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Published
Dec 5, 2022
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Balenciaga's long road back to redemption following child exploitation scandal

Published
Dec 5, 2022

Masterful and innovative haute couture designs marked by voluminous, balloon-like shapes and Spanish flamenco and matador motifs define the genius of Spaniard Cristóbal Balenciaga. Today, however, the French luxury house he founded is becoming known for its controversies. Under  Demna Gvasalia, it's known to provoke and challenge any form of accepted traditional notions of style and take dramatic stances on issues.  


Balenciaga - Spring-Summer2023 - Womenswear - Paris - © PixelFormula


​Some actions drew a thumbs-up: departing from Twitter after Elon Musk purchased it and being among the first brands to cut ties with Kanye West after he touted anti-semitic rhetoric on social media and promoted a White Lies Matter T-shirt on his runway. Others garnered fewer positive reactions: selling destroyed canvas high-top sneakers for $1,850, a pair of boxer-baring sweatpants deemed racist, pricey 4-figure handbags fashioned to resemble trash bags, and Lay's potato chip bags. Black face stockings and masks have been considered cultural appropriation, even demeaning to females.

​Any brand constantly pushing the envelope is bound to misstep. Fast-forward to Balenciaga's campaign for its objects offerings which include several BDSM-themed items such as a plush bear geared up in a leather-studded harness. The bears were shown alongside and in the hands of young girls about four or five years old. The Twitter account @shoeOnhead, among others, started pointing out the ad and another ad that used documents referring to a Supreme Court case regarding not protecting child pornography under free speech. (It''s believed the documents were facsimiles used as movie props.) Like previous online dustups, netizens were generally in an uproar. Traditional media outlets began following the story, which included Fox News hosting conspiracy theorists ascertaining it was part of a larger liberal sect planning to groom and indoctrinate children onto a debauched, morally flawed path.

While first appearing to apologize on its social media feed, Balenciaga scrubbed its Instagram feed and has since offered three statements to apologize. Another approach might have yielded the same result in one apology.
 
The first was issued on November 28, saying that Balenciaga was taking responsibility for the offensive images, outlining steps the organization was taking, ranging from workflow and creative approvals. One step regarding the Supreme Court case documents, claiming they were proved to be actual documents and not props; thus, Balenciaga announced it would be filing a complaint against the set designer Nicholas Des Jardins and the production company for the shoot North Six, Inc. to the tune of a $25 million lawsuit disclosed through a statement given to CNN.
 
Here is where the conundrum lies. Anyone familiar with photo shoot protocols for either advertising or editorial means understands that, ultimately, the publication, brand, or advertising agency determines what images are shot and approved. While it may not be the case, it's easy to wonder if Balenciaga considered tossing the blame to the set designer and subsequent production company would suffice, presuming its audience wasn't privy or savvy enough to understand how shoots take place. It was a gamble they lost.

In the second statement, this one signed by CEO Cedric Charbit, the brand laid out detailed steps to scrutinize content more closely by setting up an 'Image Board', retaining an external agency to instill best practices, and restructuring the image department.

"We have reorganized our Image Department to ensure full alignment without corporate guidelines," Charbit said in the statement.

In an altruistic act, Balenciaga has pledged it will get schooled on the issue of child pornography and ways to ensure kids are protected from this, including charitable donations.

"Together with my team, we will go on a 'Listening Tour' to engage with advocacy groups who aim to protect children. We set aside a significant fund for grants to organizations to help make a difference in protecting children," he added.
 
They also announced they were dropping the lawsuit against North Six and Des Jardins, presumably as they took another public grilling for another misguided action with a show of support from other players in the fashion, photography, and production world. Viewfinders, a prominent photo and film production agency, posted their support of the defendants on its Instagram stories.
 
It's interesting to note that most businesses don't lump seasonal ad campaigns that require significant marketing budgets in the same bucket as content which mainly refers to social media posts or editorial copy on its website.


 
Mara Singer of Mara Singer Media was a photographer's agent and producer for 20 years, who transitioned to the role of luxury content and editorial director eight years ago. She broke down the content concept.
 
