After fashion shows Clay Snowflakes, expensive stilettos, and handbags that look just like blue IKEA shoppers, luxury fashion house Balenciaga has once again managed to draw attention to itself with a new campaign.
This time not because of the collection itself, but because of what the photos accompanying the campaign showed: little girls dressed in plush teddy bears with bondage-related objects, such as bdsm-style belts and collars. An ad might also show a document that, zoomed in significantly, appears to refer to a child pornography lawsuit.
The campaign materials sparked a firestorm of criticism online, prompting Balenciaga to remove all advertising images. In a statement, the original Spanish fashion brand apologized for, among other things, the “disturbing documents” in the ads. According to the fashion house, “plush bear bags” should not have been photographed with children.
Balenciaga is no stranger to a bit of controversy. Previously, the company attracted attention with a pair of sweatpants in which a different piece of fabric is sewn to the top, so they looked like boxer shorts over elastic. According to critics, the fashion brand was guilty of cultural appropriation, because low-rise pants became fashionable in the hip-hop community and were also used to criminalize black people.
The much-discussed “destroyer” shoes:
“Balenciaga loves to kick holy cows,” says Georgette Koning, editor-in-chief of Mirror Mirror fashion and beauty magazine. “They keep coming up with different ways to get attention on the brand.”
A key player in this regard is the fashion house’s creative director, Demna Gvasalia. The Georgian took office in 2015 and has made many changes since then. “This guy is a marketing genius,” Koning says. “His thoughts are always being captured.”
For example, in 2017, Balenciaga created a blue leather bag—price: more than $2,100—that looked very similar to well-known shoppers from IKEA:
Koning believes that the fact that Balenciaga is working with Kim Kardashian also contributes to the success of the marketing. “Other fashion brands would have turned their noses up at it, and probably still do. They often reach out to models or actresses who have achieved something. And in the eyes of a lot of people, Kim Kardashian has become known only for her looks and connections.”
Some pundits are now calling on Kardashian to speak out against Balenciaga’s latest campaign. In the Netherlands, Free A Girl, which frees underage girls from the worldwide sex industry, is calling on De Bijenkorf to take action. De Bijenkorf is one of the few Balenciaga outlets in the Netherlands.
Marketing professor Willemin van Doulen, affiliated with the University of Amsterdam, suspects that the luxury fashion brand deliberately wanted to shock in order to attract attention. “This brand was already used to standing out, so they have to go one step at a time. They’ve obviously succeeded, but with very negative feedback as a result. I can’t imagine that’s the point.”
Rather no riots
According to Van Dolen, more and more brands, for example, are talking about political and social issues, anticipating their supporters and opponents. “But I don’t see any positive correlation in this campaign. I’m surprised no one has said, ‘This isn’t a good idea.'”
But if attention-grabbing is Balenciaga’s goal, hasn’t the brand succeeded? “It is no longer a matter of fact that all publicity is good publicity,” Van Dolen knows through research. “Negative publicity damages the image people have of a brand. That certainly applies to this brand, because it’s already well known. You’d still rather not have a riot with unknown brands, but then everyone will have heard.”
Kim Kardashian grabbed attention at last year’s Met Gala in her head-to-toe (literally) black outfit:
Fashion publicist Koning looks at Balenciaga’s campaign in a different light. According to her, a fashion brand can never go far enough. “This is artistic freedom,” she says. “And something like that isn’t just implemented, it comes from a concept.”
For example, Koning mentions Balenciaga’s “launched” shoes. In a statement at the time, the fashion house said the sneakers were intentionally worn sloppily, to show that they were meant to be “worn for life.”
“Even though the brand pushes boundaries, it’s thought of,” Koning says.