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The photoshoots that threatened to topple a fashion house: What happened at Balenciaga?

The fashion brand published a controversial campaign featuring children holding bondage teddy bears, and a Supreme Court case on child pornography in a separate ad. Meredith Clark reports

Thursday 01 December 2022 16:20 GMT

Balenciaga has faced major backlash after a recent ad campaign featuring children posing with teddy bears dressed in bondage gear was condemned by celebrities and the fashion industry alike.

The luxury label has since issued an apology for two photoshoots – one of which showed an image of a Supreme Court opinion on a child pornography case – as frequent collaborators like Kim Kardashian have announced they are assessing their future relationship with Balenciaga.

“We sincerely apologise for any offense our holiday campaign may have caused,” Balenciaga said in a statement. “Our plush bear bags should not have been featured with children in this campaign. We have immediately removed the campaign from all platforms.”

The company also apologised for displaying “unsettling documents” in a separate campaign, writing: “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.”

Here is everything to know about the Balenciaga scandal.

What did Balenciaga do?

In recent years, Balenciaga has become known for its controversial campaigns, celebrity ambassadors, and revolutionary design. When the Spanish label, founded in 1919, relocated its headquarters to Paris, France, Balenciaga became a staple of women’s haute couture – with its structured silhouettes and abstract waistlines. But at the turn of the century, Balenciaga entered a new era of streetwear, helmed by creative director Demna Gvasalia.

By 2022, Balenciaga had become one of the top five hottest fashion brands in the world. From teaming up with Yeezy for its YEEZY GAP collaboration, to enlisting famous figures like Kim Kardashian, Dua Lipa, Justin Bieber, and Alexa Demie as ambassadors, Balenciaga has become a household name – but not without a little controversy.

The fashion house recently cut all ties with Ye – the rapper formerly known as Kanye West – after the Yeezy designer spouted a series of antisemitic remarks, which reportedly saw him lose $2bn in one day. In 2021, the brand was accused of cultural appropriation over a pair of $1,190  sweatpants, which appeared to have the top of a pair of boxers peeking out above the waistband. And during its Paris Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2023 show – where the teddy bear handbags made their debut – models wore bruised faces and bloody noses down the catwalk.

However, Balenciaga’s most recent campaign has people boycotting the brand altogether, as the hashtag #CancelBalenciaga gains popularity on social media.

It all began when Balenciaga published images from its recent Gift Shop photoshoot. The campaign was shot earlier this month to promote the brand’s collection of holiday gifts, including champagne glasses, pillows, studded dog bowls, and teddy bear handbags. The photoshoot was taken by National Geographic photographer Gabriele Galimberti, whose famed photo series “Toy Stories” was mimicked in the campaign.

However, the campaign didn’t spark backlash until this week, when social media users noticed the plush toys appeared to be dressed in bondage and BDSM gear, including fishnet tops, studded leather harnesses, and collars with locks.

Were there Supreme Court documents in the campaign?

While Balenciaga’s Gift Shop campaign was criticised for featuring teddy bear bondage handbags, a separate Balenciaga photoshoot also received backlash for featuring Supreme Court documents on child pornography cases.

The photoshoot in question came from Balenciaga’s collaboration with Adidas, which featured Bella Hadid and Isabelle Huppert posing in New York City offices. In the ad, court papers used as props were identified as being from the 2008 Supreme Court case, United States v Williams, which criminalised the pandering of child pornography. The ruling reaffirmed the constitutionality of the PROTECT Act, a federal law that increased penalties for sexual exploitation and other abuse of children.

According to reports, photographer Chris Maggio captured the image of the Balenciaga/Adidas purse that included the Supreme Court documents pertaining to child pornography, while Joshua Bright photographed the models.

Galimberti, who issued his own statement following the backlash, has since clarified that the Balenciaga/Adidas campaign “was falsely associated with my photos”.

National Geographic photographer Gabriele Galimberti issued this statement in response to the Balenciaga Adidas campaign backlash

What have people said about the campaign?

Now, the internet has accused Balenciaga of sexualising children and normalising child pornography.

“The brand Balenciaga just did a uh..... interesting... photoshoot for their new products recently which included a very purposely poorly hidden court document about ‘virtual child porn,’” one user tweeted. “Normal stuff.”

Balenciaga fan destroys £2,300 worth of clothes over teddy bear ad

“There is NO acceptable reason to be exposing children to BDSM,” another person said. “The court document in the ad appears to be a case known as ‘Free speech coalition vs Ashcroft’ (look it up) this is sick & now Balenciaga has deleted all post on IG & changed the photo on the site.”

A third user wrote: “Anyone wearing Balenciaga from this point onwards is endorsing child pornography, and should be cancelled.”

“I cannot believe Balenciaga just- who signed off???? Who’s idea was it even because they need to be in jail,” said someone else. “This is concerning. Horrifying.”

Who has spoken out against the campaign?

Many fashion lovers, political commentators, and celebrities have since condemned Balenciaga’s recent ad campaigns.

After Balenciaga posted an apology to social media, Gift Shop photographer Galimberti addressed the backlash in his own statement on Instagram, saying that he felt “compelled to make” the statement following the “hundreds of hate mails and messages I received as a result of the photos I took for the Balenciaga campaign”.

He also clarified that he has “no connection” with the Balenciaga photos in which a “Supreme Court document appears”.

