WHEN you have to issue a statement “strongly condemning child abuse” it’s probably fair to say you’re not having a good day.
Fashion label Balenciaga has rightly faced a huge backlash over its recent advertising campaigns involving children. The brand’s gift collection campaign was illustrated by portraits of children posing with Balenciaga teddy bear purses. The problem was that the teddy bears appeared to be decked out in bondage gear.
Another ad for a Balenciaga handbag included a printout of a US Supreme Court decision on child pornography. To which the only possible response is: what the hell were they thinking?
The kind answer is that they weren’t. “The two separate ad campaigns in question reflect a series of grievous errors for which Balenciaga takes responsibility,” the label has admitted.
That said, it is still suing the production company behind the campaign, North Six, and the latter ad campaign’s set designer Nicolas des Jardins. Meanwhile, Kim Kardashian has announced she is “re-evaluating” her relationship with the fashion brand.
Sometimes, it’s possible that maybe there is such a thing as bad publicity. Unsurprisingly, both campaigns have been suspended.
Although this is a particularly egregious example of controversy trumping common sense, there is nothing new about such fashion faux pas.
This is an industry, after all, in which the term “edgy” is seen as a positive. In 2019 Gucci had to withdraw a black balaclava jumper which was decorated with large red lips when it was pointed out that it was effectively a “blackface” jumper.
The same year Burberry had to apologise after a model appeared on the runway during London Fashion Week wearing a hoodie with strings tied in the shape of a noose.
There are a couple of possible conclusions to be drawn here. One is pretty simple. Maybe, just maybe, if the fashion industry was a little more culturally diverse, brands might have someone on hand to point out when ideas are either cultural appropriation (the use of cornrows or dreadlocks on white models) or simply culturally inappropriate.
The other is that perhaps in the 21st century controversy isn’t quite as useful a promotional strategy as it once was.
Like pop music, fashion has long used shock imagery to create a buzz and punt clothes. Both industries have long known that sex sells, for example. Tom Ford’s porny Gucci campaigns of the 1990s come to mind. And certainly the music industry is still all too guilty of sexualising female artists.
But when your main attractions are Ed Sheeran and Adele, edginess perhaps becomes less of a currency. Pop in the 21st century is not quite the headline generator it was between the 1960s and 1990s because some of the attitudes it endorsed back then have become mainstream. (This is a broad generalisation, I know, and at this point we could digress to discussing the politicisation of the contemporary generation of African-American artists. But space is tight.)
The fashion industry, by contrast, remains wedded to controversy as a means of getting talked about. Shock tactics remain useful when you’re selling your brand as a lifestyle. The problem is when you get it hideously wrong, as Balenciaga have here.
The fashion industry is hugely successful and is full of talented and creative people. And yet it is also not short of issues that it needs to address.
It is, like so many industries, hideously white (an American survey last year found that two in three black employees in the industry reported they were the only “black” person in the room). And it faces huge challenges to improve on its environmental footprint (the industry is responsible for up to 10 per cent of humanity’s carbon emissions). In the circumstances you might think it would try and avoid such depressing and stupid own goals as Balenciaga’s. Maybe next season.