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Balenciaga’s quest for redemption has had the opposite effect

The luxury brand’s brush with accusations of paedophilia has united haters and fans in shared concern. But the controversy also points to systemic issues of exploitation and power within the fashion industry.

Publicity stunt? Mindless oversight? Elite satanic conspiracy?

Whichever best explains Balenciaga’s latest controversy – triggered by two campaigns that featured disturbing associations between children and sex –  finding an answer to the whole fiasco has become somewhat of a moot point in the face of its subsequent fallout.

For anyone who hasn’t been following, Balenciaga – a luxury clothing brand headed by Georgian fashion designer Demna – launched a gifting campaign on Instagram last week.

The images, since deleted, featured young children dressed head-to-toe in Balenciaga clothing, standing amidst a slew of designer gifts. But it wasn’t the monogrammed tea sets or custom yoga mats that drew attention.

What’s really riled people up are the teddy bear backpacks the kids are clutching, which appear to be wearing bondage belts and fetish clothing.

Whether you’re a fan of the brand, a fervent hater, or simply uninterested, we can all agree the bags were inappropriate for children.

Garish PR stunts are nothing new in the fashion industry, and one also couldn’t be blamed for assuming Balenciaga may simply have made a (very stupid) marketing blunder.

But as Raven Smith put it, ‘the idea that a cabal of paedophiles is trying to […] and normalise the sexualisation of kids via a Balenciaga campaign feels – dare I say it – a little far-fetched?’.

Yet shortly following bear-gate, another campaign sparked outrage. Featuring notable celebrities including Bella Hadid and Nicole Kidman in a high-rise office setting, the images were called out for the inclusion of brow-raising paperwork on the office desks.

After some sleuthing, one netizen found a page from the 2008 Supreme Court ruling in United States v. Williams, which confirms child pornography as illegal and not protected by freedom of speech.

Needless to say, Balenciaga has received some well-deserved heat for both campaigns.

While I’m certain the brand didn’t have some grave child-pornography-centred agenda behind its latest collections, nor do I believe the heads of the company are evil predators.

But the response to Balenciaga’s blunder – both from the public and Balenciaga itself – has said more about fashion’s twisted power structures than the campaigns ever could.

Despite removing the images and sharing an apology note to Instagram shortly after backlash started to surface, Balenciaga has decided to – very publicly – seek $25 million in damages from production company North Six, who shot both campaigns.

Set designer Nicholas Des Jardins has also been targeted in the lawsuit.

This ferocious reaction not only adds fuel to the whole controversy fire – after all, I’m sure there are just a handful of people who truly believe Balenciaga pushed this disgusting narrative on purpose, and such a public lawsuit feels a touch high-handed  – but the brands deflection of blame has now raised another string of criticisms.

Demna, Balenciaga’s head designer, has been lauded for his creative genius since arriving at the brand’s helm.

Following the SS23 show in Paris this October, the Georgian designer was described as ‘rewriting fashion’s rulebook’, his ‘decorative motifs, his obsessions, […] all part of the common fashion language now’.

The flagrant infatuation with fashion designers is part-and-parcel of the industry’s allure. And Demna is certainly a talented artist with an ostensibly effortless knack for sartorial vicissitude.

But if we place these individuals on such beaming pedestals, why don’t we hold them accountable when mistakes are made?

Balenciaga has been quick to shift the blame to Des Jardins and North Six, denying any and all responsibility from the moment controversy began boiling over.

Attorneys for Des Jardins have highlighted the baselessness of Balenciaga’s lawsuit. Besides ensuring that ‘there certainly was no malevolent scheme going on’ during the campaign production, Amelia K. Brankov, Des Jardins lawyer, has blamed Balenciaga for creative negligence.

‘As Balenciaga is aware’ Brankov told CNN, ‘numerous boxes of documents simply were sourced from a prop house as rental items’ referring to the disturbing choice of legal papers that ended up in the images.

Only after further backlash has Demna come out with a forthright apology of his own. Echoing the brand’s earlier claim that it was ‘taking accountability for [its] lack of oversight’ and ‘reinforcing the structures around our creative process and validation steps’ Demna wrote in an Instagram post this week.

‘I want to personally apologise 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’.

However Demna has refrained from taking any blame for the second campaign featuring documents centred on child pornography laws. This blunder, it seems, will stay pinned on Des Jardins and North Six.

So where is Demna – where is his creative vision, his industry–shifting talent – in all of this?

If the brand’s lead designer was so uninvolved in both campaigns, surely we need to open discussions for where creativity truly lies in this business.

Just as we are quick to look deeper when casting blame, so too should we consider all the visionaries tirelessly working in the background to make Balenciaga – and other wildly successful brands – the fashion meccas that they are.

What really sits at the heart of this issue, then, is powerful corporations exploiting workers, throwing them under the bus when the work they hired them for in the first place doesn’t have the desired effect.


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