‘Error of judgment’: Balenciaga’s creative director Demna Gvasalia addresses ad campaign controversy

French fashion house Balenciaga came under scanner last year after its advertising campaigns sparked criticism on social media over accusations that it involved inappropriate imagery involving children. While the first campaign, advertising a gift collection, featured a handbag in the form of a stuffed teddy bear in bondage-style straps held by children, ad separate ad was set in an office and included papers featuring text from a 2008 Supreme Court ruling relating to child pornography.

Following the widespread backlash, the brand’s creative director Demna Gvasalia apologised on social media saying, “I want to personally apologize for the wrong artistic choice of concept for the gifting campaign with the kids.”

In a recent interview with Vogue, Demna opened up about the controversy for the first time and shared what was the intended inspiration behind these campaigns. “The Spring 2023 campaign was directly inspired by the show we did last year on Wall Street in New York City. I wanted to shoot it in a typical New York corporate setting, emphasizing the idea of power dressing. Basically, shooting a CEO-style office. I saw the example of how the offices could look, approved what type of furniture they would use, and what kind of poses the models would do. Since I am never on shoots, images were presented to me to select the photos I liked most out of the selection made by the photographer,” he said.

The designer continued: “The Gift Shop campaign was completely unrelated to the Spring 2023 campaign—they were shot at a different time, one in October and the other one in July. The campaign was made to promote the line of objects in relation to the end-of-the-year holidays. It was a large variety of unrelated products, which required a concept in which many different products could be shot altogether. Kidswear was a part of the selection for the ‘gift shop,’ as well as the plush teddy bear bags, referencing punk and DIY culture, absolutely not BDSM, and they were worn by adults in the October 2022 show.”

Based on this, the photographer was selected because his work often include numerous toys placed around a room with kids in the middle of it, he shared.

However, that’s where his error came in, Demna admitted. “That was my big mistake. I didn’t realise how inappropriate it would be to put these objects [in the image] and still have the kid in the middle. It unfortunately was the wrong idea and a bad decision from me. We should not have featured kids in images that included objects that were not related and inappropriate to them. No one, myself included, raised a question of it being inappropriate…This was an error of judgment. I regret this a lot.”

Balenciaga’s creative director added that the brand has learned from this incident and there will be more “attentive checks” and “validation steps” applied before any image goes out.

Demna added, “I realised that I really have to look at everything from a very objective point of view and imagine how it can speak to a different audience and be responsible for that. It was a reaction I would never, ever want to cause. I realize that my work has been seen as provocative, but this specific situation would never be part of my, you know, provocative nature. That was the most difficult thing for me personally: How could I not see [the problem]? Because it is so clear to me now that it was the wrong thing to do.”

He said that following the controversy, he has been called “terrible things” by the people which was “difficult on top of the horror of being associated with that problem [of child abuse].”

“I have seen a lot of drama in my life, but this was particularly hard to live [through], a mistake to learn from. It was mostly painful for me because I could not explain all of this, but also, the name of Balenciaga and the legacy of Cristóbal Balenciaga is one I cherish and have the utmost respect and fascination for,” Demna added in the interview.

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