Balenciaga Ads: “Wrong Artistic Choice”

Demna Gvasalia finally reacts and apologises

In the past, European luxury houses could not get their advertising right for Asia. Now they can’t do it well for their own audience. For Balenciaga, the misstep struck twice. And the reactions to them have been by no means mild. Fans of Kim Kardashian were quick to point out how she, a Balenciaga fan and model (or the better-sounding “brand ambassador”), had been slow to say something. She eventually did, claiming she had been “re-evaluating” her relationship with the house. Five days after one of the problematic ads ‘Balenciaga Gift Shop’ was launched (16 November) and the disapproval (sometimes rabid) that followed, Balenciaga posted on Instagram, “We sincerely apologize for any offense our holiday campaign may have caused…” In the mean time, country singer Jason Aldean’s wife Brittany Aldean was one of the first celebrities to show her unmistakable disapproval: she shared a post on IG showing her taking out the garbage in clear plastic bags. In them were Balenciaga merchandise. The comment read, “It’s trash day @balenciaga.” No one could be certain if she really discarded those items or if it was just a social-media stunt. The post was quickly deleted. Two days ago, Mrs Aldean shared another photo of herself in a leather jacket with the message: “A little fringe and Dolce never hurt nobody”.

And now Demna Gvasalia, like other designers before him, has apologised. On IG, he wrote under the header “Personal Message”: “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 had nothing to do with them.” This came more than two weeks after the backlash unfurled. Still, it is a welcome move as no one in the industry that we spoke to believed that Balenciaga was not aware of “unapproved items” used, as stated in an earlier apology, or that no one in the company knew what was disseminated. And that they should be so aggrieved by the sum fallout that they initiated a USD25-million lawsuit against the companies that produced the advertisements for another campaign (Spring 2023 collection) containing those “unsettling documents”.

After Mr Gvasalia’s post, Balenciaga CEO Cédric Charbit apologised too, calling what happened in the past weeks “our mistakes” and sharing a list of corporate actions—“with the objective to learn from our mistakes”—that the company has instituted, including reorganising “our image department to ensure full alignment with our corporate guidelines”. Mr Charbit also revealed that Balenciaga “has decided not to pursue litigation”. No reason was given to the rescinding. Provocation is, of course, part of Balenciaga’s present-day appeal. But things could go unnecessarily far. Now, there is even the hashtag #CANCELBALENCIAGA (on TikTok, more than 120 million views have been clocked). Mr Gvasalia also said in his personal message, “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.” Another day in the world of fashion. And the route to redemption.

Photo: Zhao Xiangji

No Kidding: S&M Teddy

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.

Photos: Balenciaga

National Costume Naught

Does this Mister International Singapore contestant’s near nakedness prove that the emperor’s new clothes equal our “national costume”? Or, the other obsession, “national dress”?

Mr International Sean Nicholas Sutiono in our “National Costume”. Photo: officialmisterinternatinoal/Instagram

No costume is the costume! You can’t say that is not genius. By now, you’d have seen this picture. The male beauty competition Mister International has shared it on social media, and Netizens have decried the clothing of choice as “nothing”, not the touted “national costume”. This is such an apt look to announce that we are still searching—even in vain—for one. Bare chest (and muscles) can take the place of a set of clothing. And we are in line with trends in fashion. This year’s winner to represent our nation at the finals in Manila this Sunday is Sean Nicholas Sutiono, an accounts associate and The Straits Times’s ‘Hot Bods’ honoree last October. Mr Sutiono also shared this photo on Instagram, adding the comment: “If you’d understand, it was a statement I had to make and the only thing I had.” Many people were confused—did he mistake the swimwear round for the national costume segment? That would make a statement! And what was he referring to by saying that that was the only thing he had? Did he mean the Singaporean flag?

