Bravo Balenciaga, you have got exactly what you wanted

If the old adage of ‘there’s no such thing as bad publicity’ is a truism, then never was it truer than right now. Because we are all talking about Balenciaga

Victoria Richards
Tuesday 29 November 2022 09:59 GMT
Kim Kardashian tells daughter North about the night she was conceived

The fashion brand Balenciaga has apologised for its controversial “bondage bears” ad campaign – called out by none other than one of its models, Kim Kardashian – but if the old adage of “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” is a truism, then never was it truer than right now. Because we are all talking about Balenciaga.

So bravo, Balenciaga. You have got exactly what you wanted.

It’s not often that I find myself naturally aligned with Kim Kardashian – I mean: we are the same age, and... that’s it. One other similarity: we both have kids. Oh, and neither of us think that children should be used to promote fetish wear.

What? You heard correctly, but let’s reel that back in and unpick it a little. It’s headline-grabbing – and for good reason. Kim, 42, is apparently “re-evaluating” her relationship as a model for the luxe fashion brand after the designers put out a highly controversial ad campaign featuring kids – and bondage bears.

Bizarrely, the campaign (which has now been removed from all platforms) featured child models standing on beds and sofas holding teddy bears dressed in bondage BDSM gear – including fishnet tops, studded leather harnesses, and collars with locks. The photoshoot was displayed on Balenciaga’s website as part of its “Toy Stories” campaign, for the brand’s Paris Fashion Week spring/summer 2023 collection.

A separate campaign for Balenciaga’s collaboration with Adidas (now also removed) used papers from a Supreme Court opinion in a child pornography case as a prop to promote a handbag. I mean, where do we even start?

Thankfully (however weird that is to say), we have Kim. She has broken her silence – and, potentially, her lucrative relationship with the fashion house, after only recently appearing in Balenciaga’s autumn 2022 campaign – to share her reaction as a parent.

“As a mother of four, I have been shaken by the disturbing images,” she said on Twitter. “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.

“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 added.

Balenciaga issued a public apology for their campaign last week, but Kim says she is nevertheless 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,” she said. “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.”

Too right. In terms of “things we really shouldn’t have to say”, the idea of a fashion brand co-opting kink and combining it with children to hawk eye-wateringly expensive luxury goods leaves more than an unsavoury taste in the mouth.

Not only are there urgent discussions to be had about what (and what definitely isn’t) age-appropriate; but we need to talk about the use of child models to sell adult goods to begin with; about the murky history and treatment of youngsters in the modelling industry for decades and – quite simply – about misleading kids.

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If a child is too young to understand the implications of a joke, a comment, a particular adult word (or, in this case, the costume on a bear); if a young person doesn’t “get” the double meaning – then it’s not for children. They shouldn’t have to play any part in it. Because you can’t consent to what you don’t understand.

That goes for all adults at home with young children, too, not just high-end fashion houses like Balenciaga. It goes for every single time we post photos of our kids online without asking them first; it goes for sharing cute but embarrassing stories about them on social media – and it even goes as far as when we expect them to kiss and hug relatives at Christmas.

It comes down to two things: consent and respect. We ask a lot of our kids, and (all too often) we expect them to blindly obey. We don’t give them anywhere near the same accord or autonomy that we give to fellow grown-ups. And that’s wrong. This Balenciaga campaign proves it.

It isn’t just a PR balls-up. This concept should never have been signed off on in the first place, let alone created and released to the public. Why did Balenciaga think it was a good idea to combine young children and teddies in fetish wear? When we get desensitised to something, we stop seeing the red flags. And we can’t protect those who need safeguarding if we don’t see that there’s a problem in the first place.

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