Balenciaga has been in hot water in recent months with its Gift Shop campaign featuring children and seemingly BDSM-inspired teddy bears. The brand stated that the inspiration for the bears was punk and DIY, not BDSM. Things got worse when it was discovered that several props used in the separate Spring 2023 campaign hinted at paedophilic undertones – a printout of the U.S Supreme Court’s ruling in United States v. Williams which confirmed that First Amendment rights did not include child pornography; a book by Belgian artist, Michaël Borremans, a controversial figure whose work depicted toddlers playing in disturbed, deranged, or violent ways; and finally a fake college certificate that featured a name that when googled would show identities of real people, including a convicted child abuser. Coincidence? Demna, the artistic director at Balenciaga, spoke to Vogue to clear things up.
When asked about the hidden props featured in the Spring 2023 campaign, Demna claimed that they were a “set of negligent and unfortunate but not intentional coincidences.”
As he explained, “At first, we were told the documents were confirmed to be fake. The Gift Shop campaign was different because the inappropriate nature of associating kids with those objects was clearly our mistake. When the scandal was sparked [by the documents and props], I was like, everybody, my team, was shocked. I don’t know how they ended up there. They were not supposed to be there. I was completely stunned.”
When pressed about whether or not this was intentional, Demna said, “Intentional from who? From us? What I can definitely say is that it was not intentional by me or Balenciaga. If it was intentional by someone else, I don’t know.”
As for the child-starring Gift Shop campaign, Demna has taken full responsibility but reiterates that the campaign was not intended to be taken the way it was.
“The Gift Shop campaign was completely unrelated to the Spring 2023 campaign,” said Demna. “They were shot at a different time, one in October and the other in July. The campaign was made to promote the line of objects in relation to the end-of-the-year holidays. It was a large variety of unrelated products, which required a concept in which many different products could be shot all together. Kidswear was a part of the selection for the “gift shop,” as well as the plush teddy bear bags, referencing punk and DIY culture, absolutely not BDSM, and they were worn by adults in the October 2022 show.”
Demna added that this eclectic collection of items was why the decision was made to go with photographer, Gabriele Galimberti, whose previous work featured children surrounded by their toys. The idea was to take that concept and instead of toys it would be Balenciaga items.
“This is where my error comes in,” said Demna. “That was my big mistake. I didn’t realise how inappropriate it would be to put these objects [in the image] and still have the kid in the middle. It unfortunately was the wrong idea and a bad decision from me… No one, myself included, raised a question of it being inappropriate. There were control processes in place, people involved – internal and external – but we just did not spot what was problematic.”
Galimberti echoed these statements when speaking to The Guardian. He said the child models were the children of Balenciaga employees, who were there during the shoot. Galimberti said no one raised concerns, “When they saw those bags, everybody was telling them they were punk. Nobody ever mentioned BDSM.”
Galimberti did not work on the Spring 2023 campaign that featured the documents as he said in a statement, “I have no connection with the photo where a Supreme Court document appears. That one was taken in another set by other people and was falsely associated with my photos.”
Balenciaga have since lodged a lawsuit against production company North Six, Inc. and its agent, Nicholas Des Jardins, who designed the set for the Spring campaign. The suit alleges that the defendants engaged in “inexplicable acts and omissions” that were “malevolent or, at the very least, extraordinarily reckless.”
Balenciaga alleges that “members of the public, including the news media, have falsely and horrifically assosciated Balenciaga with the repulsive and deeply disturbing subject of the court decisions.” As such, the defendants are liable to Balenciaga for “all harm resulting from this false association.” They’re seeking damages of at least $25 million.