In November, Balenciaga and its creative director Demna broke the internet — in the wrong way.
Two separate campaigns for the 2022 holiday season and the Garde-Robe line of wardrobe staples for spring 2023, released respectively on Nov. 16 and 21, sparked a wave of outrage on social media that engulfed the French fashion house, photographers, creatives and even longtime collaborator Kim Kardashian.
The Gift holiday campaign featured children posing alongside a variety of items, including handbags shaped like stuffed bears dressed in bondage gear, first touted by adult models in the brand’s spring 2023 show in Paris in October. The campaign was shot in Paris by Milan-based photographer Gabriele Galimberti, a documentary photographer and frequent National Geographic contributor making his first foray into fashion.
Meanwhile, the campaign for the spring 2023 collection depicted actresses Nicole Kidman and Isabelle Huppert in a business setting. In one photo of a handbag, there is a page in the background from the 2008 Supreme Court ruling “United States v. Williams,” which confirmed the promotion of child pornography as illegal and not protected by freedom of speech.
Shot in New York by photographers Joshua Bright for the portraits and Chris Maggio for the still-life imagery, that campaign involved production company North Six Inc. and set designer Nicolas des Jardins.
Some social media critics and select members of the media mistakenly conflated the two campaigns and stated that the Supreme Court document was featured in the ads with the children.
By Nov. 23, Balenciaga had pulled the controversial holiday campaign from all platforms and apologized for any offense it caused.
Subsequent attempts to clear up the situation, explaining the documents as “unapproved documents” and indicating it had filed a complaint, drew further ire as it was taken as an attempt by the company to shift blame onto external creatives.
The fashion brand was said to be initially seeking $25 million in damages from North Six and des Jardins.
After days of backlash, Balenciaga on Nov. 28 publicly condemned child abuse and took full responsibility for the controversies surrounding the two campaigns, a day after Kardashian said on Nov. 27 that she was “reevaluating” her relationship to the brand, writing that she was “shaken by the disturbing images.”
Demna broke his silence on Dec. 2 in a post on his Instagram account, which counts 373,000 followers, in which he 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 made no mention of the second campaign that had sparked another firestorm of controversy.
Separately the same day, Balenciaga president and chief executive officer Cédric Charbit reiterated his “sincere apologies for the offense we have caused.”
He sketched out major changes in the brand’s “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.”
Charbit said Balenciaga would “learn from our mistakes as an organization” and institute a host of new controls, including an internal image board “responsible for evaluating the nature of our content from concept to final assets, including legal, sustainability and diversity expertise” and the appointment of an external “best-in-class agency to assess and evaluate [its] content organization.”
In addition, he said “we have reorganized our image department to ensure full alignment with our corporate guidelines.”
The company also made an about-face on blaming North Six and des Jardins, which had been receiving support from prominent creatives and industry professionals.
But the damage, it seems, was already done.
In a further indication of the blowback, Balenciaga pulled out of this year’s Fashion Awards ceremony on Dec. 5 in London, with the British Fashion Council confirming that Demna was no longer on the list of nominees.
He had been viewed as a front-runner for Designer of the Year because of his bold, forward-thinking live events, and overall influence on fashion, nominated alongside Jonathan Anderson for JW Anderson and Loewe; Matthieu Blazy for Bottega Veneta; Miuccia Prada, and Pierpaolo Piccioli, who ended up receiving the award.
But what led a brand until then seen as a master of chiseled communication to get caught in such a quagmire?
One crisis communication expert, who asked not to be named, said that Balenciaga had fallen afoul of the social media mob because it failed to consider a broader context that includes internet commentators eager to conjecture, noting that reactions — and the focus of conversations — had differed by geographic regions.
The brand “should have seen this coming,” given a moment in time where “nothing is fun, everything is heavy,” agreed Paloma Castro Martinez de Tejada, a partner at Paris-based brand strategist Darwin Associates.
Erminia Nusswitz, a seasoned consultant in communications, described the Garde-Robe controversy as the result of a “collective mistake” from the brand and those involved in the campaign, one that is difficult to fathom given the amount of time it takes to prepare and the number of people involved in such a project.
The situation is even more surprising given that “Balenciaga has previously [successfully] used its power and visibility with a bit of provocation in service of a message, like Demna calling out people’s inaction on climate change,” she continued.
