Kim Kardashian is “reevaluating” her relationship with a luxury fashion label amid allegations it endorsed child pornography in its 2022 campaign images. But it’s certainly not the first time the label’s creative director and designer Demna Gvasalia has ruffled feathers, so what did Balenciaga do that has the whole world, not just the fashion community, talking?
Kardashian has a long-standing relationship with Balenciaga, even before she signed a multi-million-dollar deal in February 2022 to be the face of the brand. Perhaps most notably, the reality star-turned-entrepreneur stepped out at the September 2021 Met Gala in a *literal* head-to-toe look with Demna on her arm. After the event, searches for Balenciaga skyrocketed by 505 percent. “Most people and brands are unprepared for their viral moment, as, more often than not, it happens spontaneously,” wrote Grazia’s Megan McClelland at the time. “To channel virality and manufacture it is real power in the digital age—one that Kardashian West and Balenciaga know all too well.” Seemingly a match made in heaven, the Kardashian-Balenciaga partnership might be over given two images that appeared in the brand’s 2022 holiday campaign. Here’s everything you need to know about what Balenciaga did and their current controversy.
What did Balenciaga do? In the final week of November 2022, the brand released two images from its holiday campaign. Shot by photographer Gabriele Galimberti, who is known for taking pictures of people and children surrounded by their possessions, the Objects campaign featured images of children clutching plush teddy bears in harnesses and mesh tops—an aesthetic associated with bondage and BDSM fetishes. Another image, taken by Chris Maggio, depicts a Balenciaga x Adidas hourglass handbag on top of a handful of documents. One is a page from the 2008 Supreme Court ruling (United States v. Williams) that criminalized advertising, promoting, presenting or distributing sexualized images of children. The final controversial image featured a book, Fire From the Sun by the artist Michaël Borremans. The painter’s exhibition of the same name was described by art curator David Zwirner as featuring “toddlers engaged in playful but mysterious acts with sinister overtones and insinuations of violence.” In isolation, the ads were indeed strange but released together so closely, the campaign landed Balenciaga in exceptionally hot water.
Within hours, the international fashion community condemned the campaign for promoting pedophilia and using child abuse/pornography as a publicity stunt (the brand’s creative director Denma is no stranger to capitalizing on controversy, more on that later). Balenciaga issued an arguably hollow apology, saying: “We sincerely apologize for any offense our holiday campaign may have caused. Our plush bear bags should not have been featured with children in this campaign,” the company said in a statement posted to its Instagram story on Tuesday. “We have immediately removed the campaign from all platforms.” Two hours later, a follow-up statement was issued: “We apologize for displaying unsettling documents in our campaign. We take this matter very seriously and are taking legal action against the parties responsible for creating the set and including unapproved items for our Spring 23 campaign photoshoot. We strongly condemn abuse of children in any form. We stand for children safety and well-being.” The brand has also wiped its Instagram feed clean, which it did once before in 2021 before presenting its 50th couture collection—the first since its founder Cristóbal Balenciaga shut the doors to his atelier in 1968.
In the days following the Objects campaign, many followers noticed that Kim Kardashian had remained silent on the matter for almost a week. Then, on November 27, 2022 the shapewear mogul made a statement on social media: “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 tweeted. “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.” She continued: “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. As for my future with Balenciaga, I am currently re-evaluating my relationship with the brand, basing it off their willingness to accept accountability for something that should have never happened to begin with—& the actions I am expecting to see them take to protect children.”
In a statement issued to Instagram, photographer Gabriele Galimberti said: “I am not in a position to comment Balenciaga’s choices, but I must stress that I was not entitled in whatsoever manner to neither chose the products, nor the models, nor the combination of the same.” He continued: “As a photographer, I was only and solely requested to lit the given scene, and take the shots according to my signature style. As usual for a commercial shooting, the direction of the campaign and the choice of the objects displayed are not in the hands of the photographer.”
The brand has doubled down on deflecting ultimate responsibility for the campaign and the use of “unapproved” props. On November 28, 2022, Balenciaga filed a $25 million lawsuit against those hired to develop and produce the campaign, North Six Inc. and set designer Nicholas Des Jardins. “The inclusion of these unapproved documents was the result of reckless negligence for which Balenciaga has filed a complaint,” reads the statement from the company, which said it’s “reinforcing the structures around our creative processes and validation steps,” per CNN.
The court filing alleges that, due to North Six and Des Jardins’ actions, “members of the public, including the news media, have falsely and horrifically associated Balenciaga with the repulsive and deeply disturbing subject of the court decision.” North Six and Des Jardins, it states, should be held liable for “all harm resulting from this false association.”
Amelia K. Brankov, an attorney for Des Jardins and his company Nicholas Des Jardins LLC, said in an emailed statement to CNN that “there certainly was no malevolent scheme going on. As Balenciaga is aware, numerous boxes of documents simply were sourced from a prop house as rental items.” The statement continued: “Moreover, representatives from Balenciaga were present at the shoot, overseeing it and handling papers and props and Des Jardins as a set designer was not responsible for image selection from the shoot.”
It’s not the first time Balenciaga and Demna have garnered controversy, though this is certainly the most intense backlash the brand and its creative director have faced since he took over the mantle in 2015 from Alexander Wang. In October 2022, the brand faced pressure to drop Kanye West, now known as Ye, as an ambassador after he posted anti-Semitic hate speech on Twitter. “Balenciaga has no longer any relationship nor any plans for future projects related to this artist,” its parent company Kering was quoted as saying by WWD. Kering also heads up Gucci, Saint Laurent, Alexander McQueen and Bottega Veneta.
In May 2022, the Spanish fashion house released a limited run of destroyed sneakers which it was selling for $1,850. It was meant to “suggest that the Paris Sneaker are meant to be worn for a lifetime”, an admirable point to make given the negative impact fast fashion has on the environment. But some felt the campaign fell flat given that the brand was essentially selling products that were already halfway through their lifecycle. In 2017, Balenciaga released a $2,145 blue leather tote that was a luxury knock-off of Ikea’s iconic 99-cent bag. Previously, Demna made street-style icons out of a $300 DHL t-shirt under his own brand, Vetements. He’s a divisive presence in fashion for sure, but it seems like the industry has finally drawn a line in the sand.
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