Balenciaga photographer ‘receives death threats’ over scandal, says child models were children of employees

The brand’s artistic director told guests there would be ‘nothing to see but clothes’ (Getty Images)

The photographer who captured Balenciaga’s recent ad campaign has spoken out amid the brand’s latest scandal.

Gabriele Galimberti was the photographer for Balenciaga’s Gift Shop holiday campaign, which featured children holding teddy bears dressed in bondage gear. In a new interview with The Guardian, the National Geographic photographer said he has “received death threats” in the wake of the scandal.

“I get messages like ‘We know where you live,’ ‘We are coming to kill you and your family,’ ‘We are going to burn your house,’ ‘You have to kill yourself, f***ing paedophile,’” Galimberti told the publication on 9 December, adding that 90 per cent of the messages came from people in the United States.

The Gift Shop campaign was shot earlier this month to promote the brand’s collection of holiday gifts, including champagne glasses, pillows, studded dog bowls, and the teddy bear handbags. The photoshoot was meant to mimic Galimberti’s famed “Toy Stories” series.

The campaign sparked backlash when social media users noticed the plush teddy bears appeared to be dressed in bondage and BDSM gear, such as fishnet tops, studded leather harnesses, and collars with locks.

A separate ad campaign for Balenciaga’s collaboration with Adidas also came under fire when people pointed out that court papers used as props were identified as being from the 2008 Supreme Court case, United States v Williams. In the image, a black-and-white Balenciaga/Adidas “Hourglass” handbag sits on top documents from the case, which criminalised the pandering of child pornography.

However, Galimberti was not responsible for photographing this campaign. Instead, the still-life images from the Balenciaga/Adidas photoshoot were captured by photographer Chris Maggio, according to Adidas.

Galimberti also revealed that the child models used in the holiday campaign were actually the children of Balenciaga employees. Though, he notes, the parents of the children holding the teddy bear bags didn’t raise any concerns.

“When they saw those bags, everybody was telling them they were punk. Nobody ever mentioned BDSM,” he said. “I can recognise if we are going too far or not, but in that occasion I trust them and I didn’t see anything so wrong.”

Now, Galimberti says he is “suing four media outlets” for publishing images from the two campaigns together, creating a false association that Galimberti worked on both. The Italian photographer also emphasised he “had little input” into how the images looked before the shoot.

Although Balenciaga has made multiple statements since the scandal began, Galimberti maintained that the brand’s delayed response led to further abuse and death threats from critics.

“I was writing [Balenciaga] emails every day – two or three or four emails per day – telling them, ‘guys, people are looking for me. They say that they want to come here and kill me. Please do something. Write a new statement,’” he explained, adding that Balenciaga suggested he simply set his Instagram account to private.

This is not the first time Gabriele Galimberti has spoken out about the messages he’s received in the wake of this ongoing Balenciaga scandal. Just days after the teddy bear bondage bags sparked backlash, the National Geographic photographer addressed the criticism in an Instagram statement, which he said he felt “compelled to make” following the “hundreds of hate mails and messages I received as a result of the photos I took for the Balenciaga campaign”.

“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,” he wrote on 23 November. “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. Also, I have no connection with the photo where a Supreme Court document appears. That one was taken in another set by other people and and was falsely associated with my photos.”

In response to the backlash, Balenciaga has issued three statements apologising for the campaigns and outlining the actions it will be taking “with the objective to learn from our mistakes as an organisation.”

Their first statement, which was posted to Instagram on 22 November, included Balenciaga apologising “for any offense” the holiday campaign may have caused, adding that they “immediately removed the campaign from all platforms.”

The brand apologised for including the Supreme Court documents in the ad campaign, writing that they “are taking legal action against the parties responsible for creating the set and including unapproved items for our Spring ‘23 campaign photoshoot.”

Less than one week later, Balenciaga “strongly condemned” child abuse and took “responsibility” for the ad campaigns, noting that its plush bear bags “should not have been featured with children”.

“This was a wrong choice by Balenciaga, combined with our failure in assessing and validating images. The responsibility for this lies with Balenciaga alone,” the company wrote.

As for the Balenciaga/Adidas campaign, the fashion label said the photoshoot was “meant to replicate a business office environment”. According to Balenciaga, “all the items included in this shooting were provided by third parties that confirmed in writing that these props were fake office documents”.

“They turned out to be real legal papers most likely coming from the filming of a television drama,” Balenciaga continued. “The inclusion of these unapproved documents was the result of reckless negligence for which Balenciaga has filed a complaint.”

On 25 November, Balenciaga filed a $25m lawsuit against its production company, North Six Inc, over the controversial ad campaign in which the court documents were visible. In their most recent statement posted last week, Balenciaga revealed it will “not pursue litigation” against the company.

In the statement, Balenciaga described the actions it will be taking “with the objective to learn from our mistakes as an organisation.” These steps include implementing new control instances, such as content validation and an image board.

“Our current process for content validation has failed, and we recognise the need to do better,” the company said. “On the internal side, we nominate with immediate effect an image board responsible for evaluating the nature of our content from concept to final assets, including legal, sustainability and diversity expertise. On the external side, we have appointed a best-in-class agency to assess and evaluate our content.”

The brand has also reorganised its image department “to ensure full alignment with our corporate guidelines.”

Meanwhile, Balenciaga’s creative director Demna Gvasalia has also apologised for including children in the campaigns and acknowledged that it wasn’t appropriate to do so.

“I want to personally apologise for the wrong artistic choice of concept for the gifting campaign with kids and I take my responsibility,” he said on 2 December. “It was inappropriate to have kids promote objects that had nothing to do with them. I apologise to anyone offended by the visuals and Balenciaga has guaranteed that adequate measures will be taken not only to avoid similar mistakes in the future but also to take accountability in protecting child welfare in every way we can.”