The Balenciaga scandal is the latest in a long line of fashion shock tactics that have gone horribly wrong

People walk past a Balenciaga store on May 18, 2020 in downtown Milan, Italy – Miguel Medina/AFP

“Move fast and break things.” Mark Zuckerberg’s famous statement is one of the mottos of our age. Paraphrased by all the chatter from Dominic Cummings to Elon Musk, he has become the beloved crutch of corporate geeks desperate to jitter. In 2019, an article in The Harvard Business Review stated that his time was over. It was time, he intoned the HBR, to take a more measured and socially responsible approach.

But in fashion, where midlifes trying to look radical abound, it was far from over. Witness the latest kerfuffle at Balenciaga, where crisis management has now kicked into action following the release of two recent announcements. One shows young children carrying the brand’s fluffy teddy bear bags that they walked down the Balenciaga runway in September. The problem is, bears sport bondage gear.

The second ad seems innocuous enough at first glance. It stars French film star Isabelle Huppert leaning sternly (‘it’s what she does) at a messy desk in a high-rise office in Blandsville wearing a shirt from the brand’s latest collaboration with Adidas.

So far, so meh. But look closer — and never since have so many magnifying glasses been used on an ad — and it becomes apparent that one of the documents on Huppert’s desk is a page from a US Supreme Court ruling on child pornography. Bingo. Guaranteed controversy.

But no one could have predicted how much, with the collateral damage continuing to mount. Bring out the bodies… The conjunction of the vulgarity of the first ad and the sloppiness of the second ignited a runaway conflagration that spread from fashion websites to major news channels, engulfing in its flames Huppert, Kim Kardashian, Nicole Kidman and Bella Hadid, protagonist of other photos of the same campaign. Gabriele Galimberti, the documentary photographer of the teddy bear commercial, who, although he has previously photographed children with their toys, had never done a fashion campaign before, says he is now treated like a leper.

Kardashian has been criticized for the mildness of her rebuke, which many say amounts to the reality star saying, “I wish you hadn’t, but can I please still have all the freebies I ordered?” Kidman was beaten for not saying anything. Fans are burning their Balenciaga merchandise and demanding that its star designer, Demna Gvasalia, be fired and/or canceled. The Business of Fashion site has already rescinded the award they planned to give him next week while the British Fashion Council, which organizes the glitzy fashion awards, which take place on Monday, is now faced with an embarrassing situation: uninviting a guest honorable or not?

Nicole Kidman, Kim Kardashian and Bella Hadid

Nicole Kidman, Kim Kardashian and Bella Hadid

Conspiracy theorists have, inevitably, gone overboard, positing false claims that Balenciaga is part of a massive Democratic conspiracy (shades of QAnon) to normalize child pornography, even weighing in on North Korean activist Yeonmi Park.

Balenciaga initially reacted as fashion houses often do: say nothing, then a little, then file a $25 million lawsuit against North Six, the company that supplied the commercial’s props, and its production designer Nicholas Des Jardins, in a move that did nothing to appease anyone. As Nicholas Des Jardins’ attorney stated in his statement, Balenciaga representatives were on set during filming “to supervise him and handle documents and other props.” Others have pointed out that any major company’s campaigns are approved by dozens of executives before being released. The idea that no one noticed is ludicrous, they suggest.

Kim Kardashian-Mike Coppola

Kim Kardashian-Mike Coppola

But isn’t that exactly what happens when you break something just to make noise? You get used to the cacophony and the sales it generates. Until one day, you destroyed your block.

From a 15-year-old Brooke Shields asking the world in 1980, “You wanna know what’s standing between me and my Calvins? Nothing” to Tom Ford for Gucci’s infamous close-up of a female model’s G-shaped pubic topiary in 2003, no one went broke in fashion pushing ever more explicit sexual imagery. Photographer Terry Richardson’s meteoric multimillion-dollar career of importing sexual innuendo into fashion ads, over which he superimposed a heavy pornographic aesthetic, was only sidelined when allegations of sexual misconduct – which he denied – became impossible to ignore after Me Too.

The more mediocre the brand, the more offensive the ads. Sisley, an upscale Italian chain, used Richardson to photograph a dazed and tired model holding a cow’s teat in her left hand and squirting milk into her open mouth. With his tongue hanging out of hers, the liquid dripping down her chin, it was obvious what this otherwise forgettable label implied.

Spurred, presumably, by the hoo-ha, six years later, the delightful Sisley featured semi-delusional models chugging a white vest off a polished table.

These are far from isolated violations. Advertisements for Benetton’s preppie pullovers showed AIDS victims and – I kid you not – a model with a black eye, next to the tag: Colors of Domestic Violence. Nice sweater though.

Balenciaga boot on Kim Kardashian

Balenciaga boot on Kim Kardashian

Miu Miu was accused of fetishizing underage models in an ad that was eventually banned, and I’ve lost count of the houses that regularly feature impossibly thin models, despite the opprobrium this invariably incurs.

The thing is, brands rarely experience long-term repercussions. Sometimes sales are actually increased. So what if you get criticized on Fox TV. Eventually everyone moves on, mores change, and the world waits to be shocked by the next outrage. But perhaps this is different. The speed with which news is now consumed, mutilated and spewed out on social media makes already volatile situations unpredictable and means that relatively minor infractions can plunge a brand into boiling water. The inclusion of the SCOTUS document was either provocative or negligent, but let’s not forget, it came from a document advocating laws that protect children, not a recommendation to roll back the legislation.

It may be that Gvasalia will lose his job. It’s not like the label, under her leadership, has no shape when it comes to guerrilla warfare, from fashion shows featuring models dressed as war refugees to the face-covering black leotard Kim Kardashian wore to the Met Ball in 2021. A house that once dressed Gloria Guinness and Ava Gardner now makes most of its money from sneakers, leading some critics to suggest Gvasalia’s time is up creatively anyway.

Glory Guinness - WWD

Glory Guinness – WWD

On the other hand, the Kering Group, which owns Balenciaga, has just parted ways with Alessandro Michele, its flagship designer at Gucci. Losing two creative directors in one week would seem more than unwise, but perhaps this latest furor, succinct as it sounds in the end, provides some useful cover.

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