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What Balenciaga controversy says about how fashion works

The Kering-owned brand's two campaigns raise many questions about the dubious fashion ecosystem

From Balenciaga's spring-summer 2023 collection (Courtesy Balenciaga)

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Always sending shockwaves with their immersive runway presentations, two of Balenciaga's recent campaigns have recently come under fire for featuring images that border on condoning child exploitation.

While one campaign played out images of children holding handbags that look like soft toys in bondage gear, the other featured paperwork about child pornography laws. After a series of apologies on social media, the brand finally released a statement accepting “a series of grievous errors for which Balenciaga takes responsibility”. The Kering-owned brand, led by creative director Demna Gvasalia, went on to add “internal and external investigations” and “new controls” and shared it was reaching out to “organizations who specialize in child protection and aim at ending child abuse and exploitation.”

Also read: Kim Kardashian 're-evaluating' Balenciaga ties

According to Gabriele Galimberti, the photographer who shot the campaign “Balenciaga Gift Shop”, the samples, children and the location of the shoot were chosen by the brand and the two-day long shoot happened under the brand's supervision.

In the other campaign, which was also released late November, the brand had used paperwork from a Supreme Court decision on child pornography laws, as a prop. According to a report in The New York Times, "Other props in the Garde-Robe campaign included the books ‘The Cremaster Cycle’ by Matthew Barney, which appeared in conjunction with an exhibit of the artist’s at the Guggenheim Museum, and ‘Fire from the Sun’ by the Belgian painter Michaël Borremans, whose work has been shown at the David Zwirner gallery. The gallery has described Mr. Borremans’spaintings as “toddlers engaged in playful but mysterious acts with sinister overtones and insinuations of violence.”"

The brand went on to initiate a $25 million lawsuit against the production company North Six and Nicholas Des Jardins, who designed the set for the Garde-Robe campaign.

The house further stated that they were kept in dark about the documents placed in the campaign pictures that insinuated false associations between Balenciaga and child pornography. Celebrity Kim Kardashian, who walked in the Balenciaga couture runway show in July, said that she was “re-evaluating her relationship” with the brand after getting trolled for her silence on the issue earlier.

The campaign and the worldwide response to it raise many questions: What made the brand use a court document on child pornography laws as a prop? Was it intentional or was it too much of a coincidence?  

Stylist Divyak D'Souza says that in the brand's first statement they tried to blame the talent involved in the campaign, and now after the backlash, they've realised the gravity of the situation. "This is a classic case of big corporates trying to heap the blame on one individual without caring about his reputation and career prospects but protecting their own interests. It's sad to see a legacy brand like Balenciaga resorting to attack an individual," he says.

Such controversies have happened in the past too, like Dolce & Gabbana's racist campaign, but it does little to dent the brand's popularity among its clientele, points out D'Souza. "Dolce & Gabbana continues to command popularity despite all the controversies. If actors or stars choose to cut ties with such brands, stylists stop sourcing from them and journalists refrain from writing about them—that's the only way big corporates will be held accountable," he points out.

When asked about Kardashian's vague reaction, he says, "Kim is a businesswoman and when rats see a sinking ship, they jump. She's not emphatically mentioned that she's parting ways with them. To her, Balenciaga has been a great catalyst propelling her to a fashion bracket."

Designer Nitin Bal Chauhan notes that there are so many references to child pornography, child sacrifice and BDSM in the campaign laid out neatly across the floor, on the bed, on the table and even on the wall that it is impossible to believe that this is a coincidence. “There has to be a symbiotic synergy between Balenciaga’s team and North Six (the production company) to conceptualise and execute a campaign like this. The set designer Des Jardins and photographer Galimberti clearly had a choice to make once the concept was shared with them. But they didn’t,” he says.

Designer Monica Shah of label Jade believes: "When it comes to presenting your voice in fashion, you have to be mindful. I believe that fashion is a voice itself and a way to convey a message, ideas and thoughts. Everybody should be conscious, what you present or showcase or even what you wear is your voice. What you put out is something you really believe in and stand for."

Diksha Khanna, also a designer, adds that the "Balenciaga imagery had a definite glamourised undertone of child exploitation. It can neither be justified on grounds of creativity nor for freedom of expression on their part. It is rather bizarre for a brand to shoot a campaign of this nature. As far as the photographer’s stand is concerned,he surely had a choice to back out from the project if the work at hand was not aligned to his moral values." 

She adds that Kardashian's "reevaluation with the brand seems fair to me. Also, as long as it's a true apology and not merely a pressured response to the public outrage, it's a step in the right direction."

Also read: Balenciaga breaks ties with Kanye West

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