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Balenciaga to Focus on Collections, Heritage Amid Continuing Controversy

The French brand will scale back on spectacle and focus on design after being accused of sexualising children, designer Demna told Vogue in the company’s first interview since the scandal last year.
Demna.
Demna, Balenciaga's creative director since 2015, is seeking to bounce back from a backlash to the brand's Gifting campaign. (Getty)

Balenciaga’s March show in Paris will be an “intentionally simple” event focused on showcasing clothes and aligned with the house’s heritage, creative director Demna told Vogue in an interview outlining the brand’s plans to move forward after being rocked by scandal late last year.

“I have decided to go back to my roots in fashion as well as to the roots of Balenciaga, which is making quality clothes — not making image or buzz,” Demna said in the Q&A published Thursday.

“I think my value as a creative is designing the product and not being a showman... The provocative aspect of my work often got misinterpreted and misunderstood, and I no longer feel like applying it to my designs,” Demna added.

Since Demna took over Balenciaga in 2015, the brand has enjoyed rapid growth, powered in part by intense social media buzz for his attention-grabbing design gags and immersive fashion week spectacles. Products including bedazzled platform Crocs, trompe l’oeil crumpled potato chip bags (made of leather) and ultra-destroyed sneakers, shown on runways flooded with water or mud, have driven debate and visibility online.

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Balenciaga’s brand reached new heights in the U.S. since 2021 by partnering with stars including Kim Kardashian and Justin Bieber at a time when the country’s luxury sales were surging.

But the brand went viral for the wrong reasons when it was decried for sexualising children in the wake of a holiday gifting campaign released November 2022. The shoot featured children in intimate settings alongside teddy bear accessories wearing BDSM-associated harnesses and padlock necklaces.

Speaking to Vogue, Demna said the teddy bears were intended as “referencing punk and DIY culture, absolutely not BDSM.” The designer claimed no one at the company flagged the issue before the campaign was released. “No one, myself included, raised a question of it being inappropriate. There were control processes in place, people involved — internal and external — but we just did not spot what was problematic,” Demna said.

Balenciaga Spring/Summer 2023
Balenciaga teddy bears were a buzzy novelty on the runway, but sparked backlash when photographed with children. (Balenciaga)

In December, viral social media posts (picked up by Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson) also claimed to have also spotted pro-pediphilia messages embedded in the brand’s Spring 2023 campaign, including prop papers referencing a Supreme Court decision about child pornography. While the brand issued multiple apologies, Demna and the company have repeatedly maintained that the documents were meant to be generic props, and their thematic association with the backlash around the gifting campaign was a coincidence.

“It was a set of negligent and unfortunate, but not intentional, coincidences,” Demna said. “The Gift Shop campaign was different because the inappropriate nature of associating kids with those objects was clearly our mistake.”

Fourth-quarter sales in parent company Kering’s “Other Luxury” division are expected to slow due to Balenciaga’s controversy when the group announces its annual results Feb. 15. In the key holiday shopping period, several of the brand’s stores were targeted by protestors, some were vandalised, and many lay empty or close to empty, especially in the US and other English-speaking markets, where the scandal hit hardest. The company has suspended nearly all promotional activities around the brand to avoid stoking further outcry.

The brand has shied away from posting to its social media channel aside from a few posts leaning into the brand’s heritage—including archival videos of founder Cristóbal Balenciaga’s shows and current carry-over products inspired heavily by his designs—implying the company’s focus is shifting away from fostering pop culture currency.

In an effort to make amends, on Wednesday Balenciaga announced a partnership with National Children’s Alliance, a U.S. group dedicated to fighting child abuse.

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But in what may be a sign of just how controversial the brand remains — particularly in the US — no Vogue writers signed their name on the interview.

Still, the brand is sticking with its plan to return to the spotlight with a Paris Fashion Week show in March. During informal conversations during Paris Haute Couture week in January, fashion writers from major US publications voiced concerns about covering the event. And whether key celebrities will show up for the event remains to be seen.

“The show will become more about showing the collection than creating a moment,” Demna told Vogue.

It will also be a key test for whether the brand — and its designer — can get back on track.

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