Balenciaga, a brand synonymous with luxury fashion, became the center of serious controversies in the last few years due to its “artistic choices” that led to the public calling the brand racist and exploiting children. Crisis management strategies undertaken to diffuse the Balenciaga controversy provide valuable lessons for business owners to curate better operational strategies, avoid controversy, and deliver products and services that meet consumer preferences.

Here at Business2Community, we’ve organized the key information about the jaw-dropping Balenciaga controversy. This article offers you insights about running an ethical and sustainable business as well as mistakes to avoid as a global brand.

Balenciaga Controversy – Key Facts

  • In November 2022, Balenciaga was accused of sexualizing children and child exploitation, following the release of two ad campaigns featuring children with BDSM-related toys and court files related to child sexual abuse.
  • The end of the same month, Balenciaga filed a $25 million lawsuit against the production company responsible for one of the campaigns.
  • In an attempt to rebuild its public image, the company tightened its editorial process and partnered with the National Children’s Alliance in February 2023.

The Story of the Balenciaga Controversy

Founded by Cristóbal Balenciaga in 1927, Balenciaga is a world-famous luxury fashion brand known for its high-end quality clothes and accessories. Being on the top of the industry pyramid, the out-of-the-box Balenciaga production at photoshoots and catwalks has attracted a few controversies.

 

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From a business perspective, studying these controversies allows you to learn from the company’s mistakes and evaluate the effectiveness of its crisis management techniques. When dealing with a reputation crisis, selecting the right approach can turn a storm into a money-making opportunity.

From the sexualization of children to cultural appropriation, let’s take a look at the controversies Balenciaga has faced and how you can avoid them for your business.

The 2022 Balenciaga Scandal

In November 2022, Balenciaga released a “gift collection” holiday ad campaign, featuring 6 young children holding teddy bears in bondage-like gear and fishnet stockings, as well as BDSM accessories. One shoot even included a child lying on a couch next to empty wine glasses, which appeared to suggest the toddler was drunk while another photo depicted a child next to a duct tape that read “Balenciaga”.

balenciaga controversial images

Those BDSM accessories were also used at Paris Fashion Week runway shows by the luxury fashion house in the spring of that year.

The holiday campaign immediately received widespread criticism and backlash from celebrities, customers, and concerned parents, criticizing the company for child abuse and having kids promote objects with sexual suggestions.

People turned to social media to start the #BoycottBalenciaga movement with people sharing their frustration for the brand and burning clothes made by the fashion house. As you can see in this X (formerly Twitter) post, some people even took to openly mocking the brand in their stores and posting the results online.

Nicole Kidman Balenciaga Ad Scandal

Five days after the alarming holiday campaign featuring toddlers in BDSM accessories received enormous backlash, Balenciaga revealed another ad campaign. This one was shot in July 2022 and featured several celebrities, including Nicole Kidman, Bella Hadid, and Isabelle Huppert, called the “Garde-Robe” campaign.

In one of the images, viewers noticed a Balenciaga handbag being placed next to a pile of papers related to a Supreme Court ruling about child sexual abuse material and child abuse known as United States v. Williams in 2008. The Supreme Court documents interrogated whether legislation banning child abuse images violated First Amendment freedom of speech rights.

balenciaga court case images

The inclusion of these documents in campaign images further fueled people’s anger towards the luxury brand as people were shocked and appalled by disturbing images in the two campaigns of child exploitation.

As the new brand ambassador at the time, Kidman was slammed for her silence regarding the recent problematic campaigns and the sexualization of children in the past few days.

Brand Ambassador Kim Kardashian Made an Announcement

Following the series of scandals in November, reality star Kim Kardashian, a long-time Balenciaga supporter and brand ambassador, took to X (formerly Twitter) to express her stance on putting children’s safety first.

“As a mother of four, I have been shaken by the disturbing images. The safety of children must be held with the highest regard and any attempts to normalize child abuse of any kind should have no place in our society — period.”

In another follow-up, Kim Kardashian stated that she was “re-evaluating” her relationship with the brand based on the company’s “willingness to accept accountability” and their ability to put children’s well-being first.

Balenciaga’s Apology for the Questionable Ad Campaign

On November 22, 2022, Balenciaga released a public apology via an Instagram story after people called for its cancellations over its gift collection scandal.

“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.”

balenciaga apology post

Balenciaga also apologized for “displaying unsettling documents in our campaign” in a separate Instagram post.

The statement continued to say that the company would take “legal action against the parties responsible” and that they “strongly condemn abuse of children”.

The public apology was not very well-received. Some critics went on social media to slam the company, criticizing the lack of consequences faced for the bizarre campaign. GOP Twitter pundit CJ Pearson tweeted:

“Balenciaga severed their ties with Kanye West due to a tweet. Yet they expect us to just “accept their apology” after they get caught up sexualizing children? They’re not apologizing because they’re sorry. They’re apologizing because they got caught.”

Campaign Photographer Gabriele Galimberti’s Announcement

A day after Balenciaga’s public apology, Gabriele Galimberti, the campaign photographer who shot the photos in question, issued a statement on Instagram, saying he felt “compelled to make this statement” after receiving “hundreds of hate mails and messages”.

In the statement, the National Geographic photographer claimed he had “no connection with the photo where a Supreme Court document appears” and that he was not part of the creative team responsible for the campaign setup. He stated that he was ” only and solely requested to lit the given scene, and take the shots according to my signature style”.

Balenciaga confirmed Galimerti’s assertion that the photographer had nothing to do with the creative process.

Balenciaga’s Creative Director Apologized for the “Wrong Artistic Choice”

A week after Balenciaga’s official public apology, Demna Gvasalia, who became the creative director of the fashion house in 2015, took to Instagram to “personally apologize” for his involvement in the creation process of the infamous campaign.