If Mister International can pass that off as national costume, then Mr Sutiono is often wearing one on his IG page. Responding to the sharp comments on their IG post of Mr Sutiono in the brief-as-boxers shorts posing as if he has just won a medal at some global games, Mister International wrote, “Sean’s National Costume is in the works”. So close to the competition day and not completed? Does it not sound like last year’s Miss Universe Bernadette Belle Wu Ong with her last-minute national costume? But at least she had someone in Manila to whip something up for her. Mr Sutiono, as it appears, had to assemble one for himself. Do pageant organisers not learn from each other? Mister International then explained why the costume was still in the works on the day of the photo shoot: “Due to the unfortunate tragic passing of our Singaporean owned National Director (sic) – the late Alan Sim. This was fitting at the time.” Fitting! Someone dies and the man strips? Our national costume is now apropos salute to guys who run shirtless on Holland Road outside the Botanic Gardens on any given day.

Sean’s National Costume is in the works”

Mister International

The passing of Singaporean Alan Sim was announced by Mister International on 16 October. The cause of death is not known. Mr Sim, 50, founded Mister International Organization (MIO) in 2006. A 23-year male beauty contest veteran, he considered himself “a great fan of the Miss Universe Pageants” and counted Miss Columbia 1986, Patricia Lopez Ruiz, a favourite. With his unmistakable, tattooed, arched eyebrows, Mr Sim was himself also a frequent contestant of the pageant circuit—most of the competitions regular guys won’t know if they are not pageant fanatics: Mister Young Singapore and Mister Young International. His passing has not deterred MIO from carrying on with the staging of their latest edition—the 14th—“as a tribute to our founder”, the company announced on IG. It is not known when Mr Sim became ill and why he was singularly responsible for Mr Sutiono’s costume. Or, why, given the urgency of the matter, something could not be found or stitched up for the SG rep to wear, more than a week after Mr Sim’s demise was publicly made known.

At the 2019 Mister International, also held in the Philippines, Singaporean rep Famy Ashary wore a pale green baju Melayu that his mother would likely find too tight for Hari Raya, but it was a baju—an outfit, modest to boot, although, to be sure, as with Miss Universe, national costumes can be and often are scanty affairs. They are, however, not quite like the afterthought that the unfortunate Mr Sutiono, also last year’s Mr World participant (he’s an experienced pageant boy!), had to pull off in what Mister International had described as “National Costume portrait”. How is Singapore really depicted? Or the Singaporean male? Lazy oafs? One New York-based Singaporean designer wondered why, till today, we cannot get this right. He told SOTD: “Enough. It’s so ridiculous. Or, when designers try to mesh cultures together to create a national dress.”

Mr Sutiono’s no-clothes national costume, in fact, appeared just a few days after the newly-named Singapore Fashion Council (SFC, the former TaFF or Textile and Fashion Federation of Singapore) sent out a guide to attendees of the upcoming Singapore Stories 2022 presentation with suggestions of what they could wear to go with the dress code of the evening, Singapore Glamour: Black Tie or National Dress. SFC helpfully informed that black tie is “semi-formal attire convention” while national dress is an “alternative to black tie and entails formal attire from diverse cultures”. National dress and national costume are often used interchangeably. If Sean Nicholas Sutiono’s pageant-worthy national costume of shorts and boots can make the cut, male guests gracing Singapore Stories 2022 can take inspiration from him. As SFC also suggested, ”feel free to bring your own interpretation”. How about free of clothes?

Ye, Something Is Wrong

Has jealousy really consumed Kanye West?

Kanye West interviewed by Tucker Carlson. Screen shot: motherboardtv/FaceBook

At the end of the Tucker Carlson introduction to his interview with Kanye West, televised on Fox News last week, the anchor asked, “Is West crazy?”. The answer might well be a resounding yes (his purported bipolar disorder aside). But Mr Carlson wanted you to believe otherwise. Many of us, “the enemies of his ideas” America’s favourite conservative political commentator said, “dismissed West, as they have for years, as mentally ill. Too crazy to take seriously. Look away. Ignore him. He’s a mental patient. There’s nothing to see here.” Did Tucker Carlson know something we did not or only suspected? Is he pro-West, as he appeared to be, calling his interviewee “a highly-paid and celebrated fashion designer”. Perhaps anything less laudatory but more critical would not be honorary to the man lapping it all up before him? Never mind that when Mr Carlson adulates, as he does when it comes to, for example, Vladimir Putin, he makes many cringe.

