Balenciaga has apologised for a controversial holiday ad campaign that depicted children holding teddy bears handbags adorned in fetish gear, even as thousands of people on TikTok and Twitter call to #cancelBalenciaga.
The Gift Shop campaign, lensed by renowned photographer Gabriele Galimberti, was intended to be a statement on the giving and receiving of gifts, inspired by Galimberti's own "toy story" photography series.
However, the depiction of children holding bears in bondage gear – including harnesses, cuffs and fishnets – earned the ire of the internet.
"We sincerely apologise for any offence our Holiday campaign may have caused," Demna said in a statement, posted to his Instagram.
"Our plush bear bags should not have been featured with children in this campaign. We have immediately removed the campaign from all platforms."
Why Is Balenciaga Being ‘Cancelled’?
On TikTok alone, the hashtag #cancelbalenciaga has over 105k views, with most of them attributed to content creators explaining why the holiday campaign is so deplorable.
But first, some context on the campaign.
In recent years, Balenciaga has become synonymous for unconventional fashion campaigns, whether that be the setting in which the editorial-style advertisement was shot (like Bella Hadid in a penthouse office) or thanks to the brand's creative casting (see: Kim Kardashian and and Justin Bieber as models).
This is an approach that mirrors their store concepts, runway shows and even the product range they put out, and it's served them well so far – fashion aggregator and trend forecaster Lyst has listed Balenciaga as one of the top 5 hottest fashion brands in the world for four consecutive years. Their disruptive model of dressing has propelled the label to a covetable status never seen before.
The brand is also used to courting mild controversy. See: their mud-soaked Summer 23 show (was it high art, or an exact replica of your worst music festival experience?), or casting Selling Sunset villain Christine Quinn in their Haute Couture show. It's fun, it's subversive, and most importantly, completely harmless.
However, this Gift Shop campaign was always likely to court the wrong kind of controversy; anything that comes even close to sexualising children – which clearly wasn't the intention here, and arguably wasn't the final product – invites loud, impassioned, and endless backlash.
The campaign was launched earlier this month to support the new line of holiday gifting objects, including Champagne glasses, studded pet bowls, and the teddy bears. Balenciaga tapped photojournalist Gabriel Galimberti to shoot, saying that the campaign "iterates on the artist's series 'Toy Stories', an exploration of what people collect and receive as gifts".
It didn't invite backlash until this week, when prominent Twitter users claimed the campaign not only sexualised children, but included Supreme Court documents on child porn. (If this smells like we're getting close to a conspiracy theory, that's because we are.)
"The brand "Balenciaga" just did a uh..... interesting... photoshoot for their new products recently which included a very purposely poorly hidden court document about 'virtual child porn'", YouTuber June Nicole Lapine (who goes by Shoe0nHead online) tweeted.
"This is absolutely disgusting," anti-abortion campaigner Lila Rose tweeted.
"Balenciaga features toddlers in ads, holding teddy bears in bondage outfits and with a court document about "child porn" partially hidden in the image. This is criminal & sick. Sexualizing children must be a redline. @KimKardashian - speak out now."
Of course, that's not the full story.
Was there a Supreme Court document about child porn in Balenciaga’s campaign?
Not exactly. First of all, the document in question doesn't even feature in the campaign. It's actually from an earlier Balenciaga campaign, from the brand's collaboration with Adidas.
However, the Adidas campaign did feature a document that concerned child porn.
Specifically, it's from a 2008 Supreme Court ruling that upheld penalties for the sexual exploitation of children and other forms of child abuse – not exactly the slam dunk TikTok and Twitter users are claiming it is, but weird nonetheless.
Balenciaga has issued a statement advising they did not approve the document and is now pursuing legal action.
"We apologise for displaying unsettling documents in our campaign," the brand said in a separate Instagram story.
"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 2023 campaign photoshoot. We strongly condemn abuse of children in any form. We stand for children safety and well-being."
Did Balenciaga Actually Delete Their Social Media Because Of The Controversy?
Another element that has contributed to the 'cancelling' of Balenciaga is the claims that following the backlash the brand deleted their social media account.
This, however, is categorically false and has no correlation to the release of the campaigns.
Balenciaga first wiped their Instagram feed clean in July of 2021 ahead of the brand's monumental 50th Haute Couture show. Speaking to British Vogue, Demna explained that he perceives social media as "boring".
"It was indeed a sort of comment on social media culture and how it makes everything look and thrive to be the same," he said about the brands departure.
"I think social media is boring, and dangerously addictive for some, as well as super manipulative. We need to find new ways of using it that is less harmful for society."
As for his absence on Twitter? Sure Balenciaga was one of the first major fashion labels to leave the platform after Elon Musk's acquisition, however it wasn't one that reflected the backlash to the Gift Shop campaign.
All that currently remains on Balenciaga's Instagram accounts is their new Garde-Robe campaign, featuring, rather unexpectedly, Nicole Kidman.
The campaign sees the models "surrounded by workday paraphernalia" including piles of papers—we wonder if TikTok will pay as much attention to these as they did to Balenciaga's other campaigns.
Either way, just don't be surprised if this content is here one day and gone the next.
Gabriele Galimberto: "I Have No Connection With The [Adidas] Photo"
Gabriele Galimberti has spoken out about the backlash, reiterating that he was not involved in the Adidas campaign where the Supreme Court documents appear — and explaining that as the photographer on the Gift Shop campaign, he was instructed to take the shots in his signature style.
"Following the hundreds of hate mails and messages I received as a result of the photos I took for the Balenciaga campaign, I feel compelled to make this statement," he said on Instagram.
"I am not in a position to comment 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 the given scene, and take the shots according to my signature style. As usual for a commercial shooting, the direction of the campaign and the choice of the objects displayed are not in the hands of the photographer.
"I suspect that any person prone to pedophilia searches on the web and has unfortunately a too easy access to images completely different than mine, absolutely explicit in their awful content. Accusations like these are addressed against wrong targets, and distract from the real problem, and criminals.
"Also, I have no connection with the photo where a Supreme Court document appears. That one was taken in another set by other people and and was falsely associated with my photos."
On his Instagram stories, Galimberti appeared to react to the firestorm this controversy has created around him, where his work is being incorrectly linked with a different campaign altogether.
"Finally somebody is telling the truth," he said, linking to a Daily Mail interview with the father of one of the child models.
The father, who chose to remain anonymous, told the Daily Mail that the shoot had been taken "totally out of context".
"No parent would actively encourage the child to take part in something which was pornographic, and I think the publicity surrounding what happened has been blown out of all proportion," he told the publication.
However, there are far more people who disagree with the father, who are calling out a perceived double standards after the brand ended its relationship with Kanye West over his anti-Semitic statements. (It should be noted that it's become a bit of a culture war topic — some of the top tweets are linking the Balenciaga campaigns to the false right-wing talking point of LGBTI people "grooming" children or, somewhat bafflingly, Elon Musk buying Twitter.)