“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. Period,” the designer wrote.

He continued by saying he needed to “learn from this” and “listen and engage with child protection organizations to know how I can contribute and help on this terrible subject”.

Balenciaga’s History of Controversies

Although the whole BDSM teddy bear ordeal is the most controversial Balenciaga scandal, the French fashion icon has been entwined with a few other controversies over the years.

In 2018, Balenciaga staff reportedly demonstrated racist behavior against Chinese shoppers in Paris by wrongly removing them from the store when the shoppers got into a quarrel with queue jumpers at the shop. The incident was widely reported among Chinese media outlets, causing Chinese social media users to start the #BoycottBalenciagaDiscriminatesChinese movement. Following the incident, the luxury brand issued two official apologies.

In 2021, the fashion brand was accused of cultural appropriation when it introduced a pair of $1,190 sagging sweatpants with built-in boxer shorts, a popular hip hop culture style seen in the African American community.

People were upset about the problematic design as “sagging” had been prohibited in some cities and used by the authorities to criminalize black people, especially black men. There were social media posts that called out the leading French fashion figure for gentrifying sagging and the racist design.

 

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The Consequences of the Balenciaga Controversy

As a global fashion trendsetter, Balenciaga disappointed its fans and loyal supporters with its series of controversies. Its public image plummeted as people were disturbed by its choices. The brand attempted to salvage its reputation by scaling up its collaborations with children’s associations and reviewing its editorial process.

These are the key events and consequences faced by the brand after these controversies.

Balenciaga to Implement New Editorial Controls

Following the BDSM scandal, Balenciaga “had a difficult month of December” in 2022 in terms of revenue, according to its parent company Kering. To recuperate from the damage and rebuild public confidence, Balenciaga’s CEO and president, Cédric Charbit, revealed a series of action plans in February 2023 to help the company improve and move forward.

He said that the house was “undergoing internal reorganization”, which included the implementation of new editorial controls and educational programs to protect children and prevent similar events from happening again. The tightening of editorial standards allowed the company to review materials more thoroughly, ensuring they align with public expectations and social ethics.

Balenciaga Dropped Out of the Top 10 Fashion Brands

The Lyst Index is an industry indicator of the popularity and performance of fashion houses. Balenciaga had long been near the top of the list before its November 2022 scandal. In Q3 2022, before the scandal hit, the brand ranked 4th. Immediately following the public uproar, it fell to the 11th place in Q4 2022 and further to the 18th place by Q1 2023.

Although cancel culture didn’t exterminate the brand and it managed to pick things up slightly and climbed back to the 12th place in Q4 2023, Balenciaga is still far from returning to its prime.

The Business of Fashion Rescinded Its Award to Demna Gvasalia

The Business of Fashion, a leading global fashion media company, initially invited Demna Gvasalia, the creative director of Balenciaga responsible for the inappropriate children holding teddy with BDSM gear campaign, with the Global VOICES Award for 2022.

The exploitation of children caused concerns for the organization, which decided to revoke its award to Demma at the end of November. The Business of Fashion released a statement emphasizing the brand’s effort to hold “the safety of children in the highest regard”.

“Like many, we have been seeking the truth about how children appeared with BDSM-inspired products in Balenciaga’s recent campaign images, which are wholly inconsistent with our values. As a result, we will not be presenting Demna with the Global VOICES Award this year,” the statement read.

The Business of Fashion’s prompt action to address the scandal received support from the general public.

Balenciaga Partnered With the National Children’s Alliance to Try to Save Its Public Image

With the intense backlash and people calling for the boycott of the century-old fashion house, Balenciaga decided to redeem its public reputation by partnering with the Kering Foundation and the National Children’s Alliance, the largest network of care centers for providing child abuse victims in the US, in February 2023.

The three-year partnership focuses on supporting children who have suffered from abuse, including sexual abuse, by providing education, child protection, and ethical services. Balenciaga is supporting the training of 2,000 professionals for the Children’s Advocacy Centers.

In the announcement, Balenciaga expressed willingness to learn and prevent the same controversy from arising again through the partnership.

Balenciaga Tried to Sue the Production Company for $25 Million

Around a week after the public backlash in November 2022, Balenciaga filed a $25-million lawsuit against North Six Inc., set designer Nicholas Des Jardins, and his company. Balenciaga claimed they were responsible for placing the child sexual abuse material Supreme Court case files that led to public outrage in its 2023 Spring Campaign.

Balenciaga said the parties’ “inexplicable acts and omissions were malevolent or, at the very least, extraordinarily reckless”. The lawsuit came after the fashion giant claimed the disturbing court files were placed by third parties and not approved by the firm.

However, the company eventually dropped the lawsuit because “there was no set-up or malevolent act”, suggesting the court files might have been placed by accident or a careless mistake.

What Can We Learn From the Balenciaga Controversy? 

Balenciaga has been no stranger to dealing with public criticism in the last few years. The BDSM ad scandal shocked the fashion community and put Balenciaga’s reputation at risk. Despite its best efforts, the company had not managed to climb back to the top of the industry at the time of writing.

The French company also tried to redeem itself through partnerships with NGOs and restructuring its internal editorial process. While these strategies helped improve its public image, they have been far less effective than preventing the mistake to begin with.

As a business owner, corporate social responsibility is crucial to gaining the public’s trust. You need to ensure your products and services are inclusive and do not contain any offensive remarks, especially against vulnerable groups.

It is important to have a well-rounded production team that handles your marketing and operational needs to deliver the most comprehensive consumer experience. After studying the Balenciaga controversy, you can curate more suitable business tactics for your brand that can win customers’ love and public recognition.

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