“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,” he said. “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. Lynching like these are addressed against wrong targets, and distract from the real problem, and criminals,” he continued. “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 and was falsely associated with my photos.”

When Kardashian received considerable backlash online for her close partnership with Balenciaga, the reality TV star revealed on Sunday evening that she is “re-evaluating” her relationship with the brand.

“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 said.

“As a mother of four, I have been shaken by the disturbing images,” Kardashian continued. “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.”

Kim Kardashian and Salma Hayek at the Balenciaga show at Paris Fashion Week

The Skims founder added that she’s 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”.

“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 added.

Meanwhile, paparazzi spotted West leaving a Messianic Jewish church on Sunday where they asked the rapper his thoughts on the Balenciaga campaign. “They tried to destroy my businesses at the same time, and the world saw it, and no one is saying anything,” he said. “It shows you all celebrities are controlled. You don’t see no celebrities talking about the Balenciaga situation.”

Kylie Jenner found herself wrapped up in the controversy when one fan accused the makeup guru of posting pictures of her children to distract from the Balenciaga scandal. When the reality star gave fans a rare glimpse at her four-year-old daughter Stormi and nine-month-old son, whose name has not been confirmed, some people believed the Instagram post was to “cover up” for the brand, which her sister Kim Kardashian has close ties with.

However, Jenner shut down speculation that she was covering up for the brand when she commented on TikTok: “Uh why would I post my child to cover up for Balenciaga? This is why I don’t do this. Always something to say.”

Bella Hadid, who was largely featured in Balenciaga’s Adidas campaign, has remained quiet on social media following the controversy. However, the supermodel did make a subtle statement when she appeared to delete an Instagram post from the high-rise office themed photoshoot, which sparked backlash for including an image of the Supreme Court opinion.

Right-wing commentators were quick to accuse Balenciaga of sexualising children and child pornography, but also used the scandal to make anti-trans and anti-LGBTQ comments. Fox News host Tucker Carlson sounded the alarm during a broadcast last week when he claimed the brand was “endorsing kiddy porn”, and Ben Shapiro likened the Balenciaga scandal to wearing bondage at LGBTQ pride parades.

While appearing on Carlson’s show, conservative author Candace Owens claimed the “normalisation of paedophilia” and “child porn” in the Balenciaga campaign was a direct result of the transgender rights movement in the US. “I have been adamantly and strongly and loudly opposed to the transgender movement because it was so obvious that this was the next step,” she said. “That’s what happens when you add a whole bunch of letters to LBG.”

Protestors have also taken matters into their own hands. A street artist was spotted leaving graffiti on a Balenciaga store window in London earlier this week, with the words “paedophilia” written three times in black lettering. A TikToker captured the artist, known as Joe Bloggs, defacing the Balenciaga store window in a video captioned: “POV: you’re walking through Central London enjoying the lights and see Balenciaga getting cancelled”.

Former Balenciaga lovers are also destroying their expensive clothes from the luxury fashion brand. TikTok influencer Chloe Hennessey, 27, filmed herself cutting up a Balenciaga hoodie that retails for approximately £600. She also trashed a Balenciaga T-shirt, a pair of sunglasses and a pair of sneakers, worth £1,700 in total.

Balenciaga fan destroys £2,300 worth of clothes over teddy bear ad

What has Balenciaga said since the backlash?

After posting its initial apology for the ad campaigns, Balenciaga posted a new statement this week “strongly condemning” child abuse and addressing the fallout over each of its controversial ad campaigns involving children. In the statement, the brand said “the two separate ad campaigns in question reflect a series of grievous errors for which Balenciaga takes responsibility.”

For the holiday Gift Shop ad, Balenciaga said its plush bear bag “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 company wrote.

As for the second campaign, Balenciaga said the set was “meant to replicate a business office environment”. The backdrop, which was used to promote the brand’s collaboration with Adidas, featured purses displayed atop the 2008 Supreme Court case United States v Williams, which criminalised the pandering of child pornography.

According to Balenciaga, “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,” Balenciaga continued. “The inclusion of these unapproved documents was the result of reckless negligence for which Balenciaga has filed a complaint.”

Balenciaga is now taking legal action against those involved with the controversial photoshoot by suing its production company, North Six Inc – and its agent, Nicholas Des Jardins – for $25m.

Jardins reportedly designed the set for the brand’s Spring 2023 Adidas campaign, in which the document relating to the Supreme Court ruling for the PROTECT Act was visible. In the suit, which was filed in New York on 25 November, Balenciaga alleges that “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”.

As a result, Balenciaga is seeking $25m in damages for “all harm resulting from this false association.”

Despite suing the production company over the controversial ads, Balenciaga noted that it still takes “full accountability for our lack of oversight and control of the documents in the background”.

“We could have done things differently,” the brand said.

Balenciaga added it will undergo internal and external investigations into the campaigns, as well as take additonal actions to ensure similar issues do not occur in the future, such as “closely revising our organisation and collective ways of working” and “reinforcing the structures around our creative processes and validation steps”.

Going forward, it will be working with organisations that “specialise in child protection” and aim to end “child abuse and exploitation”.

“We want to learn from our mistakes and identify ways we can contribute,” the luxury brand concluded. “Balenciaga reiterates its sincere apologies for the offense we have caused and extends its apologies to talents and partners.”

The Independent has contacted Balenciaga and Adidas for comment.

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