Social-media users have accused Balenciaga of sexualizing children in a holiday ad.
The ad featured children holding teddy bear purses that were seemingly wearing bondage.
A different, previous ad for the brand included a reference to a Supreme Court case on child porn.
Balenciaga made a name for itself with its avant-garde fashion.
The luxury fashion brand is known for its bold designs, which often push the boundaries of style.
A shock factor has always been part of Balenciaga's ethos, but social-media users say the brand took things too far with a recent holiday ad.
Kering, Balenciaga's parent company, did not immediately respond to Insider's request for comment on this story.
Balenciaga shared its 2022 "Gift Collection" holiday campaign on social media on November 16. It was immediately met with backlash.
The campaign, which was photographed by award-winning National Geographic photographer Gabriele Galimberti, starred children holding bags that looked like teddy bears.
One of Galimberti's best-known collections is called "Toy Stories," and it features children from all over the world standing in rooms with their toys. Galimberti told Insider Balenciaga took inspiration from the collection for its holiday spread.
"I received an email from Balenciaga, and they basically told me, 'Demna found out your book, and loved your style and we want to work with you," Galimberti said, speaking of Balenciaga's creative director.
Galimberti said Balenciaga told him they wanted him to photograph kids in the same style he did for "Toy Stories," but that the company would provide the objects for them to be around for a "punk" shoot.
Galimberti is primarily a documentary photographer, though he has worked commercially in the past. His work on the "Gift Collection" was the first time he worked on a fashion campaign, he said.
For the shoot, Balenciaga dressed the plush bears in punk gear that looked like bondage, including leather harnesses and spiked collars. Wine glasses were also near the children in some of the shots.
Social-media users quickly condemned the shoot, accusing Balenciaga of sexualizing children.
Conservative influencers were some of the loudest critics of the luxury brand, as Insider's Lloyd Lee reported.
For instance, Blaire White, a conservative influencer with nearly 500,000 Twitter followers tweeted, "I rarely boycott, but Balenciaga is cancelled for me. I've spent thousands of $ on them, but now I'll be donating my items to the nearest homeless shelter."
Balenciaga pulled the advertisements and issued an apology for the "Gift Collection" campaign on November 22.
Balenciaga posted the apology on its Instagram story, announcing it had removed the campaign from its platforms.
"We sincerely apologize for any offense our holiday campaign may have caused," the statement said.
"Our plush bear bags should not have been featured with children in this campaign," it went on to say. "We have immediately removed the campaign from all platforms."
Social-media users then uncovered documents related to a Supreme Court ruling on child sexual abuse images in a Balenciaga ad for its spring 2023 line.
Amid the scandal of the "Gift Collection" campaign, a photo from a Balenciaga x Adidas spring 2023 collaboration resurfaced online, which was photographed by Chris Maggio, according to The Daily Mail.
In the ad, a Balenciaga x Adidas "Hourglass" purse sits on a table scattered with documents. One of the documents on the table was part of the Supreme Court's 2008 decision on United States v. Williams, which upheld a lower court's ruling that the pandering of child pornography is not protected by the First Amendment.
Maggio did not immediately respond to Insider's request for comment.
Another photo from Balenciaga's spring 2023 collection garnered attention because it included a book by a controversial artist.
Two pictures from the campaign, which have since been removed from Balenciaga's website, featured French actress Isabelle Huppert modeling the brand's products in an office setting, as the Daily Mail reported.
In the background of one of the photos of Huppert, a book — "Michaël Borremans: Fire from the Sun" by Michael Bracewell, which centers Belgian artist Michaël Borremans — is stacked on a desk.
Borremans' work is prolific — he was described by The New York Times as "the greatest living figurative painter" — and his series "Fire from the Sun," which the book celebrates, included images of children drawn in the nude, as a description of the book indicates on Amazon.
"Reminiscent of cherubs in Renaissance paintings, the toddlers appear as allegories of the human condition, their archetypal innocence contrasted with their suggested deviousness," the description said.
Social-media users took the inclusion of the book as proof, saying that Balenciaga had intentionally alluded to child sexual abuse in its campaigns — something the company denies.
A representative for Borremans did not immediately respond to Insider's request for comment.
The brand issued a second apology for the spring 2023 campaign just hours after its first statement was shared on Instagram.
Balenciaga uploaded the second apology to its Instagram story the same day it uploaded its initial statement.
"We apologize for displaying unsettling documents in our campaign," the statement said of the spring 2023 ad. "We take this matter very seriously and are taking legal action against the parties responsible for creating the set and including unapproved items for our spring 23 campaign photoshoot."
