When High Fashion and QAnon Collide

Ever since Demna became the artistic director of Balenciaga, the brand has been hit with controversy, often intentionally. From adding heels on Crocs to selling destroyed sneakers for $1,850 and dressing Kim Kardashian in a black body stocking for the Met Gala; Balenciaga’s marketing seems to be incredibly bizarre. 

Balenciaga’s latest campaigns 

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The outrage created by the extreme choices of the company seemed to be the whole point. Each only furthered the reputation of Balenciaga as a brand that forces consumers to deal with the meaning of “taste.”

However, two new Balenciaga campaigns have taken social scandals to a whole new level. One campaign has photos of children holding handbags that look like teddy bears in BDSM gear. Another campaign had documents that included paperwork about child pornography laws. Together, they started a firestorm on the internet.

How it all went down

The fallout began on November 16, when Balenciaga published their campaign called Balenciaga Gift Shop. Gabriele Galimberti, an Italian photographer, shot it. Mr. Galimberti previously worked on a book featuring images of kids playing with their toys, but he had never worked on a fashion campaign before.

His photographs show six children holding destroyed teddy bear bags, which were first seen in the brand’s spring runway show in Paris. The bears had black eyes, fishnet tops, and leather harnesses. Wine glasses and other items were also displayed around them. 

Balenciaga staff approved the shoot

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According to Galimberti, the props, as well as the underaged models and the location chosen for the shoot, had been selected by Balenciaga. Numerous staff members were present during the two days of the shoot. Not long after the campaign was posted online, outrage began against the images that juxtaposed the children in what looked to be bondage paraphernalia.

A couple of days later, on November 21, Balenciaga released a different campaign: The 2023 Garde-Robe advertising campaign. Social media followers zoomed in on images from the campaign that were used as a prop. It turned out to be paperwork from a Supreme Court decision on child pornography laws.

Supreme Court documents at the Balenciaga shoots

The Garde-Robe campaign, which was the second campaign, included Nicole Kidman, Bella Hadid, and Isabelle Huppert as models. It was shot in the month of July, before the Gift Shop campaign, and featured an office setting. The apparel in the campaign was first introduced in a May 2022 show in New York. 

In one of the campaign’s images, a $3,000 Balenciaga x Adidas handbag was featured on a desk with copies of the Supreme Court’s 2008 ruling in U.S. v. Williams. The case explored if laws pandering to child pornography curtailed First Amendment freedom of speech rights.

Is Balenciaga promoting violence against children?

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Some have included images from both campaigns to suggest that they’re one and the same. A Twitter user shared photos from the two shoots and wrote, “the brand ‘Balenciaga’ just did a uh ….. interesting … photo shoot for their new products recently which included a very purposely poorly hidden court document about ‘virtual child porn.’ normal stuff.” 

This tweet, along with other ones, suggested that Balenciaga was promoting a child pornography campaign as well as glamorizing violence against children. Many felt this way due to the sexualization of children. 

Why did this controversy take off?

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As online criticism spread, the story was picked up by right-leaning media outlets, like “The New York Post” and “Tucker Carlson Tonight.” The show publicized QAnon—An internet conspiracy that a group of Satan-worshiping elites are running a child sex ring and are trying to control U.S. media and politics.

“Here you have a major international retail brand promoting kiddie porn and sex with children, and not promoting it subtly but right out in the open,” said Mr. Carlson on his show.

How did Balenciaga respond?

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Balenciaga’s first response to the backlash came on November 24, when the brand apologized for the Gift Shop campaign and promised to remove all ads from its social media platforms.

“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,” read a statement on the brand’s Instagram page on November 24.

Apologies and more apologies 

A few hours later, a second apology addressing the Garde-Robe shoot was posted to the brand’s Instagram stories. 

“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 photo shoot. We strongly condemn the abuse of children in any form. We stand for children’s safety and well-being,” said the statement. 

Balenciaga sues 

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On November 25, the brand filed papers in New York initiating a $25 million lawsuit against the production houses North Six and Nicholas Des Jardins, who were responsible for designing the set for the Garde-Robe campaign.

The document alleged that the production house and set designers engaged in “inexplicable acts and omissions that were malevolent or, at the very least, extraordinarily reckless.” The brand stated that the documents were added to the campaign photographs without their prior knowledge. This led to false associations between Balenciaga and child pornography.

Balenciaga’s latest statement on their first campaign

On November 28, two weeks after the storm brewed and after a series of Instagram apologies, the company issued a statement saying, “The first campaign, the gift collection campaign, featured children with plush bear bags dressed in what some have labeled BDSM-inspired outfits.”

”Our plush bear bags and the gift collection should not have been featured with children. This was a wrong choice by Balenciaga, combined with our failure in assessing and validating images. The responsibility for this lies with Balenciaga alone,” said the statement.

Balenciaga throws light on their second campaign

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The same statement explored what went wrong with the second campaign, “The second, separate campaign for spring 2023, which was meant to replicate a business office environment, included a photo with a page in the background from a Supreme Court ruling ‘United States v. Williams’ 2008 which confirms as illegal and not protected by freedom of speech the promotion of child pornography.”

The statement continued, “All the items included in this shooting were provided by third parties that confirmed in writing that these props were fake office documents. They turned out to be real legal papers, most likely coming from the filming of a television drama. The inclusion of these unapproved documents was the result of reckless negligence for which Balenciaga has filed a complaint. We take full accountability for lack of oversight and control of the documents in the background, and we could have done things differently.”