"Content is a loose word that is being thrown around a lot," she explains. "UGC or user generated content, influencer content, and content created by the brand for social media channels as advertising. This is typically organic, spur-of-the-moment, or behind-the-scenes (BTS) images or video, with the purpose of brand recognition and translating brand experience. In contrast, advertising is a much larger budget and harder sell," she said.
 
"Content is more of the editorial side, and advertising are the ad pages. Advertising and content should not be spoken in the same sentence. Brand partnerships are very common in content, not in advertising," she continues.
 
Hans Dorsinville, CCO of Gotham, a New York City ad agency, has worked on 'thousands of shoots' for clients, including ads for Maybelline, Donna Karan, DKNY, Bottega Veneta, Estee Lauder, Tommy Hilfiger, and Lane Bryant, for which he won an award, among others.
 
He confirmed that the creative process on shoots involves pre-shoot approvals by the clients, including CMO, marketing directors, and creative directors/designers, "sometimes all of the above," Dorsinville noted.

The client teams meet with the production companies and photo crew to discuss details. "This is where a prop stylist would show props to be used," he continued adding that the client also inspects them on set, sees the images taken via a monitor, and gives feedback. The client also approves post-shoot layouts.
 
"Another important point is the legal department of the brand, and the agency usually vet the images to ensure nothing could cause a legal issue. This is especially important when using props. The spine of a book, a piece of furniture, a piece of art can be an issue if not cleared prior," confirmed Dorsinville.
 
With a brand as provocative as Balenciaga, the legal step seems imperative in today's call-out culture. "I do think the content of images and films is more scrutinized. Every detail is noticed. It's a good thing. The general public polices content and calls things out," Dorsinville notes.
 
David Sawyer, 30-year veteran fashion still-life photographer, whose clients include Armani, Tiffany, Reebok, Nike, Manolo Blahnik, and more, agrees that shoots are a creative collaboration between the client, creative director, and the photographer.
 
"Very rarely is one person responsible, although there are times when the client makes the decisions, and the photographer is just the lighter and taker of the image," Sawyer notes, adding not once was he ever responsible for the placement of the ads in the media.
 
Singer concurs with Dorsinville on the pre-production and on-set approvals. "100 percent of the time, the client is on set for advertising shoots. All props are reviewed, including lighting, sets locations, and models. There is no room or money for error. No one wants a re-shoot," she added.
 
The photographer Gabriele Galimberti's stance in the scandal-laden ads aimed at professional diplomacy and defense. He issued a statement on Twitter. "I am not in a position to comment on Balenciaga's choices, but I must stress that I was not entitled in whatsoever manner to neither chose the products, nor the models, nor the combination of the same," he wrote. "As a photographer, I was only and solely requested to light the given scene and take the shots according to my signature style."
 
He pointed out he was not the photographer of the images with Supreme Court documents. He lamented the association the web might draw to his pictures, which often feature kids and toys. "I suspect that any person prone to pedophilia searches on the web and has, unfortunately, too easy access to images completely different than mine, absolutely explicit in their awful content. Lynchings like these are addressed against wrong targets and distract from the real problem, and criminals," he continued.
 
While the debacle roared the internet, on approximately November 20, one responsible creative remained silent until December 2, Balenciaga creative director Demna Gvasalia, or Demna as he is referred to. Typically for a premiere luxury brand, the image begins and ends with that person. On his personal Instagram, he took personal responsibility. "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 began, adding that while he likes to provoke thought, he "would never have the intention to do that with such an awful subject as child abuse that I condemn. Period."

He went on to echo Charbit's pledge to learn from the experience and contribute to organizations advocating for victims and preventative actions, and that future Balenciaga images would avoid these mistakes.
 
Ultimately, how this affects Balenciaga's bottom line, which boasted a net income of $222 million in 2021 (versus $66 million in 2020), remains to be seen. In the face of another digital age corporate fashion scandal, a W Magazine cover photo from Pierpaolo Ferrari from the November 2009 Art Issue under creative director Dennis Freedman comes to mind. It featured an image of Linda Evangelista holding a handwritten sign on cardboard declaring, "It must be womebody's fault." True. Though in fashion, blame proves hard to accept.
 

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