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The Balenciaga Controversy- The Truth Behind the Billion-Dollar Brand

By Shareen Rahman – member of the Street Law Project

Balenciaga is one of the world’s leading luxury fashion houses, but after several unusual campaigns, they have caught the public eye, with lawsuits being filed, and faced the potential to be cancelled.

The controversy began in November 2022, when Balenciaga launched a holiday campaign featuring children holding bags shaped like teddy bear bondage gear. This caught attention due to the fact that the campaign was not intended to be marketed for children. Therefore, featuring these children would have been strange on its own but adding the element of the bears wearing bondage gear inevitably led to the general public being righteously outraged.

The severe backlash of this campaign led to an investigation into previous campaigns which fuelled the controversy. The Balenciaga Spring 2023 campaign included a printout of the 2008 United States v Williams Court decision next to their hourglass bag. The ruling in the case was on the constitutionality of the prohibiting the pandering of child pornography.[1] This naturally caused outrage and after issuing two apologies on Instagram, Balenciaga announced that it would take legal action against the production company and the set designer, Des Jardin, behind the Spring 2023 campaign that included the court document. According to the court documents followed by Balenciaga, the brand alleged that inexplicable acts and omissions: made without Balenciaga’s knowledge were “malevolent or at the very least, extraordinarily reckless.”[2]

The set designer’s agent, Gabriela Moussaieff, told the Washington Post that the legal papers used in the ad “were obtained from a prop house that were rental pieces used on film [and] photo shoots.”[3] Even if this was true, the set designer himself, Des Jardin, had to have selectively chosen the props and had them approved. Any document could have been selected, but it was this particular court document that was chosen, making it hard to ignore and go unnoticed.

On the 27th of November, the company filed a $25 million lawsuit in damages against the production company for resulting false associations between Balenciaga and the repulsive and deeply disturbing subject of the court decision. However, the lawsuit was dropped after many, including Gabriela Moussaieff, accused the brand of scapegoating other parties instead of taking full responsibility for the images.

Analysing this from a legal perspective, it is highly unlikely that Balenciaga did not have the final approval for every image that was used in association with their name. Especially the fact that these images were for huge marketing campaigns and featured on their social media platforms, with celebrities such as Kim Kardashian and Nicole Kidman modelling for them. Balenciaga could argue that they missed the relatively hard to spot court document, but when factoring in the context of their recent holiday campaign of the children and teddy bears, it is highly unlikely it was all innocent and unintentional.

Ultimately, Balenciaga themselves are to blame as it was not just a single occasion that was controversial, but multiple, and have since taken “full responsibility”. If a huge uproar was not caused, it can be argued that Balenciaga would have kept those campaign pictures, with potential to create similar campaigns in the future.

Brands should not be able to get away with mistakes like this anymore, and it is up to the media, celebrities, and the general public to not support and promote them. There has already been a change in attitude to Balenciaga with fashion magazines including Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar publishing on the subject who previously have promoted and praised the brand. Additionally, the use of social media has helped raise awareness, with a trending hashtag being used, #cancelbalenciaga. If this continues and people stop buying and wearing Balenciaga, we will continue to see a change and can help put a stop from such behaviours being repeated not just by Balenciaga themselves but other huge companies too which heavily influence us. However, in saying this, Balenciaga is still a billion-dollar brand therefore cancelling them is easier said than done, but by making changes and continuing to raise awareness and share the truth, it will help make a long-term difference and stop such brands being popular.

[1] [2] [3]

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