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The Balenciaga Campaign Controversy, Explained

Balenciaga model walking with teddy bear bag

I can’t believe I’m writing this, but something even worse than stiletto Crocs has happened in the fashion world—way worse. Balenciaga is known for its ugly and tasteless fashion sensibilities. After all, they’re the people responsible for the diabolical stiletto Crocs in the first place. And yet, they’ve managed to convince scores of rich people to finance their shit because it’s “edgy.” Now, in an asinine effort to swindle more dollars from more wealthy pockets, they decided that their next ad campaign should be something really vile.

So they decided to use children

Wait, WHAT? I DON’T LIKE WHERE THIS IS GOING.

Neither do I, but I’ve gotta tell you all the same. In a campaign that ABSOLUTELY NO ONE asked for, advertisers decided to use child models to market their BDSM-influenced teddy bear bags.

And the world went “EW.”

One campaign (called “The Objects”) was designed by Gabriele Galimberti, who is known for his photos of children surrounded by their possessions. The marketing team at Balenciaga saw his work, and decided to supply a series of child models with possessions that no sane parent would ever buy their kid in the first place. The photos depict little kids carrying teddy bears that are bound up in leather harnesses resembling kink gear. It’s weird, it’s unsettling, it’s totally unnecessary. And it’s not the worst part.

IT ISN’T!?

Nope. Not by a long shot. In a parallel campaign, adult models are featured wearing articles of Balenciaga clothing co-designed by Adidas. But the marketing team decided to to place a few “easter eggs” that seem to be a deeply disturbing attempt to bridge the gap between the two photoshoots’ themes of “childhood innocence” and “sexuality.” One of the photos depicts a Balenciaga x Adidas handbag sitting atop a stack of legal documents. And THIS is where things get really nasty: the legal documents are copies of a 2003 Supreme Court decision related to the PROTECT Act, which is a federal law stating that child pornography is not protected by free speech.

AND IT GETS WORSE. In the background of another photo, one can see a copy of an art book by Michael Borremans. This charming little coffee table edition is famous for its paintings of nude children and adults participating in acts of violence, such as cannibalism. Surely this is the last of it though, right? Surely the Balenciaga marketing team can’t sink any lower? They can. In another image, there is a framed certificate bearing the name John Phillip Fisher. According to a local Michigan newspaper, a man with the same name was convicted of molesting his granddaughter in 2018.

WHAT THE $^%#!?

That was the internet’s reaction, as well. Twitter responded by slamming Balenciaga for promoting pedophilia and child pornography. Even Fox News’ Tucker Carlson was aghast, and denounced Balenciaga in his news segment for “promoting kiddie porn and sex with children.” While some believe that it was simply an ill-conceived and poorly designed campaign, others think that the whole debacle was a publicity stunt from the very beginning.

What does Balenciaga have to say?

The usual. “Oh, we had no idea!” “Oh, how could something like this happen?”—as if these court documents just fell out of the sky and landed under one of their bajillion dollar handbags. Balenciaga issued an official apology over Instagram, lamenting the “offense our holiday campaign may have caused.” They go on to say that their plush bear bags should “not have been featured with children.” Duh. As for the documents, Balenciaga states that they intend to take “legal action” against “the parties responsible for creating the set and including these unapproved items.” What does that mean? THEY ARE SUING THE AD CAMPAIGN DESIGNERS. On November 25, Balenciaga filed a lawsuit against the ad agency North Six for 25 MILLION DOLLARS. As of now, no lawsuits have been brought against either of the photographers.

What do the photographers have to say?

In an interview with Newsweek, Galimberti stated that he is “not in a position to comment [on] Balenciaga’s choices.” He also stressed that he was “not entitled in whatsoever manner to neither chose the products, nor the models, nor the combination of the same.” He claims that he was only brought in to light the set and shoot the photos. Meanwhile, Chris Maggio could not be reached for comment. It’s uncertain how much involvement either photographer had in the shoot. On the one hand, it’s likely that Galimberti is telling the truth, and the fault belongs to the Balenciaga marketing team who designed this travesty. On the other hand, if he did have a hand in the set design itself, I’m certain that he would be loathe to admit it.

North Six seems to favor the latter explanation. In an interview with the New York Post, the agency claims that they had “no creative control” over the set where the Supreme Court documents were found and shifted the blame entirely to Galimberti. So, basically everyone is pointing fingers at everyone else because no one wants to take the heat for one of the worst ad campaigns in history.

What happens to Balenciaga now?

Celebrities are jumping ship. Longtime Balenciaga patron Kim Kardashian stated that she would be “reevaluating [her] relationship with the brand” in light of the controversy. Meanwhile, Canadian actress and singer Brittany Aldean posted a picture to instagram depicting her carrying trash bags full of Balenciaga apparel, captioned with “it’s trash day.”

This isn’t the first time that Balenciaga was rocked by scandal. Earlier this year, the brand dropped its partnership with Kanye West following the latter’s string of anti-Semitic statements. The brand also came under fire for marketing a pair of sweatpants that were seen as “cultural appropriation.” It’s unlikely that the brand will have any serious long term repercussions from this incident, however. After all, it’s a billion dollar company. They have already shifted the blame to a third party, and are doubling down with a lawsuit. The whole thing will be ancient history in a few months, and this billion dollar entity will survive just like every other problematic billion dollar entity does. It’s a shame that not even something as heinous as references to child porn can bring this company down, but at least the brand has taken a financial hit. I certainly wish they would stay down—I never want to see another ugly piece of Balenciaga clothing again.

(featured image: Balenciaga / Getty)

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