"We strongly condemn abuse of children in any form," it went on to say. "We stand for children safety and well-being."
Galimberti released a statement about the "Gift Collection" campaign on November 23, pointing blame to Balenciaga.
"Following the hundreds of hate mails and messages I received as a result of the photos I took for the Balenciaga campaign, I feel compelled to make this statement," Galimberti captioned an Instagram photo that just said "STATEMENT."
"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.
"As a photographer, I was only and solely requested to lit the given scene, and take the shots according to my signature style," he continued. "As usual for a commercial shooting, the direction of the campaign and the choice of the objects displayed are not in the hands of the photographer."
Galimberti added: "I suspect that any person prone to pedophilia searches on the web and has unfortunately a too easy access to images completely different than mine, absolutely explicit in their awful content. Accusations like these are addressed against wrong targets, and distract from the real problem, and criminals."
Galimberti also clarified in his post that he was not involved in the spring 2023 ad.
"Also, I have no connection with the photo where a Supreme Court document appears," he said. "That one was taken in another set by other people and was falsely associated with my photos."
A spokesperson for Balenciaga told the Daily Mail that the brand would not be pursuing a lawsuit against Galimberti.
Galimberti told Insider he has received thousands of hate messages and death threats as a result of the campaign.
When speaking to Insider, Galimberti wanted to make clear that he had no creative direction when it came to the products in the holiday campaign.
He said arrived on the Paris set in October for the shoot with his assistant and his agent, and he was greeted by around 25 staff members from Balenciaga.
"Everything was basically already made," he said. "I applied my documentary eye to the scene."
"I'm not an expert of fashion, so when they told me that the entire collection was punk inspiration, I take it for, like, 'OK, it's punk,'" he said.
"I personally thought that maybe those bags were ugly, but that's the only thing I could say," Galimberti added.
"There were 25 people working," he said of Balenciaga's presence at the shoot. "I trust these people that they know what to do. They know what their job is."
After the campaign came out, Galimberti immediately received backlash, and the photographer said he thinks people blamed him for the shoot's content in part because of how vague Balenciaga's initial statement was. He was also frustrated people initially connected him to the spring 2023 campaign, which he said he had nothing to do with.
Galimberti went on to say he's received thousands of hate messages and death threats on Instagram in the wake of the controversy, and his phone number was leaked on Twitter, which led someone to call him threateningly in the middle of the night.
The photographer also said he has lost out on work opportunities as a result of the Balenciaga campaign. An exhibition of his work that was supposed to start on December 7 has been canceled, and an Italian musician he was going to photograph severed ties with him.
Galimberti told Insider he is struggling with what his work with Balenciaga means for the legacy of "Toy Stories."
"I sold my idea to the industry that created a scandal, and somehow the fact that they used my idea with their kids and their product, it seems like it has destroyed my entire project," he said.
Balenciaga filed a $25 million lawsuit against the production company and set designer for the spring 2023 ad on November 25.
According to the complaint filed by Balenciaga to the New York State Supreme Court, which Insider reviewed, the brand is taking legal action against North Six Inc, the production company for the spring 2023 shoot, and Nicholas Des Jardins, the set designer for the shoot.
Balenciaga said in the court document that it is seeking redress for the damage caused to the brand by the inclusion of the Supreme Court documents in the shoot, arguing that North Six and Des Jardins' actions were "inexplicable" and its "omissions were malevolent or, at the very least, extraordinarily reckless."
Representatives for North Six declined to comment on the shoot and lawsuit, and Des Jardins did not immediately respond to Insider's request for comment. But a representative for Des Jardin told The Washington Post that he was "being used as a scapegoat" in the scandal.
The representative told The Post that the Supreme Court documents "were obtained from a prop house that were rental pieces used on film [and] photo shoots" and that "everyone from Balenciaga was on the shoot and was present on every shot and worked on the edit of every image in post production."
Des Jardin intends to hire legal representation, the same representative told The Post.
Kim Kardashian said she was "disgusted" by Balenciaga's ads and that she was "re-evaluating" her relationship with the brand on November 27.
Kardashian, who has a long-standing working relationship with Balenciaga, was initially silent on the controversy.
Kardashian addressed the controversy on Sunday in a series of tweets, as well as on her Instagram story, writing that she was "re-evaluating her relationship" with Balenciaga but not immediately cutting ties with it.
"I have been quiet for the past few days, not because I haven't been disgusted and outraged by the recent Balenciaga campaigns, but because I wanted an opportunity to speak to their team to understand for myself how this could have happened," she wrote.
"As a mother of four, I have been shaken by the disturbing images," Kardashian went on to say in a follow-up tweet. "The safety of children must be held with the highest regard and any attempts to normalize child abuse of any kind should have no place in our society — period."
