Has Balenciaga crossed the line with their holiday ads that feature children holding bears in “bondage gear”?
It is not clear why Balenciaga, the brand that dropped Kanye West, chose to be controversial in their holiday advertising campaign. In one series, called Balenciaga Gift Shop, children were photographed holding bags in the shape of bears. Usually, the choice of handheld would be deemed cute, but these were not Care Bears, nor those akin to Ralph Lauren’s Polo Bear, also dubbed Preppy Bear. Balenciaga’s were kitted in what many has described as “S&M bondage gear”. There are even those going as far as calling the end result “depraved” and “virtual child porn”. Any advertising that involve the underaged is always a tricky affair, so it is not clear why the children were placed amid merchandise for adults and those only adults could afford to buy. Balenciaga has, of course, pushed the boundary of taste during much of Demna Gvasalia’s tenure, but this time, could they have thrusted themselves just that much too far?
Following the public outcry, Balenciaga withdrew all the unseemly ads, saying in a statement on Instagram: “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. We have immediately removed the campaign from all platforms.” In one photo, a child stood before a quartet of wine glasses, among other things associated with grownups. Kids and the things arranged orderly in front of them are reportedly a take on photographer Gabriele Galimberti’s Toy Stories, in which children from all over the world are photographed with their play things. In an earlier press release, Balenciaga described the images as “exploration of what people collect and receive as gifts”. Yet, in the apology post, it stressed: “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 photo shoot.” They must have seen the images before issuing the PR kit. It is hard to imagine that no one in Balenciaga sent out those item for the shoot, or knew what was loaned.
Indeed, how did the “unapproved items” appear in an ad that Balenciaga commissioned? Mr Galimberti was quick to respond on IG: “I am not in a position to comment [on] 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. As a photographer, I was only and solely requested to lit (sic) the given scene, and take the shots according to my signature style.” One fashion photographer here told us that Mr Galimberti is not wrong. “We don’t decide what to shoot. Clients do, even the props. Sometimes, the clients work through a stylist, who will then bring the clothes and accessories to the shoot. We won’t know what’s approved, what’s not. Or, even, who the models might be.”
Soon after the S&M bear rebuke, those on the lookout for missteps of luxury brands spotted one more oversight, in another Balenciaga ad—this time for the house’s Hourglass bag, bearing the Adidas Three Stripes. In the image (above), put together during the shoot for the collab’s campaign, the S$4,790 bag was placed atop strewn documents. Perhaps to come across as officious (the campaign, in fact, was shot in an office). One of the sheets is purportedly a page off the document from a Supreme Court decision that prohibits the distribution of pornography involving children. What was the set stylist thinking of? Whatever it was, Netizens could not help but wonder if Balenciaga thought that two controversies are better than one.
“We apologise for displaying unsettling documents in our campaign,” Balenciaga posted on Instagram. “We take this matter very seriously and are taking legal action against parties responsible for creating the set and including unapproved (again?) items for our spring 23 campaign photoshoot.” The legal action, as it turned out, was to file a lawsuit against production company North Six, Inc. and its agent, Nicholas Des Jardins, who was reported to have designed the set for the shoots. And Balenciaga said it will seek at least US$25 million in damages for what they called “false association” between Balenciaga and the “repulsive and deeply disturbing subject of the court decision.”
Meanwhile, ardent friend of the house Kim Kardashian, who is also their couture model and who always has first dibs of their key looks, has remained curiously silent. Even her fans were wondering why she had not taken a stand, considering that her kids could be the target audience of the teddy ads. Then on Sunday, she made an announcement, claiming that she has been “re-evaluating” her relationship with Balenciaga. She explained why she did not say something sooner: “I wanted an opportunity to speak to their team to understand for myself how this could have happened” even when she was “shaken by the disturbing images”. Has she understood and was she satisfied? Balenciaga had already found themselves in a predicament with Ms Kardashian’s ex-husband and his shocking anti-Semitic rants. They quickly disassociated themselves with him. And now, those disquieting ads. Not quite the festive edit, not at all.