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21 Dec

No. 5: Balenciaga’s Promoting Turmoil

In November, Balenciaga and its creative director Demna broke the web — within the incorrect way.

Two separate campaigns for the 2022 holiday season and the Garde-Robe line of wardrobe staples for spring 2023, released respectively on Nov. 16 and 21, sparked a wave of shock on social media that engulfed the French fashion house, photographers, creatives and even longtime collaborator Kim Kardashian.

The Gift holiday campaign featured children posing alongside quite a lot of items, including handbags shaped like stuffed bears wearing bondage gear, first touted by adult models within the brand’s spring 2023 show in Paris in October. The campaign was shot in Paris by Milan-based photographer Gabriele Galimberti, a documentary photographer and frequent National Geographic contributor making his first foray into fashion.

Meanwhile, the campaign for the spring 2023 collection depicted actresses Nicole Kidman and Isabelle Huppert in a business setting. In a single photo of a handbag, there’s a page within the background from the 2008 Supreme Court ruling “United States v. Williams,” which confirmed the promotion of kid pornography as illegal and never protected by freedom of speech.

Shot in Recent York by photographers Joshua Shiny for the portraits and Chris Maggio for the still-life imagery, that campaign involved production company North Six Inc. and set designer Nicolas des Jardins.

Some social media critics and choose members of the media mistakenly conflated the 2 campaigns and stated that the Supreme Court document was featured within the ads with the kids.

By Nov. 23, Balenciaga had pulled the controversial holiday campaign from all platforms and apologized for any offense it caused.

Subsequent attempts to clear up the situation, explaining the documents as “unapproved documents” and indicating it had filed a criticism, drew further ire because it was taken as an attempt by the corporate to shift blame onto external creatives.

The style brand was said to be initially looking for $25 million in damages from North Six and des Jardins.

After days of backlash, Balenciaga on Nov. 28 publicly condemned child abuse and took full responsibility for the controversies surrounding the 2 campaigns, a day after Kardashian said on Nov. 27 that she was “reevaluating” her relationship to the brand, writing that she was “shaken by the disturbing images.”

Demna broke his silence on Dec. 2 in a post on his Instagram account, which counts 373,000 followers, by which he wrote: “I would like to personally apologize for the incorrect artistic alternative of concept for the gifting campaign with the children and I take my responsibility. It was inappropriate to have kids promote objects that don’t have anything to do with them.”

The Georgian designer made no mention of the second campaign that had sparked one other firestorm of controversy.

Individually the identical day, Balenciaga president and chief executive officer Cédric Charbit reiterated his “sincere apologies for the offense we’ve caused.”

He sketched out major changes within the brand’s “content organization,” vowed to go on a “listening tour” with child protection groups, and to put aside “a major fund for grants to organizations in order that we will help make a difference in protecting children.”

Charbit said Balenciaga would “learn from our mistakes as a company” and institute a number of recent controls, including an internal image board “answerable for evaluating the character of our content from concept to final assets, including legal, sustainability and variety expertise” and the appointment of an external “best-in-class agency to evaluate and evaluate [its] content organization.”

As well as, he said “we’ve reorganized our image department to make sure full alignment with our corporate guidelines.”

The corporate also made an about-face on blaming North Six and des Jardins, which had been receiving support from distinguished creatives and industry professionals.

However the damage, it seems, was already done.

In an extra indication of the blowback, Balenciaga pulled out of this yr’s Fashion Awards ceremony on Dec. 5 in London, with the British Fashion Council confirming that Demna was not on the list of nominees. 

He had been viewed as a front-runner for Designer of the Yr due to his daring, forward-thinking live events, and overall influence on fashion, nominated alongside Jonathan Anderson for JW Anderson and Loewe; Matthieu Blazy for Bottega Veneta; Miuccia Prada, and Pierpaolo Piccioli, who ended up receiving the award.

But what led a brand until then seen as a master of chiseled communication to get caught in such a quagmire?

One crisis communication expert, who asked to not be named, said that Balenciaga had fallen afoul of the social media mob since it failed to think about a broader context that features web commentators wanting to conjecture, noting that reactions — and the main focus of conversations — had differed by geographic regions.

The brand “must have seen this coming,” given a moment in time where “nothing is fun, all the things is heavy,” agreed Paloma Castro Martinez de Tejada, a partner at Paris-based brand strategist Darwin Associates.

Erminia Nusswitz, a seasoned consultant in communications, described the Garde-Robe controversy as the results of a “collective mistake” from the brand and people involved within the campaign, one which is difficult to fathom given the period of time it takes to arrange and the number of individuals involved in such a project.

