By now you will have heard of the controversial Balenciaga campaigns that featured child porn references and children holding teddy bears dressed in bondage. In doing damage control Balenciaga first passed the blame on the photographer Gabriele Galimberti and threatened to sue him. Gabriele Galimberti made a statement on his Instagram that he had not dressed the set, and did not choose any products.
“I am not in a position to comment 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.” As usual, he stated, “The direction of the [commercial] campaign and the choice of the objects displayed are not in the hands of the photographer.”
The suit, reads in part:
Luxury fashion house Balenciaga brings this action against production company North Six, Inc. and its agent, set designer Nicholas Des Jardins d/b/a Nicholas Des Jardins LLC, to seek redress for extensive damages Defendants caused in connection with an advertising campaign Balenciaga hired them to produce. Upon information and belief, Defendants, without Balenciaga’s knowledge or authorization, included certain documents in the campaign photographs, including an excerpt from a court decision upholding a criminal prohibition against child pornography. Balenciaga believes that Defendants’ inexplicable acts and omissions were malevolent or, at the very least, extraordinarily reckless. As a result of Defendants’ misconduct, members of the public, including the news media, have falsely and horrifically associated Balenciaga with the repulsive and deeply disturbing subject of the court decision. Defendants are liable to Balenciaga for all harm resulting from this false association.
This suit is brought in New York State Supreme Court, County of New York because both parties have their businesses there.
In some of the images, there were printed documents from the 2008 SCOTUS ruling (United States v. Williams) as set decoration, which Balenciaga now claims were added without their knowledge.
The outrage over the images has spread fast and so far that even celebrity ambassadors like Kim Kardashian are "re-evaluating" their relationship with the brand.
"We sincerely apologise for any offence our Holiday campaign may have caused," Balenciaga said in a statement.
"Our plush bear bags should not have been featured with children in this campaign. We have immediately removed the campaign from all platforms."
The bondage plush bears have been removed from sale on the Balenciaga website, but the internet sleuths were already digging further into all of the Balenciaga images and found another easter egg: Michaël Borremans. A book called "as sweet as it gets" is on the desk in one ofthe campaign images.
Michaël Borremans is a Belgian painter and filmmaker who lives and works in Ghent. His painting technique draws on 18th-century art as well as the works of Édouard Manet and Degas. His motifs are often nude children, with or without all of their limbs, and hooded people in what could be interpreted as rituals, or ghostly appearances.
While this is a clear public relations crisis for Balenciaga, their attempt to shift blame seems unprofessional at best. A client would normally always have the final say in any image that goes anywhere on their media channels, even if the road to creating them may be a long creative collaboration with new ideas injected by all parties along the way. And if you watched the Balenciaga Summer 23 Collection fashion show and backstage streams from the models involved, you have already seen the bondage teddybears and the incredibly life-like baby dolls worn by the models as accessories, while they had bloodied makeup on their faces and hands. So it seems quite "on brief" to continue with the shocking and 'edgy' visuals.
As anyone in the creative and advertising industry knows, a client like Balenciaga doesn't let the vendors run wild. Everything is checked twice and lawyered at least once, so we know who has the intellectual property rights to what, and clearing the images so that other companies’ copyright and/or trademark-protected works do not appear in it without their authorization, and so on. These approval routines are done both before and after the photographs and video images have been created.
It is also entirely plausible that the Creative Director at Balenciaga didn't spot the U.S. v. Williams document under the purse that eagle-eyed internet sleuths found. But does that give them a pass on the rest of their creative direction?
Is this lawsuit itself just another PR move? Good question. It does state: "upon your failure to appear, judgment will be taken against you jointly and severally by default for a sum to be determined according to proof, but no less than $25,000,000, and for such other and further relief as the Court deems just and proper." It's not clear if North Six and set designer Nicholas Des Jardins have that kind of money to throw around, but perhaps it could be returned to them if they all align to make this go away. Vendors do not rely on their public reputation the same way as brands do.