When High Fashion and QAnon Collide

Ever since Demna became artistic director of Balenciaga in 2015, the storied brand has become a lightning rod for controversy, often intentionally so. See: remaking IKEA’s 99-cent shopping bag as a luxury good, putting heels on Crocs, selling destroyed sneakers for $1,850, dressing Kim Kardashian in a head-to-toe black body stocking for the Met Gala, and sending models who looked like refugees down the runway carrying trash bags made of expensive leather.

The outrage provoked by such moments often seemed to be the whole point. Each only bolstered the reputation of Demna’s Balenciaga as a brand that forces consumers to grapple with the very meaning of “taste.”

Now, however, the release of two new campaigns by Balenciaga, which is owned by Kering, the French luxury conglomerate that also owns brands like Gucci and Saint Laurent, has taken the public opprobrium to a new level. One campaign featured photos of children clutching handbags that look like teddy bears in bondage gear. Another campaign featured photos that include paperwork about child pornography laws. Together, they ignited a firestorm that traveled from the internet to Fox News, fueled by allegations that Balenciaga condoned child exploitation. The controversy has become one of the most explicit collisions of internet culture, politics, fashion and conspiracy theories to date.

On Nov. 28, almost two weeks after the storm started brewing — and after a series of Instagram apologies that failed to quell it — the brand issued a statement admitting “a series of grievous errors for which Balenciaga takes responsibility.” The fashion house announced ongoing “internal and external investigations” and “new controls” and said it was reaching out to “organizations who specialize in child protection and aim at ending child abuse and exploitation.”

“We want to learn from our mistakes and identify ways we can contribute,” the statement read.

What happened first?

The fallout began on Nov. 16, when Balenciaga published a campaign called Balenciaga Gift Shop. It was shot last month by Gabriele Galimberti, an Italian documentary photographer whose work focuses on the stories our things tell about ourselves. Mr. Galimberti had previously made a book featuring images of children with their toys, but he had never shot a fashion campaign before.

His photographs featured six children clutching destroyed teddy bear handbags, which had first been seen in the brand’s spring 2023 runway show in Paris. The fluffy bears had black eyes, fishnet tops and leather harnesses; wine glasses and other gift items were displayed around them. According to Mr. Galimberti, the objects as well as the children and the location chosen for the shoot had all been selected by Balenciaga, with numerous staff members present during the two days of photography.

Not long after the Gift Shop campaign was posted online, a groundswell of outrage began against the images that juxtaposed children and what looked like bondage paraphernalia.

Five days later, on Nov. 21, Balenciaga released a separate campaign: the brand’s 2023 Garde-Robe advertising campaign. Social media users zoomed in on images from the campaign that appeared to feature, as a prop, paperwork from a Supreme Court decision on child pornography laws.

Wait — there were two different ad campaigns?

Yes. The Garde-Robe campaign — which included Nicole Kidman, Isabelle Huppert and Bella Hadid as models — was shot in July, months before the Gift Shop campaign, and took place in an office setting. Looks in the campaign were introduced in a May 2022 show at the New York Stock Exchange. In one of its images, a $3,000 Balenciaga x Adidas Hourglass handbag was featured on a desk along with printed copies of the Supreme Court’s 2008 decision in U.S. v. Williams. The case examined whether laws banning the “pandering” — promoting — of child pornography curtailed First Amendment freedom of speech rights.

Other props in the Garde-Robe campaign included the books “The Cremaster Cycle by Matthew Barney, which appeared in conjunction with an exhibit of the artist’s at the Guggenheim Museum, and “Fire from the Sun by the Belgian painter Michaël Borremans, whose work has been shown at the David Zwirner gallery. The gallery has described Mr. Borremans’s paintings as “toddlers engaged in playful but mysterious acts with sinister overtones and insinuations of violence.”

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Some critiques have included images from both campaigns in a way that suggests they are one in the same. One Twitter user who shared photos from the two shoots 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.” That tweet, among other posts, prompted accusations that Balenciaga was promoting a “child pornography campaign” and glamorizing violence against children.

The internet is full of trolls. Why did this controversy take off?

As online criticism of the campaigns spread, the story was picked up across right-leaning media outlets, including The New York Post and the prime time Fox News show “Tucker Carlson Tonight.” The show has helped to publicize and mainstream QAnon, the internet conspiracy theory that “a group of Satan-worshiping elites who run a child sex ring are trying to control our politics and media.”

“Here you have a major international retail brand promoting kiddie porn and sex with children,” Mr. Carlson told viewers on Nov. 22, “and not promoting it subtly but right out in the open.”

How did Balenciaga respond?

The brand’s first responses to the backlash came on Nov. 24, when it apologized for the Gift Shop campaign and promised to remove the advertisements from its social media channels.

“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 posted to Balenciaga’s Instagram on Nov. 24.

Hours later, a second apology addressing the Garde-Robe campaign was posted to the brand’s Instagram Stories.