As it turned out, Kanye West enjoyed the interview so much that he gave Mr Carlson more than the two hours worth of material that made the broadcast. In fact, the desultory session was much longer. And far more revealing and disturbing. According to Vice, its sibling unit Motherboard TV obtained footages of those parts omitted in the final two-parter. Kanye West can’t stop talking—that’s for sure. But he won’t stop talking about Virgil Abloh—that’s just annoying. Or Mr West’s own massive part in the scheme of things—that’s double the annoyance. Since his mind-numbing YZY SZN 9 show in Paris more than a week ago, the rapper-designer has been gabbing that it was he who made possible Mr Abloh’s rise to the fashion firmament. And, in case everyone has just returned from orbiting Mars, that Mr Abloh was his assistant, a mere sidekick, the one who should not have succeeded, but did anyway. What is that supposed to evoke?

And the sour grapes became even more so. Could this be what consumed by jealousy looks like? He couldn’t reiterate what he already said on Instagram (the platform, as well as Twitter restricted him for allegedly anti-Semitic comments); so he took to the French media outlet Clique TV. And just in case the editing there was too heavy-handed, he found the repeating of himself necessary with Tucker Carlson, the eager listener to those who would give him material to match his view that his own voice is being silenced by intolerant liberals. And Mr West would not be suppressed either. So he said again in the un-aired footage Motherboard TV shared, ”Virgil was hired as my assistant” (he also emphasised later that “he got his line [Off-White], but he’s my main employee”) and, in true Trumpian boast, “we did this fashion show that was the… it was the most seen fashion show in history”. We assume he was referring to Yeezy Season 1.

And then the reminder that LVMH wanted to invest in him. As that show was so widely watched, “Bernard Arnault asked to meet with me. And he offered me a deal. But with the deal, they had to have ownership because they are colonisers… All these people, all these VCs and a lot of this type of companies, they have to have a lot of this kind of ownership. And Louis Vuitton have presented themselves in such a way—they have so much real estate, where a Black man’s dream comes true.” Yet, despite their real estate, their supposed interest in him and what he had done till then, and his willingness “to give them the lion’s share”, Mr West said, that “three months later, they dropped the deal at the board.” And then his “best friend” got the position at Louis Vuitton, “which is, aside from Hermès, one of the most prestigious jobs in the world.”

Despite the acknowledgement of the prestige a job at LV confers, it would be amazing that after this, any fashion company would be willing to work with him. Particularly disconcerting was his assertion that “Virgil was actually the third person to die of cancer in that organisation (LVMH)“ without saying how he came to such statistics, as well as “not just Black men have passed in that organisation, but the third person to die of cancer that was in a higher up position in that organisation”. And then he went on to point out that “Paris is a different level of elitism and racism. And Virgil was the kind of guy that—he didn’t hold it in. And I believe it ate him up from inside.” If you are still not convinced, he repeated himself to underscore that point. “The level of racism, elitism and pressure that he was under, I’m sure, affected his health.”

No matter how often he has blurted about the competition—unhealthy enough to deserve echoing—between Mr Abloh and he, repetition is necessary. “At that point, also me and Virgil had a rivalry because he had taken my place in fashion,” Mr West reminded the viewers. Was his place that low that it could be easily scaled or, to him, usurped? And as before, he had to drag Drake’s name in: “He was now Drake to the radio of what he was to fashion. And we had a strained relationship also.” He did not say exactly what caused the strain. But jealousy, as he had pointed out before, was (and still is) likely the root of all that bedeviled him. And then his other Drake, Bernard Arnault, was brought up again. “I felt what Bernard Arnault—not only did he pull on the deal that contributed to me breaking down, and go back on his word with that, he also went on to hire multiple people out of my organisation.” It is hard even for the “king of culture” to find the courage and the confirmation in a career considered crowned. Even when no one cares.