How disturbing Balenciaga adverts have a top fashion house hanging by a thread
As one of the most anticipated events in the global fashion calendar, the British Fashion Council’s annual awards ceremony in London is a magnet for the biggest names in the industry.
But with only a few days left before this year’s glittering red-carpet event at the Royal Albert Hall on Monday, a dark and disturbing cloud has been cast over proceedings, a scandal which, no doubt, has left both organisers and well-heeled guests gnawing at their manicured nails.
For among the clutch of famous nominees tipped to scoop a gong — that of Designer of the Year, no less — is none other than Demna Gvasalia, the creative director of luxury fashion brand Balenciaga, which this week was in the midst of a spiralling scandal over its use of sexualised images of children and references to child pornography.
The controversy was sparked by its Christmas 2022 advertising campaign, which showed sad-faced toddlers clutching bags disguised as teddy bears in what has been described as bondage gear.
As if this wasn’t creepy enough, Balenciaga’s separate Spring 2023 campaign — featuring actresses Nicole Kidman and Isabelle Huppert, neither of whom had any creative input — features a £3,000 handbag placed on top of legal documents relating to child pornography. In the Huppert shot, there is also a book about a controversial Belgian artist who paints sinister images of naked and bloodstained children.
The backlash against the images saw protesters attach a sign reading ‘paedophilia’ to the Balenciaga shop front on London’s Bond Street yesterday. The Balenciaga store on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills has also been daubed with graffiti. Furious customers have taken to social media to post images of themselves destroying thousands of pounds worth of their own Balenciaga gear.
What’s the point? What the hell were they thinking
No stranger to controversial and subversive advertising campaigns, Balenciaga has apologised for the child images, but refused to explain the misplaced rationale behind them. It is attempting to shift the blame for the inclusion of the documents and book on to a New York set designer. Demna himself, meanwhile, has remained silent. Yet with celebrities, including Balenciaga muses Kim Kardashian and Bella Hadid, now desperately trying to distance themselves from the brand, the very future of the fashion house — and its once-adored artistic director — is apparently hanging by a thread.
‘It’s hard to see how Demna can survive this,’ says one fashion industry insider. ‘I’ll be amazed if he’s not out of a job by the end of the week. Balenciaga has dominated the fashion industry for the past five years, but people won’t want to be associated with the brand now. The bears are potentially the kind of things that are used for grooming young children. Why would a global fashion house dabble in that?
‘What’s the point? What the hell were they thinking? [Founder] Cristobal Balenciaga would be turning in his grave.’
Until the events of this week, Balenciaga, which was founded in Spain in 1919, was regarded as one of the most successful fashion houses in the world.
With a turnover of more than £1 billion last year, it cultivated partnerships with the likes of Kardashian and her ex-husband, rapper Kanye West, ensuring global social media coverage as images of the stars in their often outlandish outfits — such as the gimp-style ensemble worn by Kardashian to last year’s Met Gala — were reposted millions of times.
Subversive creations such as a £1,705 tote bag that looked like Ikea’s iconic 75p ‘Frakta’ bag, £450 high-heeled Crocs and a £1,260 handbag designed to resemble a crumpled packet of crisps apparently flipped the idea of haute couture on its head while, somewhat ironically, ensuring maximum media coverage and mammoth sales. But over the past couple of years, designs that were once seen as ‘edgy’ have increasingly been criticised as distasteful.
Earlier this year, Balenciaga launched its £1,290 ‘fully destroyed’ limited edition Paris Sneaker high tops, a pair of shoes so tattered that at least one fashion journalist who tried them on decreed that they were impossible to wear.
Last year, the brand was accused of racism and ‘cultural appropriation’ over a pair of £1,050 trompe-l’oeil saggy tracksuit bottoms modelled by pop star Justin Bieber, which had the illusion of a pair of plaid boxers sticking out above the waistband. Critics said they mimicked a style popularised by hip-hop musicians. But while eccentric designs such as these might be laughable to your average High Street shopper, in March the brand faced accusations of ‘straying too far’ when its Paris Fashion Week show appeared to capitalise on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
With climate change as its original theme, the bleak snow-covered set took on a new meaning when T-shirts were left on audience chairs in the colours of the Ukrainian flag, along with a statement from 41-year-old Demna, who prefers to be known in professional circles by his first name alone.
The show began with a recording of the designer’s voice reading a work by the Ukrainian poet Oleksandr Oles, which was deliberately left untranslated. Bleak minimalist designs were worn by models moving through an artificial blizzard and dragging what looked like filled bin bags. The Balenciaga lambskin ‘trash bag’ is now being sold for £1,290.
Demna, who was made a refugee at the age of 12 during the Russo-Georgian war in his native Georgia, justified his decision on his Instagram account, writing: ‘The war in Ukraine has triggered the pain of a past trauma I have carried with me since 1993 when the same thing happened in my country and I became a forever refugee.’
Like many designers, he said he had grappled over the decision about whether or not to pull the plug on his show in light of the Russian invasion — but decided that to do so ‘would mean giving in, surrendering to the evil that hurt me so much for almost 30 years’.
But according to the fashion industry insider who spoke to the Mail this week: ‘People were horrified that Demna used war as the backdrop to his campaign. There were all these people, dripping in designer clothes and he tried to spin it on to some higher intellectual plane.