“Fashion brands are used to manipulating images and fashion has produced provocative imagery. When this provocation is used to denounce [a situation], trigger conversations, or create awareness, it’s interesting but done for its own sake — furthermore on a topic that’s not just sensitive but very grave — there can be no such levity,” Nusswitz said.
As for consequences for Balenciaga’s leadership, industry sources said any changes in a until-then well-oiled operation would lead to instability, an undesirable situation at a time when parent group Kering is already facing uncertainties following Alessandro Michele’s departure from Gucci.
Whether the twinned ad controversies will have any long-term effect on either Balenciaga’s sales or brand equity is still up in the air, with industry observers agreeing that it was too soon to tell what, if any, long-term effects they would have.
With comments closed on the Instagram posts of Balenciaga and Demna, it is difficult to gauge public sentiment, although the social publications on the company’s remedial steps and the Georgian designer’s personal statement have garnered respectively more than 111,000 and 27,000 likes to date.
But the comments garnered by Kidman on the post promoting the office-set spring 2023 campaign to her 8.7 million Instagram followers seem to point to ongoing heavy criticism. A spokesperson for Balenciaga indicated that this campaign had been taken down from the brand’s Instagram account as part of a regular reset of their social platforms.
Another hurdle is Balenciaga’s initial reaction, which was perceived as falling short, especially in its treatment of the creatives involved. Early on, Mark McKenna, a leading intellectual property scholar at the UCLA School of Law, had said it was “hard for [him] to imagine that those marketing materials were released without anyone from Balenciaga involved and signing off. That would be very surprising.”
“Ultimately, when you’re the director, the brand, the company, you have to take responsibility,” reminded Castro Martinez de Tejada.
As for those who were seen on social media destroying their Balenciaga wares, industry sources estimated the phenomenon to be limited and akin to the knee-jerk reaction of Russian influencers who posted videos of them cutting up their Chanel bags as a result of the brand imposing restrictions on Russian passport holders after their country’s attack of Ukraine.
Yet beyond taking down the campaigns and keeping a low profile, there “isn’t much else” the brand could have done at the time, according to Nusswitz, since “the reality is that [any] reply is almost too late and nothing except time” can allay the situation, which is “more a scandal than a deep-rooted crisis.”
Castro Martinez de Tejada also thinks the controversy will pass, leaving “perhaps small echoes” and increased scrutiny in the near future. Right now what Balenciaga can do is “nothing,” except take stock of how the situation occurred and take steps to avoid further crises, she said.
While a proportion of Balenciaga’s audience may not forget this episode soon, if ever, it wouldn’t be the first prominent company to weather a major reputational crisis.
Parallels were made with the case of Dolce & Gabbana — widely condemned for its notorious 2018 fiasco following a tone-deaf campaign in China and ensuing string of insulting messages — but which was recently worn by the entire Kardashian clan, or the 2019 blackface row that saw Gucci remove a black sweater featuring a cutout mouth with large red lips but saw its sales continue to climb.
Across the board observers expect Balenciaga to bounce back, especially given the varying levels of familiarity with Demna’s proclivity for provocation and subversion among the brand’s consumers, its fan base and the public at large.
The real question is “how to come out of this crisis and start communicating again, exposing the brand again,” whether it’s through product launches, new collaborations or around the next runway show, said Nusswitz.
According to her, the brand could go down one of two paths: either address the issues frontally or letting more time pass before easing back in with “much less provocative” campaigns.
A spokesperson for Balenciaga indicated that the brand would be showing its next collection during the fall 2023 Paris Fashion Week in March.
The lesson here is that “brands are almost a form of media,” according to Nusswitz, and that having an audience as large as Balenciaga’s 14.3 million followers on Instagram means “you can’t do and say what you feel anymore; you have to take that responsibility on board.”
Calling luxury “Europe’s Silicon Valley,” in particular the performance of France’s CAC40 index tied to the health of its luxury groups, “a fashion brand, especially one of that stature, is in the same league as a pharmaceutical company, agri-food giants or oil and gas heavyweights. Its movements have effects at the macroeconomic scale,” Castro Martinez de Tejada said.
As such, the onus is on brands to “give the keys to interpreting [its statements] because these can no longer be left open to individual interpretation given the business and social ramifications they may have,” she continued. “This [controversy] should be a wake-up call for creatives about the potential impact of any creative decision.”