"I appreciate Balenciaga's removal of the campaigns and apology. In speaking with them, I believe they understand the seriousness of the issue and will take the necessary measures for this to never happen again," she wrote in a third tweet.
"As for my future with Balenciaga, I am currently re-evaluating my relationship with the brand, basing it off their willingness to accept accountability for something that should have never happened to begin with — & the actions I am expecting to see them take to protect children," she finished her thread.
A representative for Kardashian did not immediately respond to Insider's request for comment.
Balenciaga released a lengthy statement regarding the controversy on November 28.
The brand shared the statement on Instagram, taking full responsibility for the holiday ad campaign and sharing that the company filed a lawsuit as a result of the spring 2023 campaign.
The post was the only image on Balenciaga's Instagram as of Monday.
"We strongly condemn child abuse; it was never our intent to include it in our narrative," the statement said. "The two separate ad campaigns in question reflect a series of grievous errors for which Balenciaga takes responsibility."
The statement went on to say that the "Gift Collection" plush bear bags "dressed in what some have labeled BDSM-inspired outfits" should not have been featured with children.
"This was a wrong choice by Balenciaga, combined with our failure in assessing and validating images," the statement went on to say. "The responsibility lies with Balenciaga alone."
The statement then addressed the spring 2023 campaign ad, saying that a third party provided all of the props for the shoot, including the paperwork from the Supreme Court case, and that the third party "confirmed in writing that these props were fake office documents," though the document in question turned out to be real.
"The inclusion of these unapproved documents was the result of reckless negligence for which Balenciaga has filed a complaint," the statement said, referencing the lawsuit the company filed on Friday.
The company did say it took "full accountability for our lack of oversight and control of the documents in the background" in the statement, and Balenciaga went on to list actions it is taking as a result of the photo shoots, which include "revising our organization and collective ways of working; reinforcing the structures around our creative processes and validation steps; and laying the groundwork with organizations who specialize in child protection and aims at ending child abuse and exploitation."
Balenciaga did not specify which organizations it plans to work with.
"We want to learn from our mistakes and identify ways we can contribute," the statement said. "Balenciaga reiterates its sincere apologies for the offense we have caused and extends its apologies to talents and partners."
Demna Gvasalia, Balenciaga's creative director, apologized for the holiday campaign on Instagram on December 2.
"I want to personally apologize for the wrong artistic choice of concept for the gifting campaign with the kids and I take my responsibility. It was inappropriate to have kids promote objects that had nothing to do with them," Gvasalia said.
"As much as I would sometimes like to provoke a thought through my work, I would NEVER have an intention to do that with such an awful subject as child abuse that I condemn," the statement went on to say. "Period."
"I need to learn from this, listen and engage with child protection organizations to know how I can contribute and help on this terrible subject," Gvasalia went on to say.
"I apologize 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," he said.
Balenciaga has made headlines in the past over accusations of cultural appropriation, a lawsuit for copyright infringement, and for cutting ties with Ye.
Balenciaga's ads aren't the only time the company has been called out.
One of Balenciaga's mainstays as a brand — its expensive takes on "cheap" products like Ikea bags or Lays potato chip bags — led to a copyright lawsuit in 2018. Balenciaga released the $1,950 "Multicoloured New York Bazar Shopper," which looked similar to the totes sold in souvenir shops in New York City, as Fashionista reported. The company that manufactures the bags filed a copyright lawsuit against Balenciaga, and the pair settled the lawsuit out of court later that year.
Then, in 2021, Balenciaga was accused of cultural appropriation after releasing a pair of $1,190 sweatpants that appeared to have boxers peeking out of the top of the waistline.
The Trompe-L'Oeil sweatpants seemed to the public to be an attempt to commodify sagging pants, which have "been used to criminalize Blacks, especially Black males as thugs and a threat to American society," Marquita Gammage, a professor and author of "Cultural Appropriation as 'Agency Reduction,'" told CNN.
In 2022, Balenciaga cut ties with Ye, the rapper formerly known as Kanye West, as a result of his antisemitic statements.
Ye had a close working relationship with Balenciaga largely due to his personal relationship with the brand's creative director Demna Gvasalia, as Insider previously reported.
But after Ye made several antisemitic statements on social media in October, Balenciaga removed all mentions of the artist on its website and social media.
On October 21, Women's Wear Daily reported Balenciaga had severed ties with Ye.
"Balenciaga has no longer any relationship nor any plans for future projects related to this artist," Kering said in a statement to Women's Wear Daily.
Read the original article on Insider