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Luxury fashion houses are no strangers to scandals. From Gucci’s straightjacket-esque outfit making headlines for its insensitivity toward mental health issues to Burberry’s noose-string hoodie turning suicide into a marketable trend, companies constantly push the limits of what is acceptable in today’s society to fulfill their perverted and “artistic” visions. Recently, Balenciaga has been added to the aforementioned group of brands for its pedophilia-endorsing advertisements.
The “Balenciaga Gift Shop” holiday campaign featured young children holding teddy bears. But they weren’t your run-of-the-mill stuffed animals—the bears were outfitted with bondage harnesses, fishnets, and other BDSM gear. Another photo that dropped on the company’s website for its Spring/Summer 2023 collection displayed paperwork from the Supreme Court’s United States v. Williams case (2008), which argued that prohibiting child pornography was not a violation of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. When considering both of these campaign pieces, it is undeniable that everyone involved with this shoot (the photographers, marketers, and lawyers) was aiding this unconventional and borderline illegal expression of art.
Almost immediately after the campaign dropped, the vast majority of the public was appalled. The hashtag #cancelBalenciaga trended on popular social media platforms Twitter and TikTok. Celebrities including 90210 star AnnaLynne McCord and Real Housewives of New York City alum Bethenny Frankel spoke out against Balenciaga. Kim Kardashian, arguably the face of the fashion house, only spoke out almost a week later, saying she was “currently re-evaluating” her future with the brand. While it’s hard to judge certain celebrities’ actions as “performative” in comparison to others, the hesitation to denounce Balenciaga certainly places Kardashian in with the group of celebrities who are unwilling to value their morals over brand partnerships with high monetary value.
As expected, Balenciaga’s response to the campaign was lackluster at most. A day after the campaign launched, it was taken down. Balenciaga released a blanket apology for “any offense [its] holiday campaign may have caused.” Demna Gvasalia, the creative director of Balenciaga, also apologized personally for “the wrong artistic choice of concept.” Finally, Balenciaga’s CEO Cédric Charbit released Balenciaga’s plan for bettering their content validation process, reorganizing their image department, learning about how to protect children, and donating to numerous organizations that shelter children. Though this all seems thorough, Balenciaga isn’t directly taking ownership of the campaign ad—it is simply apologizing to those who had been offended. This trend is common in many celebrity apologies, with celebrities failing to own up to their usage of slurs by addressing their apology to those who were offended (for example, Jane the Virgin star Gina Rodriguez).
In this apology, the company also fails to address the ad with the Supreme Court case, which is an integral reason for Balenciaga’s controversy. Balenciaga has continued deflecting the blame onto other parties involved by filing a $25 million lawsuit against North Six Inc. and set designer Nicholas Des Jardin for their inclusion of Supreme Court documents in its advertisement. Even if the production company is a separate entity from Balenciaga, the photos were undoubtedly approved by Balenciaga’s team, who did not thoroughly vet the content.
Balenciaga’s abhorrent campaign ad and photos exemplify that companies are not above accountability or the public. The public’s voice can be a very valuable check on the power of large institutions. The reaction and response to the ad also shows what people care about, which is where things start to get blurry. Because Balenciaga is a high fashion company that is well above the price range of many consumers, it is easy for the general public to boycott Balenciaga. But what about accessible fast fashion companies that exploit children? Many people are unable to boycott fast fashion because it is all they can afford, which is reasonable. However, the treatment of children in the fashion industry, whether in photographs or behind sewing machines, is a more widespread issue than consumers care to admit.
Since its apologies, Balenciaga has not released any more collections or pursued other collaborations. But inevitably, it will. In an ever-changing world of fashion combined with the pressure to be profitable, the fashion house must definitely stay relevant. Are an apology and a misguided lawsuit enough for the public to move on? How quickly will the public forgive and forget? Media coverage has already died down, and Kim Kardashian still has Instagram posts featuring Balenciaga apparel. Arguably, “cancel culture” is only effective if the targeted entities stay canceled, which is not the case for most celebrities and companies; they simply continue with their lives after issuing a blanket apology statement.
But there is still hope. Perhaps this time, Balenciaga will stay blacklisted and boycotted because people will stop buying from them. Maybe Kardashian will “re-evaluate” her relationship with Balenciaga enough to find a new brand to endorse, a task that doesn’t seem too difficult for someone with her status. Even if Balenciaga rebounds, maybe by reading this article and remembering what happened, we can ensure that Balenciaga, and eventually other companies, can’t simply leave the past behind them.