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Balenciaga pulled SS23 campaign

Balenciaga responds to controversy surrounding its SS23 campaign

In a statement posted on Instagram, the house took responsibility for its oversight of documents included in the series, for which it is seeking $25 million in damages from its production company and set designer

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll likely be aware that Balenciaga has been rocked by a series of controversies in recent days. Like plenty of other behemoth fashion brands, the house dropped its first holiday campaign earlier this month. Full of logo-emblazoned bedding, tableware, dog beds, and Cagole Christmas tree ornaments, the kids at the centre of the images were decked out in mini versions of the brand’s signature looks, including oversized hoodies, XXL jawns, and chunky sneakers. So far, so Balenciaga.

Slightly more subversive, however, were the accessories some of the teeny-boppers were carrying. Taking the form of the bondage-wearing teddy bear bags first seen as part of Demna’s manky, mud-flooded SS23 show, social media was soon whipped up into a frenzy, as people swarmed into the brand’s IG comments section to question the clashing of kids and kink. 

Unsurprisingly, Balenciaga was quick to respond, pulling the images and taking to Instagram to issue an apology. “We sincerely apologise for any offence our holiday campaign may have caused,” an IG story read. “Our plush bears should not have been featured with children in this campaign.” What it likely wasn’t prepared for, was a second controversy to erupt in the hours post-apology, as followers revisited an ad series starring Bella Hadid, Isabelle Huppert, and Nicole Kidman, fresh from her AW23 Haute Couture cameo

With the brand shifting back to models with a bit more mileage on the clock, you’d have thought it would be plain sailing through to Christmas for Balenciaga, right? Wrong. Eagle-eyed onlookers honed in on the desks Hadid and Huppert perched upon, and singled out a series of documents that got them foaming at the mouth. 

Among the papers scattered across the worksurface were a number of printed documents detailing a Supreme Court decision on child pornography – namely, the United States v. Williams case, which, among other issues pertaining to censorship, wrote the prohibition of the promotion of child pornography into law back in 2009. Soon, the brand’s comment sections were fired up anew, as fans and detractors alike logged on to condemn the strange styling choice and question exactly what was going on. 

Soon after, Balenciaga pulled its second high profile campaign, and apologised for “displaying unsettling documents” in its campaign. “We strongly condemn abuse of children in any form,” the statement continued. In the days immediately following, conversations surrounding which party was to blame for the inclusion of the documents in the final images – whether Balenciaga itself, photographer Chris Maggio, set designer Nicholas Des Jardins, or production company North Six – echoed around the internet. 

While North Six has so far kept its lips sealed on the debacle, Des Jardin’s agent, Gabriela Moussaieff, has claimed he is being used as “a scapegoat” for the incident. With the documents allegedly sourced from an external company that rents props out to movies and shoots, “everyone from Balenciaga was on the shoot and was present on every shot and worked on the edit of every image in post production,” she told the Washington Post, adding that the photographer was in the process of hiring a legal team. 

Across the weekend, Balenciaga revealed it was also making moves to begin a legal battle of its own. The Kering-owned behemoth is now seeking a huge $25 million in damages from Des Jardin, claiming that the papers seen on the desk within its SS23 campaign were placed there as part of an “inexplicable act” that was “malevolent or, at the very least, extraordinarily reckless”. The case was submitted to the New York State Supreme Court on Friday, with Balenciaga making no further statement on the matter until yesterday afternoon (November 28). 

“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,” a statement posted to Balenciaga’s now completely empty IG grid reads. “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 continues, adding the company is currently revising its collective ways of working and “laying groundwork with organisations who specialise in child protection, and aims at ending child abuse and exploitation.” 

Also commenting on the situation this weekend was Kim Kardashian. The reality star and make-up and clothing mogul has become an unexpected poster girl for Demna across the last couple of years, stepping out with the designer at the 2021 Met Gala in a second-skin catsuit that rendered her anonymous, and starring alongside Hadid, Kidman, Dua Lipa, and Christine Quinn on the runway at his AW23 Couture show. Late Sunday evening, however, she took to Twitter to release a statement in response to the furore surrounding Balenciaga. 

“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” – Balenciaga

“The safety of children must be held with the highest regard and any attempts to normalise child abuse of any kind should have no place in our society – period,” she wrote to her 74.2 million followers. “I appreciate Balenciaga’s removal of the campaigns and apology,” she went on, adding that she believes “they understand the seriousness of the issue and will take the necessary measures for this to never happen again.” She finished, however, by claiming she was “re-evaluating” her relationship with the house.

In the time since the first campaign landed on the TL, the internet has spiralled into chaos, with something akin to the ‘Satanic Panic’ of the 1980s flooding comment sections and beyond. With the masses taking a magnifying glass to Balenciaga’s output present and past, Twitter and TikTok are currently exploding with video ‘explainers’ and threads detailing wild conspiracy theories surrounding the brand. The news has also received segments on right-wing news channels including Fox – a key source in spreading the hysteria surrounding QAnonAlso under scrutiny are many of Balenciaga’s collaborators and cohorts, with the conversations taking place across the internet spiralling into something of a witch hunt. At the time of writing, attention had also moved in the direction of designers like Rick Owens, whose recent Dr Martens collab comprises the label’s heavy-soled boots updated with the addition of Pentagram laces.

Whether the documents were purposefully placed within the campaign or not, the controversy once again calls into question just how things like these manage to make their way through many departments and endless feedback sessions – as well as legal teams – to get to their end point. Some within the industry have pointed to the breakneck speed at which fashion currently operates. With brands churning out more campaigns and projects than ever before, and workforces downsized and diminished during the pandemic, shoots now move from conception to completion in hours and days as opposed to weeks, meaning less time to be truly dilligent in the haste to make a deadline.

One thing that is certain, though, is that the whole series of events will serve as a clearly needed reminder that, in 2022, literally nothing escapes the scrutiny of social media. Whatever the outcome of the court case, lessons will surely be learnt – both at Balenciaga HQ and beyond.