‘Refugees that very week were fleeing Ukraine in the freezing cold and under threat of death, and there we were watching thousands of pounds worth of luxury clothing being paraded along a runway in Paris. It doesn’t matter whether or not Demna was himself once a refugee. The fashion industry has to remember that they are about as removed as anyone can be from the real world.’
The ripple of criticism sparked by that show was nothing compared to the events of recent weeks, when Demna gave a first glimpse of his Spring 2023 collection in Paris.
Controversial U.S. rapper Kanye West — who had previously attracted widespread criticism over his comments on slavery and misinformation about the killing of George Floyd by police in the U.S. — opened proceedings, walking through a grim, muddy and puddle-filled set.
It was at this show that the teddy bear ‘Plush Toy Bags’ were first seen, hauled down the runway by wide-eyed childlike models, many with fake bruises and wounds.
A video that appeared on TikTok this week, apparently filmed backstage at the show, shows an androgynous model clutching a realistic baby doll in a Balenciaga baby-grow. The contents of a bag he is also carrying — and which he says contains items for a baby — appear to be spattered with blood.
By the end of October, Balenciaga cut ties from 45-year-old West after he held his own ‘secret’ Paris Fashion Week show, modelling T-shirts with a photograph of Pope John Paul II on the front and ‘White Lives Matter’ on the back. The phrase has been condemned by many as a hate statement, designed to mock the Black Lives Matter movement. Days later, he also posted anti-Semitic comments on Twitter.
Having cancelled Kanye, less than six weeks on Balenciaga has now fallen victim to an even bigger scandal of its own making with the appearance on its official website of the shocking images of those toddlers with teddy bears in bondage-style gear.
Fashion industry is removed from the real world
Initially, Balenciaga appeared to ignore the scandal, seemingly allowing the photographer who took the pictures, Gabriele Galimberti, to take the blame. But once he released a statement saying he had no control over the images, Balenciaga released its own apology on Instagram for making the ‘wrong choice’ over featuring the bear bags with children, and pulled the images from its website.
But it has tried to shift the blame for the appearance of the controversial documents that were in the background of an image from the Spring 2023 shoot, saying they were the result of ‘reckless negligence’ by third parties.
The papers were from a U.S. Supreme Court hearing on whether or not internet child pornography can legally be considered as free speech.
Nor have Balenciaga taken responsibility for the inclusion in the same campaign of that book about controversial artist Michael Borremans. His work features disturbing paintings of naked toddlers covered in blood. It could be seen on the desk in a photograph of French actress Isabelle Huppert with one of their handbags.
The brand maintains that both faux pas lie with the set designer, Nicholas Des Jardins, and production company North Six. It has filed legal documents in the U.S. signalling that it intends to sue North Six for £21 million.
Yesterday, sources in the U.S. said that no one from North Six was even present when the documents were placed in the frame for the photoshoot. And a fashion insider who spoke to the Mail said it was ‘inconceivable’ that Demna would not have had full control over the set.
‘In an industry where image is everything, it is impossible to believe that those images would be released without someone looking at every square millimetre of them,’ she said. ‘Suing the set designer makes Balenciaga look even worse.
‘When a designer hires a set designer or a stylist, they have to work off a mood. Some kind of conversation must have taken place here. It’s unfathomable that Balenciaga and Demna didn’t know.’
It’s unfathomable that Balenciaga didn’t know
Born in Georgia when it was still part of the Soviet Union, Demna lived in Russia and Ukraine before his family moved to Dusseldorf in Germany. He studied international economics at Tbilisi State University and later gained a masters degree in fashion design at the University of Antwerp. His earliest forays into fashion included work for design house Louis Vuitton under Marc Jacobs, before he and his brother Guram launched the brand Vetements in 2014.
Demna stated that his intention was to ‘disrupt the fashion system’. Ironically, he landed a job with Balenciaga the following year, catapulting him at the top of the very system he said he wanted to subvert.
Balenciaga is owned by the French corporation Kering, which also owns Alexander McQueen, Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent.
As the brand’s latest creative director, Demna has been influenced by his friendship with Russian designer Lotta Volkova, who worked alongside him at the Spanish label until 2018. She has previously posted violent, gore-filled images on her Instagram of dolls and children, including one of a child taped to a chair.
Designers such as Demna and Volkova are seen as part of a ‘dystopian’ movement in fashion that was once viewed as edgy but, in a constant drive to be inflammatory, has predictably strayed into the realms of the abominable.
Demna has yet to make any comment about the scandal but has reposted Balenciaga’s statement on social media.
Speaking on a podcast earlier this month, he said: ‘I no longer think about making the fashion industry understand what I do. I just do it. Popularity is always very dangerous . . . you can do anything and it can sell and that’s the dangerous part.’
Others in the industry clearly don’t agree with his stance that he has nothing to explain.
The coveted Global Voices award, due to be handed to him this week, was revoked at the last minute by the highly respected Business Of Fashion website, which said that the horrifying Balenciaga images were ‘wholly inconsistent with our values’.
The British Fashion Council has yet to comment on what it will now do about Demna’s nomination for next week’s awards. Yet with just four days to go, and with Demna a key name on the guest list, the clock is ticking.
Dare they risk honouring a designer once celebrated for his edginess but who, by his own hand, has experienced one of the most vertiginous falls from grace in fashion history?