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Balenciaga’s Bondage Bears: Will the Brand Ever Recover?

Recently, two of the Spanish fashion brand Balenciaga’s campaigns resulted in some of the worst backlash seen in the fashion industry since Dolce and Gabbana’s 2018 Chinese advertisement scandal. 


The first campaign featured children photographed with plush teddy bear backpacks, seemingly innocent apart from the bears’ clothing: bondage gear such as padlocked collars, fishnet vests, and leather harnesses. The second campaign was the 2023 Garde-Robe advertising campaign released in the same week and featured 2008 court documents detailing a supreme court decision on child pornography law. An even more disturbing detail appeared in a book, As Sweet As It Gets featured in the background by Michael Borremans, a Belgian painter, which contains paintings of naked children playing with human heads, though just the book title was visible in the shot. It is unclear why these creative decisions were made, as responsibility was quickly evaded.


Balenciaga


Balenciaga is known for its edgy, satirical anti-fashion approach to its designs under creative director Demna Gvasalia. The Spring-Summer 2023 campaign presented a warzone-like setting with runway models pacing through the mud. As a war refugee, Gvasalia wished to incorporate this idea into his creative vision and have his models appear as though they were fighting through the mud for their lives. Moreover, some were wearing makeup that made them look bruised and bloody, as though they had been beaten up. It was met with some backlash for glamourizing violence, but at least had a discernible creative thought behind it, unlike the questionable decisions in these two recent campaigns.


Balenciaga has now released two statements. The most recent statement addressed by Balenciaga reads as follows:


·       “We strongly condemn child abuse; it was never our intent to include it in our narrative. The two separate ad campaigns in question reflect a series of grievous errors for which Balenciaga takes responsibility.


·       The first campaign, the gift collection campaign, featured children with plush bear bags dressed in what some have labeled BDSM-inspired outfits. Our plush bear bags and the gift collection 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.” 


Their first statement claimed that they “are taking legal action against the parties responsible for creating the set and including unapproved items for our Spring 23 campaign photoshoot.” This deflection led to backlash aimed at set designer Nicholas des Jardins and photographer Gabriele Galimberti. Des Jardins’ agent argued that their client was being used as a scapegoat. Therefore, they appeared to blame the production company North Six and were reported to have filed a twenty-five-million-dollar lawsuit against them. These plans to sue have since been abandoned. 


Photographer Gabriele Galimberti has received relentless death threats from his association with this campaign. He told the Guardian that he has received messages such as “we are coming to kill you and your family” and “you have to kill yourself, fucking pedophile.” He feels that Balenciaga’s delay in their full apology and acceptance of responsibility led to more hate directed towards him. Galimberti released a statement clarifying that it was not his place to choreograph the contents of the scenes he shoots and therefore was not involved in the poor decision-making:


“I am not in a position to comment on Balenciaga’s choices, but I must stress that I was not entitled in whatsoever manner to neither choose the products, nor the models, nor the combination of the same. As a photographer, I was only and solely requested to lit the given scene, and take the shots according to my signature style.” 


Furthermore, Galimberti’s background is in documentary photography, not fashion, and claims to not have noticed anything was wrong with the shot, “I trust them, and I didn’t see anything so wrong.” He has lost work opportunities from the scandal. 


This photoshoot was based on Galimberti’s famous photoshoot series called ‘Toy Stories.’ In this sense, Galimberti traveled the world and photographed children from various locations with their favorite things laid out in front of them, often toys or fun sunglasses. Balenciaga assumedly wished to have a campaign based on this, however, the children are holding the bondage bears as one of their favorite items. In this shot, the items featured on the table in front are adult and inappropriate – such as a liquor-shaped bottle and a candle in a beer can. 


Balenciaga


 


Despite the layers of approval needed in a campaign for a high-profile luxury brand such as Balenciaga, they stated in their first statement that unapproved products were involved in the scandal. During commercial shoots, an excess of photographs is taken to ensure a lot of choice in post-production under the guidance of various members of the brand’s production team. The photographer maintained that he worked with Balenciaga to practice the shots with a mannequin, sending it for approval before using a real child. He revealed that the parents of the children featured in the shoots were Balenciaga employees and didn’t view the bags as BDSM-inspired, just “punk’’.


Usually, when Balenciaga launches advertising campaigns, post-production managers and the brand carefully review shot images to make sure the concept is clear and on-brand. At this stage of a campaign, they can touch up the details with Photoshop and have the freedom to decide which selected photos to keep. However, despite this detailed structure, this time the campaign was published. 


In this case, to damage control, they replaced the original photos with one where the bondage bear is on the floor, and the child is not interacting with it. Of course, this did not quell the public’s anger toward the brand, so eventually, they pulled the plug on the whole campaign.


The second campaign that caused backlash was in no way connected to Galimberti, though many media outlets have implied they were. A Balenciaga X Adidas handbag is shown laid out on a lawyer's desk strewn with papers. Artistic direction has total say over what is legible from the sheets in the shot, and again post-production is capable of editing or selecting shots that do not show the contents of the court documents. Despite this, the text is legible as the 2008 US vs Williams supreme court decision on child pornography not being covered by first amendment rights. Words like “pornography” and “sexual intercourse” are visible. This material was also approved by post-production, as that is a key stage in a high-profile fashion campaign.


Balenciaga


It begs the question as to whether these two PR disasters were intentional in generating attention surrounding the two campaigns. The evasion of responsibility reads as dishonest and unlikely when an understanding of the structure of fashion campaigns is applied. According to Gvasalia’s statement: 



  • · I want to personally apologize for the wrong artistic choice of concept for the gifting campaign with the kids and I take my responsibilityIt was inappropriate to have kids promote objects that had nothing to do with them.’’


·      “As much as I would sometimes like to provoke thought through my work, I would NEVER have the intention to do that with such an awful subject as child abuse that I condemn. Period.”


On the other side, key figures in popular culture have been outspoken about their feelings on this PR disaster. Skims founder and reality star Kim Kardashian was put under pressure to release a statement, as she has been an ambassador for the brand and frequently endorses its designs. She took to Instagram stories to make her announcement:


·      “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 wrote online.


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


·      “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.”


Lastly, it is uncertain just how detrimental this will be in the long term for Balenciaga, but it isn’t looking promising. Popular publication Business of Fashion has retracted an award planned for Demna. This complete misalignment with their consumers is out of step with the brand entirely, their specialty is typically their ability to judge well-time satirical moments in our culture. Twitter users are currently claiming that wearing the brand’s clothing is now endorsing child abuse. Some internet users have even posted videos of them destroying thousands of dollars worth of Balenciaga products. One woman took scissors to a Balenciaga hoodie, captioning it “STOP WEARING BALENCIAGA IMMEDIATELY.”


Evidently, social attitudes towards wearing and promoting the brand are currently dramatically not in its favor. The mega luxury company Kering is surely concerned about their stock prices following this. 


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Tags: #fashionindustry #scandal #kering #demnagvasalia #demna #fashionscandal #balenciaga #galimberti



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