make the difference in damage control. You can’t just say I’m sorry.”
The scandal stems from two separate ad campaigns. The first, released on 16 November for its Balenciaga Gift Shop campaign, featured children alongside bags shaped like teddy bears from the brand’s spring 2023 runway show, situated on a set decorated with what many considered BDSM paraphernalia and wine and beer glasses, shot by Italian photographer Gabriele Galimberti. Backlash immediately followed, and Balenciaga promptly removed the campaign images, apologising for the “offence [their] holiday campaign may have caused”.