The situation is much more surprising provided that “Balenciaga has previously [successfully] used its power and visibility with a little bit of provocation in service of a message, like Demna calling out people’s inaction on climate change,” she continued.

“Fashion brands are used to manipulating images and fashion has produced provocative imagery. When this provocation is used to denounce [a situation], trigger conversations, or create awareness, it’s interesting but done for its own sake — moreover on a subject that’s not only sensitive but very grave — there may be no such levity,” Nusswitz said.

As for consequences for Balenciaga’s leadership, industry sources said any changes in a until-then well-oiled operation would result in instability, an undesirable situation at a time when parent group Kering is already facing uncertainties following Alessandro Michele’s departure from Gucci.

Whether the twinned ad controversies can have any long-term effect on either Balenciaga’s sales or brand equity remains to be up within the air, with industry observers agreeing that it was too soon to inform what, if any, long-term effects they might have.

With comments closed on the Instagram posts of Balenciaga and Demna, it’s difficult to gauge public sentiment, although the social publications on the corporate’s remedial steps and the Georgian designer’s personal statement have garnered respectively greater than 111,000 and 27,000 likes thus far.

However the comments garnered by Kidman on the post promoting the office-set spring 2023 campaign to her 8.7 million Instagram followers appear to point to ongoing heavy criticism. A spokesperson for Balenciaga indicated that this campaign had been taken down from the brand’s Instagram account as a part of an everyday reset of their social platforms.

One other hurdle is Balenciaga’s initial response, which was perceived as falling short, especially in its treatment of the creatives involved. Early on, Mark McKenna, a number one mental property scholar on the UCLA School of Law, had said it was “hard for [him] to assume that those marketing materials were released without anyone from Balenciaga involved and signing off. That may be very surprising.”

“Ultimately, if you’re the director, the brand, the corporate, you may have to take responsibility,” reminded Castro Martinez de Tejada.

As for individuals who were seen on social media destroying their Balenciaga wares, industry sources estimated the phenomenon to be limited and akin to the knee-jerk response of Russian influencers who posted videos of them cutting up their Chanel bags in consequence of the brand imposing restrictions on Russian passport holders after their country’s attack of Ukraine.

Yet beyond taking down the campaigns and keeping a low profile, there “isn’t much else” the brand could have done on the time, in response to Nusswitz, since “the fact is that [any] reply is nearly too late and nothing except time” can allay the situation, which is “more a scandal than a deep-rooted crisis.”

Castro Martinez de Tejada also thinks the controversy will pass, leaving “perhaps small echoes” and increased scrutiny within the near future. Straight away what Balenciaga can do is “nothing,” except take stock of how the situation occurred and take steps to avoid further crises, she said.

While a proportion of Balenciaga’s audience may not forget this episode soon, if ever, it wouldn’t be the primary distinguished company to weather a serious reputational crisis.

Parallels were made with the case of Dolce & Gabbana — widely condemned for its notorious 2018 fiasco following a tone-deaf campaign in China and ensuing string of insulting messages — but which was recently worn by your complete Kardashian clan, or the 2019 blackface row that saw Gucci remove a black sweater featuring a cutout mouth with large red lips but saw its sales proceed to climb.

Across the board observers expect Balenciaga to bounce back, especially given the various levels of familiarity with Demna’s proclivity for provocation and subversion among the many brand’s consumers, its fan base and the general public at large.  

The actual query is “how you can come out of this crisis and begin communicating again, exposing the brand again,” whether it’s through product launches, recent collaborations or around the following runway show, said Nusswitz.

In response to her, the brand could go down one among two paths: either address the problems frontally or letting more time pass before easing back in with “much less provocative” campaigns.

A spokesperson for Balenciaga indicated that the brand can be showing its next collection throughout the fall 2023 Paris Fashion Week in March.

The lesson here is that “brands are almost a type of media,” in response to Nusswitz, and that having an audience as large as Balenciaga’s 14.3 million followers on Instagram means “you may’t do and say what you are feeling anymore; you may have to take that responsibility on board.”

Calling luxury “Europe’s Silicon Valley,” specifically the performance of France’s CAC40 index tied to the health of its luxury groups, “a fashion brand, especially one among that stature, is in the identical league as a pharmaceutical company, agri-food giants or oil and gas heavyweights. Its movements have effects on the macroeconomic scale,” Castro Martinez de Tejada said.   

As such, the onus is on brands to “give the keys to interpreting [its statements] because these can not be left open to individual interpretation given the business and social ramifications they might have,” she continued. “This [controversy] must be a wake-up call for creatives concerning the potential impact of any creative decision.”

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