On Nov. 16, luxury fashion company Balenciaga published a series of photos for their newest holiday campaign called The Gift Collection in support of its Spring/Summer 2023 collection. The photoshoot, captured by award-winning National Geographic photographer Gabriele Galimberti, featured six children posing with destroyed teddy bear-like handbags wearing leather harnesses, blackeyes, fishnet tops and spiked chokers – accessories closely associated with BDSM culture.
Galimberti is most known for his photography project, “Toy Stories,” in which he takes photos of children with their toy collection to comment on Western capitalism. This project laid the foundation and influence of Balenciaga’s campaign. According to Insider, “Balenciaga told him they wanted to photograph kids in the same style he did for ‘Toy Stories,’ but that the company would provide the objects for them to be around for a punk shoot.” Although Galimberti is primarily a documentary photographer, he has shot commercially before and this was his first time working with the company.
The second series of photos was a Garde-Robe campaign, featuring an office theme that was not shot by Galimberti. Critics spotted a page from a Supreme Court ruling of United States vs. Williams in the background, which was a case arguing against the PROTECT Act. The ruling deemed that the promotion of child pornography was illegal and not protected under the freedom of speech.
There was immediate backlash on social media platforms, such as Twitter and TikTok, with the hashtags #cancelBalenciaga and #BurnBalenciaga trending. Many accused the brand and its creative director, Denma Gvasalia, of condoning pedophilia and child exploitation.
Conservative influencers were some of the loudest critics of the luxury brand. For instance, Blaire White with nearly 500,000 Twitter followers tweeted, “I rarely boycott, but Balenciaga is canceled for me. I’ve spent thousands of $ on them, but now I’ll be donating my items to the nearest homeless shelter.” Fox News host Tucker Carlson did a segment on his show, where he called out the media for ignoring “Balenciaga child bondage and controversy.”
On Nov. 24, the company turned off Instagram comments and issued an apology on its story. “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,” said Balenciaga. “We have immediately removed the campaign from all platforms.”
The luxury brand then posted a follow-up story regarding the controversial documents found in the background of the shoot. “We apologize for displaying unsettling documents in our campaign,” read the statement. “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 photoshoot. We strongly condemn abuse of children in any form. We stand for children safety and well-being.”
Balenciaga filed court papers the following day, initiating a $25 million lawsuit against the production company North Six and Nicholas Des Jardins, who designed the set for Garde-Robe campaign photoshoot. North Six has previously worked with Balenciaga and on other fashion campaigns like Dior and Zara. Des Jardin previously worked on the disco horse on the cover of Beyoncé’s Renaissance album.
The legal document is a summons with notice that alleges that the production company and set designer participated in “inexplicable acts and omissions” that were “malevolent or, at the very least, extraordinarily reckless.”
Kim Kardashian, who frequently collaborates with Balenciaga and recently wore them to the 2021 Met Gala, broke her silence on Nov. 27, after receiving social media outcry. “I have been quiet for the past few days, not because I haven’t been disgusted and outraged by the recent Balenciaga campaigns, but because I wanted an opportunity to speak to their team to understand for myself how this could have happened,” posted Kardashian. “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. As for my future with Balenciaga, I am currently re-evaluating my relationship with the brand, basing it off their willingness to accept accountability for something that should have never happened to begin with.”
On Dec. 2, a week after the summons, Balenciaga announced that they are no longer taking any legal action. According to People Magazine, Creative Director Gvasalia responded to the controversy in a post to Instagram. “I want to personally apologize for the wrong artistic choice of concept for the gifting campaign with the kids and I take my responsibility.” He continued, “I apologize to anyone offended by the visuals and Balenciaga has guaranteed that adequate measures will be taken to not only avoid similar mistakes in the future but also take accountability in protecting child welfare in every way we can.”