“We apologize for displaying unsettling documents in our campaign,” the statement said. “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 abuse of children in any form. We stand for children’s safety and well-being.”

OnNov. 25, Balenciaga filed papers in New York court initiating a $25 million lawsuit against the production company North Six and Nicholas Des Jardins, who designed the set for the Garde-Robe campaign. (North Six had produced previous Balenciaga campaigns; other clients include Dior and Zara, according to its website. Mr. Des Jardins’s recent work includes the disco horse from the cover of Beyoncé’s “Renaissance.”)

The document — a summons with notice — alleged that the production company and set designer engaged in “inexplicable acts and omissions” that were “malevolent or, at the very least, extraordinarily reckless.”

Effectively, the brand claimed that the documents were placed in the campaign photographs without their knowledge and had led to false associations between Balenciaga and child pornography.

When contacted by The New York Times, North Six — which manages production details like catering, permits and crew — declined to comment.

So where did the copy of the Supreme Court decision come from? Who approved its use as a prop?

The documents came from “numerous boxes” rented from a prop house, a lawyer for Mr. Des Jardins, the set designer, wrote in an email statement.

But all were supposed to be “fake office documents,” Balenciaga said in its Nov. 28 statement: “They turned out to be real legal papers most likely coming from the filming of a television drama.” Balenciaga, which had the images in hand for months before their release, called the inclusion of the Supreme Court page “unapproved” and “the result of reckless negligence.”

Mr. Des Jardins’s lawyer, in her statement, said that “there certainly was no malevolent scheme going on.” Balenciaga representatives were on set during the shoot, “overseeing it and handling papers and other props, and Des Jardins as a set designer was not responsible for image selection from the shoot,” she wrote. (Her client, she also reiterated, had no involvement in the other Gift Shop campaign.)

Ultimately, image selection would have fallen to the brand, which in its Nov. 28 statement said that it took “full accountability for our lack of oversight and control” and “could have done things differently.”

Is Balenciaga also suing the photographer of the Gift Shop campaign?

No. Mr. Galimberti had nothing to do with the Garde-Robe campaign. He also did not make the decision to feature children with the bear bags in the Gift Shop campaign. He said that Balenciaga had told him the theme of the shoot was “punk.”

Balenciaga, in its Nov. 28 statement, said, “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.” In other words: Don’t blame the photographer. But the nuance was lost amid the heat of the reaction.

Since the Gift Shop campaign images were released, Mr. Galimberti said he has been inundated with hate mail and death threats, has had jobs canceled and has had personal details, including his phone number, published online.

“At the moment, nobody wants to be associated with my name because my name is associated with the word pedophilia everywhere,” Mr. Galimberti said. “I’ve been working on my personal projects for 25 years, and then everything is destroyed by this campaign. I’m not sleeping well. My family’s completely worried.”

What happens next?

The long-term repercussions remain to be seen, but already, the trade publication Business of Fashion on Nov. 28 revoked an award it had planned to give to Demna, saying it held “the safety of children in the highest regard.” In the United States, home to the world’s largest luxury market, the reputational damage from the continuing firestorm could be seismic for Balenciaga, a brand more used to being lauded for its ability to tap into the cultural moment than excoriated for its missteps.

Although Kering doesn’t break down the annual revenue for Balenciaga, HSBC estimates that the fashion house generated about 1.76 billion euros, or $1.81 billion, in sales in 2021. As of Monday, there were no plush bondage bear handbags for sale on Balenciaga’s website. However, there was a dog bowl with spikes for $848; a trio of Christmas tree ornaments, including a puffer jacket, a sneaker and a handbag for $740; and a candleholder shaped like an empty soda can for $625.

The social media ire has moved beyond the brand to envelop swaths of the global fashion industry — including the celebrities who are often its billboards — for not being more openly critical of Balenciaga’s provocative marketing strategy.

Have Ye or Kim Kardashian been involved?

Perhaps not surprisingly Ye, the artist previously known as Kanye West, and Ms. Kardashian, his former wife, have been drawn into the controversy; both have had longstanding relationships with Demna and Balenciaga.

Balenciaga terminated its professional relationship with Ye days after shooting the Gift Shop campaign last month because of the rapper and fashion designer’s incendiary and anti-Semitic comments made during and after Paris Fashion Week. Even so, Ye mentioned the controversy over Balenciaga’s campaigns on Nov. 26 while speaking to paparazzi.

“You don’t see no celebrities talking about the Balenciaga situation,” he said.

Ms. Kardashian, one of the most powerful celebrities in the world, walked in the Balenciaga couture runway show in July and has widely credited Demna for helping refashion her personal style in the wake of her divorce.

On Nov. 27, she said that she was “re-evaluating her relationship” with the brand after coming under fire for not making a comment sooner.

“As a mother of four, I have been shaken by the disturbing images,” Ms. Kardashian wrote on Twitter. “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.”

“I appreciate Balenciaga’s removal of the campaigns and apology. In speaking with them, I believe they understand the seriousness of the issue and will take the necessary measures for this to never happen again,” she added.

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