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The Balenciaga blame game: why the buck stops with the brand after controversial campaign


By Amy Houston, Senior Reporter

November 25, 2022 | 7 min read

Luxury fashion house has faced severe criticism after its Christmas campaign was found to include several references to child abuse. Can it really deny any blame?


Balenciaga has now deleted this photoshoot from its social media / Balenciaga

Balenciaga came under fire for two, now deleted, photoshoots that appear to have sinister undertones. The first was its Christmas campaign, shot by Gabriele Galimberti, which depicted young children holding the brand’s ‘plush bear bags’ that appear to be wearing S&M-style harnesses. This came alongside its Spring 23 ad, which Newsweek attributes to photographer Chris Maggio, in which a Supreme Court document on child pornography cases can be seen on a table.

The backlash has resulted in a social media blame game, with brand and creatives each pointing the finger at each other.

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A Balenciaga statement on Instagram said: “We take this matter very seriously and are taking legal action against the parties responsible for creating the set and including unapproved items for our spring 23 campaign photoshoot. We strongly condemn abuse of children in any form. We stand for children safety and well-being.“

Photographer Galimberti immediately stated that his role was simply to point the camera: “I am not in a position to comment Balenciaga’s choices, but I must stress that I was not entitled in whatsoever manner to neither chose the products, nor the models, nor the combination of the same.

“As a photographer, I was only and solely requested to lit the given scene, and take the shots according to my signature style. As usual, the direction of the campaign and of the shooting are not on the hands of the photographer.”

It has been reported that Balenciaga will not be taking legal action against Galimberti or Maggio, but will be targeting the creative teams behind both shoots, who aren’t full-time employees.

However, advertising industry execs who’ve worked on high fashion shoots say that, ultimately, the buck stops with Balenciaga.

“There are months of planning and ironing out every detail of an idea between the brand and the production team/photographer,“ explains Zara Ineson, executive creative director at House 337, which works with M&S and SimplyBe.

“On the day, there are big teams and people running around all over the place – it can feel chaotic and things can slip through the net. However, the brand or agency’s creative director rules the roost. If they’re doing their jobs, they scrutinize every detail of a shot and make the final call on when they’ve got it right to move on.“

Galimberti’s assertion that he wasn’t “entitled“ to choose products or models is something Ineson finds “hard to swallow“. She says most luxury brands will have a partnership between the creative director and photographer and will collaborate on ideas together.

“Even if it wasn’t a collaborative process between himself and the brand, any photographer (or at least their agent) would investigate the idea before they took the job.“ Not to mention the pre-production meetings where set design, propping and casting are agreed upon ahead of the shoot.

“There are numerous occasions before a shoot where a photographer could pull the plug on being involved if things didn’t feel right.“

With any project, many people have a shared responsibility to nail the brief and there is a sign-off process. In the weeks leading up to the shoot, there is the set design, styling and casting to think about. Ineson adds that, with a Balenciaga campaign, “these decisions would likely have been signed off by Demna [Balenciaga’s creative director] himself“.

She continues: “It doesn’t matter if he was on the shoot or not. He would’ve signed the campaign off before it was released.“

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World-renowned photographer Rankin, who has worked on campaigns for brands including Diesel and Rimmel, argues that Galimberti and Maggio are complicit, both failing in their duty of care to the model.

He says: “It’s entirely inappropriate to have children modeling those bags and the buck stops with the creative director on the shoot and, consequently, with the brand. But when a photographer looks through a lens, they have a responsibility to the subject.

“There’s a duty of care to your talent, especially when it’s a kid. In this instance, they’ve really dropped the ball from both sides, the creative direction and the photography.”

Some of Balenciaga’s biggest critics accuse the brand of setting out to create controversy in the hopes of generating PR. Laurent François, managing partner at 180 Social and 180 Luxe, which counts Dior among its clients, says the whole campaign highlights the problem of ”flirting with boundaries and looking for the next buzz”.

He says: ”Instead of nurturing its community around a narrative, progressively building a deeper understanding and helping them move to something less expected and more subtle, Balenciaga jumped into the trap of the next-day headline obsession.”

He says it is a reminder that for creativity to impact, especially in the advertising field, it has to be ”obsessed with a certain understanding of deep brand values and a forecast of community reactions... not to mention a certain moral compass within the brand territory”.

The Drum has reached out to Balenciaga for comment, but at the time of writing has not received a response.

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