There are lots of ways to sell a handbag. You could partner with a high-profile celebrity. Shoot a magazine campaign in the desert. Or, if you’re Balenciaga, you could dress him up in slave clothes and give him to a child. Last week, the Spanish luxury house released two photos of child models holding the brand’s teddy bear bags, which were modeled to look like toys but appeared to be wearing leather harnesses and other BDSM clothing. They were immediately accused of child sexual exploitation. As if that wasn’t worrying enough, the brand’s website featured another questionable image from a separate campaign promoting its recent collaboration with Adidas. In it, a bag is positioned on top of a poorly disguised document from a US Supreme Court ruling related to indecent images of children.
A viral tweet brought both images into the limelight and the uproar began. People called for a boycott. Some burn their Balenciaga products. And the photographer behind the BDSM bear photos has issued a statement distancing himself from the brand. Celebrities are also taking action, with Bella Hadid appearing to have deleted photos of herself wearing the brand’s clothes from Instagram. Kim Kardashian, who has regularly worn Balenciaga looks in recent months, also said she is “re-evaluating” her relationship with the brand. As for Balenciaga itself, the label removed the campaign images and apologized, issuing a statement saying it strongly condemns child abuse and blaming the photos on a “series of serious errors”.
All these were rightly condemned. But beyond the obvious criticisms, there’s something deeper at play here that helps raise further questions about accountability and what actually drives consumer spending. Because fundamentally, that’s what these campaigns are all about: to sell us stuff. Once you strip away all the noise and criticism, major brands almost always manage to keep selling their products, backlash be damned.
Consider that this is just the latest in a long line of major fashion brands embroiled in scandal. The most obvious example is Dolce & Gabbana, the Italian label that has found itself at the center of several controversies over the years, involving racism, homophobia and misogyny. There was the 2018 video of a Chinese model trying to eat Italian food using chopsticks (they later released a video apologizing to China). The body-shaming comments the co-founder of the brand, Stefano Gabbana, targeted by Selena Gomez. The trainers that had ‘slim and gorgeous’ written on the side. And so on.
The point is that the brand survived. In August 2021, it hosted a series of extravagant shows with Jennifer Lopez, Doja Cat and Diddy. It has since been worn on magazine covers by the likes of Kaia Gerber, Sarah Jessica Parker, Kate Hudson and Jennifer Hudson. And in May, the label basically sponsored Kourtney Kardashian’s entire wedding. All of this has led people to wonder, why can’t anyone cancel Dolce & Gabbana?
Turn your attention to other luxury brands and the answer might become clear. Gucci, for example, has faced countless scandals in recent years. In 2019, the label was accused of endorsing blackface after releasing an $890 (£740) polo neck top with big red lips. Gucci apologized and later outlined plans to “incorporate cultural diversity and awareness into the company.” Later that year, the brand sent a series of white straitjacket-like ensembles down the runway. One of her own models protested the theme, writing “mental health is not fashion” on her palms; the jackets were never sold in stores. He was also accused of cultural appropriation for selling $790 (£657) turbans.
Gucci may have apologized for all these incidents – and its revered creative director Alessandro Michele may have recently resigned – but it continues to thrive, recently releasing high-profile collaborations with Harry Styles and Adidas, and its clothes being regularly worn on red carpets. and magazine covers. Earlier this year, Vogue France named Gucci “the most influential brand of 2022”.
And in case you think this is all reserved for European brands, take a look at Burberry, which faced flak in 2019 for releasing a brown hoodie as part of its autumn/winter collection that featured rope ties hanging from the neck. “Suicide is not fashion,” wrote model Liz Kennedy, who walked the Burberry show that season.
Burberry pulled the product from its collection and apologized, admitting the design was “insensitive” and the brand made a mistake. In January 2022, it predicted a 35% increase in annual profits. The most recent fashion shows were supported by Bella Hadid, Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss.
But back to Balenciaga. The irony is that the brand is no stranger to controversy either, being accused of everything from cultural appropriation to gentrifying slack just in the past year. In May, he was accused of glamorizing poverty by releasing a pair of highly distressed trainers for £1,290. A similar chain of events occurs after each of these scandals: the brand is called out. Issue an apology. Then he either continues to prosper or does something else for which he must apologize. All of this raises a key question. If the fashion industry continues to neglect to learn from their mistakes, at what point do they stop being mistakes altogether?
Given the scale of Balenciaga’s company, it seems odd to suggest, as he did, that those court documents were placed in the campaign photos without their knowledge, or that it was simply an error that his teddy bear bags were photographed with children. After all, this is a luxury brand owned by retail conglomerate Kering, which also owns Gucci alongside a list of labels such as Alexander McQueen, Saint Laurent and Bottega Veneta. As such, its campaigns will likely have to go through the rigamarole of being signed off by a number of executives before they can be launched. There will have been meetings, approvals and layouts. How likely is it that all of this will rise through the corporate ranks without one person asking for clarification on the link between a designer bag and child abuse documents. The scenographer from the Adidas shoot already claimed, for example, that representatives from Balenciaga were on set and “overseeing [the shoot]handling papers and other props’.
The thing is, in all the scandals mentioned above, the brands involved often feign ignorance. They’re putting money, so to speak, on the grounds that something within its ranks must have gone terribly wrong for this mistake to have occurred. It’s no coincidence that Balenciaga has now filed a $25m (£20m) lawsuit against the production company behind the Adidas shoot. Kardashian’s ambivalent language isn’t in her own statement either — she hasn’t ruled out working with them again, just “re-evaluating” her relationship with them.
Of course, Balenciaga is now in a position where it faces the consequences of its actions. He even deleted his entire feed of Instagram posts except for the one containing their official statement. But how long this vow of silence lasts remains to be seen. Furthermore, are those who go online to criticize the brand part of a very small demographic really spending thousands of pounds on Balenciaga clothing? History would suggest they are not – and even if they are, they don’t seem to care.
The truth is, we will never know what happened or why “serious mistakes” were made at Balenciaga or anywhere else. What we do know, however, is that the people running these fashion brands are not stupid. Take a look at social media today and chances are you’ll come across Balenciaga chatter within minutes. Even people who know nothing about fashion will, in all likelihood, now be familiar with the brand.
Maybe the reason fashion keeps getting it wrong is because it wants to. In today’s social media-obsessed landscape, scandals are a way to maintain cultural relevance. Start a conversation. It doesn’t really matter if it’s a positive or negative one. Because for better or for worse, people are talking about you. In the case of Balenciaga, only time will tell if this was a deal-making move or the sign of a highly successful marketing campaign.