The designer at the center of the Balenciaga ad scandal has broken his silence.
In a post Friday on Demna’s Instagram account, which counts 373,000 followers, Balenciaga’s creative director wrote: “I want to personally apologize for the wrong artistic choice of concept for the gifting campaign with the kids and I take my responsibility. It was inappropriate to have kids promote objects that have nothing to do with them.”
The Georgian designer, who is prone to provocation and subversion in his designs, runway shows and communications, was referring to Balenciaga’s holiday campaign featuring children posing alongside handbags shaped like stuffed bears dressed in bondage gear.
Separately on Friday, Balenciaga president and chief executive officer Cédric Charbit reiterated his “sincere apologies for the offense we have caused.”
He sketched out major changes in its “content organization,” vowed to go on a “listening tour” with child protection groups, and to set aside “a significant fund for grants to organizations so that we can help make a difference in protecting children.”
The company also made an about-face on blaming production company North Six Inc. and set designer Nicolas des Jardins.
It said it has decided “not to pursue litigation,” but did not offer more specifics.
North Six declined comment Friday afternoon. Des Jardins’ agent at Streeters did not respond to media requests. Both parties are getting social media support from Trey Laird, Stefan Beckham, Martha Hunt, Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin and other creatives and industry professionals.
Gabriele Galimberti, the documentary photographer who shot the campaign with the children holding the controversial bondage teddy bears, said he had done so unknowingly, having never worked in fashion. He was also mistakenly criticized for another controversial Balenciaga campaign, which he had not been involved with. Galimberti said Friday, “They are finally taking full responsibility as they should have from the first moment instead of shifting the blame to me and the other company.”
In a further indication of the blowback Balenciaga faces from the campaign, the British Fashion Council on Friday confirmed that, after speaking to Balenciaga, “the brand has decided not to attend” the Fashion Awards in London on Monday.
Demna was originally a candidate for Designer of the Year, alongside peers including Miuccia Prada and Pierpaolo Piccioli for Valentino. The BFC confirmed that his name is no longer on the list for the award, which is voted on by more than 1,000 international industry figures.
The Balenciaga ads have sparked outrage on social media, with some consumers gleefully destroying Balenciaga products, others urging a brand boycott and calling for the designer’s ouster.
Last week, Kim Kardashian said she was “reevaluating” her relationship with the brand, saying she was “shaken by the disturbing images.”
“I need to learn from this, listen and engage with child protection organizations to know how I can contribute and help on this terrible subject,” Demna’s post read. “As much as I would sometimes like to provoke a thought through my work, I would NEVER have an intention to do that with such an awful subject as child abuse that I condemn. Period.
“I apologize to anyone offended by the visuals and Balenciaga has guaranteed that adequate measures will be taken not only to avoid similar mistakes in the future but also to take accountability in protecting child welfare in every way we can.”
Comments are disabled on the post, the only one on Demna’s feed, and it garnered a little more than 25,000 likes to date.
The designer made no mention of a second campaign that has also brought another firestorm of criticism and sparked a lawsuit against the production companies involved.
That fashion campaign for the spring 2023 collection depicted actresses Nicole Kidman and Isabelle Huppert in a business environment. In one photo of a handbag, there is a page in the background from the Supreme Court ruling “United States v. Williams” 2008, which confirms as illegal and not protected by freedom of speech the promotion of child pornography.
Kidman is facing heavy criticism for her silence over the ads, which she promoted to her 8.7 million Instagram followers.
Balenciaga has issued several statements stressing it condemned child abuse and never intended for “it to be included in our narrative.”
“The two separate ad campaigns in question reflect a series of grievous errors for which Balenciaga takes responsibility.”
One statement detailed: “The first campaign, the Gift collection campaign, featured children with plush bear bags dressed in what some have labelled 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.
“The second, separate campaign for spring 2023, which was meant to replicate a business office environment, included a photo with a page in the background from a Supreme Court ruling ‘United States v. Williams’ 2008, which confirms as illegal and not protected by freedom of speech the promotion of child pornography. All the items included in this shooting were provided by third parties that confirmed in writing that these props were fake office documents. They turned out to be real legal papers most likely coming from the filming of a television drama. The inclusion of these unapproved documents was the result of reckless negligence for which Balenciaga has filed a complaint. We take full accountability for our lack of oversight and control of the documents in the background and we could have done things differently.”
Balenciaga was said to be seeking $25 million in damages through its legal action against North Six and Des Jardins.
North Six logistically managed the campaign in the office setting, but it was not involved with the gift collection campaign featuring the questionable teddy bears, as reported.
Fashion casting director Piergiorgio Del Moro, who counts more than half a million followers on Instagram, said in a post earlier Friday that he stood with North Six and des Jardins.
His post preceded Charbit’s announcement about ending the litigation.
“It is troubling to see a fashion house knowingly deflect blame on the hired production company to avoid responsibility for its own creative decisions,” he wrote. “Clients are on the set and are responsible for all approvals through and, most importantly, have final say before all images are released to the public.
“Production does not create the vision but works to serve clients and bring to life their vision, ot contribute their own,” he continues. “Everybody in the fashion industry knows how closely brands create, test, define and safeguard their image, including micro-managing all media associated with such imagery. I stand by the community to ensure that blaming production companies for the fallout and problems associated with vision and image does not become the norm and hope that Balenciaga will see to it that North Six’s name is properly cleared.”
Charbit said Balenciaga would “learn from our mistakes as an organization” and institute a host of new controls.
“Our current process for content validation has failed, and we recognize the need to do better,” Charbit said in the statement. “On the internal side, we nominate with immediate effect an image board responsible for evaluating the nature of our content from concept to final assets, including legal, sustainability and diversity expertise. On the external side, we have appointed a best-in-class agency to assess and evaluate our content organization.”
In addition, he said “we have reorganized our image department to ensure full alignment with our corporate guidelines.”
The new steps seem to fly in the face of the wide creative berth and creative freedom typically granted to creative directors.
To be sure, Demna has raised eyebrows and ire with fashion shows resembling scenes of the refugee crisis in Ukraine and the muddy trenches of war – and accessories including a luxury leather trash bag and threadbare sneakers that seemed to mock the poor.
On Friday, Charbit said, “we want to learn, help and contribute to protect children” and outlined more corrective controls.
“We are starting trainings on responsible communication across our teams,” he wrote. “Together with my team, we will go on a ‘listening tour’ to engage with advocacy groups who aim to protect children.
“I want to personally reiterate my sincere apologies for the offense caused and take my responsibility,” he added. “At Balenciaga, we stand together for children safety and do not tolerate any kind of violence and hatred message.”
As for whether Balenciaga’s public apology will be enough to repair the damage that has been done to the brand, Mark McKenna, a leading intellectual property scholar at the UCLA School of Law, said, “It’s hard for me to imagine that those marketing materials were released without anyone from Balenciaga involved and signing off. That would be very surprising.”
— With contributions from Samantha Conti, London and Rosemary Feitelberg, New York