The brand has mastered the art of going viral — but at what cost?
Courting controversy is arguably what Balenciaga does best. Over the past few years, Creative Director Demna has built a reputation for consistently capturing the world’s attention with quirky, unconventional and downright amazing marketing. And so far, it has proven to be a fairly successful advertising strategy. But as viral backlash from Balenciaga’s Christmas campaign mounts, it seems the brand has crossed the line this time.
The campaign, shot by acclaimed photographer Gabriele Galimberti, was designed to promote gift items that rivaled Balenciaga’s randomness, such as B. Dog bowls with rivets and candle holders in the shape of beer cans. The accompanying photos, however, were anything but amusing. The pictures feature children holding stuffed bears dressed in bondage gear such as collars with padlocks, leather harnesses and fishnet stockings. If that implication of sexualizing children wasn’t enough, a set of explicit props felt even more disturbing. In one photo, a purse sits atop a stack of papers reportedly containing documents related to a US Supreme Court child sexual abuse case.
The disturbing images have proved to be one of Balenciaga’s biggest controversies in years, with calls mounting on social media for the brand to be wiped out. And instead of embracing conflict like they normally would, the fashion house has moved to damage control. After the images were removed from all platforms, Balenciaga took to Instagram Stories on November 22 to officially address the backlash. “We sincerely apologize for any offense our Christmas campaign may have caused,” the statement said. “Our bear plush bags should not have been shown with children in this campaign.”
The fashion house went on to apologize for the “troubling documents” in question. “We take this matter very seriously and are taking legal action against the parties responsible for creating the set containing unauthorized items for our Spring ’23 campaign photoshoot,” Balenciaga continued in the statement. “We condemn in the strongest terms child abuse in any form. We stand for the safety and well-being of children.”
But despite the campaign’s cessation and apology, the world isn’t exactly ready to forgive and forget. In fact, the newly released statements have arguably sparked even more outrage, with some criticizing the brand for doing so deflect responsibility, while others suspect the entire debacle is another outrage marketing scheme. “Do you think we’re stupid?” wrote Fashion influencer Louis Pisano. “This campaign worked [through multiple] People including DEMNA before it came out and here they are trying to scapegoat the ‘responsible parties’.”
As the fallout increases, the prevailing answer is more of a question: could it Yes, really be an accident? After all, Balenciaga thrives on carefully crafted chaos. The brand hosts fashion shows in unconventional settings such as simulated snowstorms, mud pits and the New York Stock Exchange. It has collaborated with entities such as The simpsons and Fortnite while landing unexpected celebs for runway cameos. It regularly releases bizarre designs, from “destroyed” sneakers to trash bags. In recent years, Balenciaga’s meme-worthy style has become so unpredictable that theories have suggested that the fashion house in and of itself a social experiment. Through all of this, Demna is known to weave deeper meaning and critical commentary into each of his amazing escapades. All in all, it’s hard to believe that a misstep like this is just an accident.
TikTok fashion commentator Jasmine Darya (@jasminedarya) argues that Balenciaga’s holiday campaign is not an ignorant mistake, but a result of the brand’s search for clickbait. “I feel like they’ve really gone into this ‘all for a headline’ mentality in the last few years,” she said in a recent video. “If you start relying on headlines and cheap advertising to sell your clothes as a fashion brand, then you’ve come a long way,” she wrote in the caption. But is Balenciaga actually terminable despite this problematic advertising look? Is any brand?
The thing is, in the fashion world, social media outrage is reliably short-lived. Take Dolce & Gabbana. Despite having a track record of blatant misogyny, racism and homophobia, the Italian label has remained relatively unscathed, with seemingly unconditional support from A-list celebrities like the Kar-Jenners. And as luck would have it, Balenciaga has star power on his side too.
After Kim Kardashian reiterated it religiously last year, it’s basically become synonymous with the label. Despite calls to condemn this campaign, the beauty and shapewear mogul remained remarkably silent at the time the scandal was published, which is a statement in itself. We may never know if the campaign was a deliberate plan or a non-musical blunder. But does the answer really matter? As murky as the ethics are, it seems that the shock factor never goes out of style.