Balenciaga is once again embroiled in controversy on the heels of cutting ties with Kanye West, a.k.a. Ye, over anti-Semitic statements he made. It has been widely vilified for its holiday ad campaign featuring children posed with plush teddy-bear bags wearing S&M bondage gear.
The company pulled the ad with an apology on Instagram for what many perceived as over-sexualizing children.
“We sincerely apologize for any offense our holiday campaign may have caused. Our plush bear bags should not have been featured with children in this campaign. We have immediately removed the campaign from all platforms.”
Immediately after, eagle-eyed viewers discovered another ad for an ‘hourglass bag’ displayed on a table with a copy of a 2008 Supreme Court ruling related to child pornography. This resulted in another apology and a threat to take legal action against those responsible.
This time it can’t cast blame on the unbridled statements of a business partner. It alone is responsible for the ads and will be held accountable in the court of public opinion. We can argue about what exactly the company was trying to say, but universally we agree the teddy-bear ad was inappropriate and in bad taste.
Luxury brands, like Balenciaga, are vigilant crafters and protectors of their brand image. Absolutely nothing gets out of a luxury brand’s door without extensive review. It’s inconceivable that no one inside the company saw the implicit, if not explicit messages conveyed.
And that’s the problem. The company crossed cultural boundaries that it should have understood can’t be violated.
On the one hand, luxury brands push the culture forward by interpreting the prevailing Zeitgeist – the spirit of the age – into the lifestyle of fashion. They are change agents.
On the other, luxury brands are dependent on upholding and maintaining the cultural status quo, serving the needs and desires of the upper echelons of society with symbols of their status, success and privilege. Luxury serves the elite few, not the common many.
As such, luxury brands are cultural constructs that help maintain society’s hierarchical structure. But luxury brands today are pushing beyond their more or less homogenous target market into new cultures and across new consumer demographics in search of growth.
In that, they are moving into uncharted territory where the culture’s or consumer segment’s underlying values may be in direct conflict.
For example, luxury brands have embraced popular street culture to appeal to younger, less-privileged “aspirational” consumers. But that subculture’s “thumb your nose at the system” values starkly contrast with the system-upholding values of luxury. These conflicting values inevitably will collide.
Balenciaga’s creative director Demna Gvasalia, who goes by his first name, has been credited with turning around the brand after Alexander Wang departed in 2015.
Now estimated by Bloomberg to contribute upwards of $2.4 billion to Kering’s coffers, it is small by comparison to sister-brand Gucci at $10 billion, but both luxury brands are progressive leaders that push the envelope to change the culture of fashion and set trends that others follow.
Vogue said Balenciaga’s offerings under Demna reflect “both indie, counter-‘fashion’ products and global bestsellers.” That reveals an underlying tension between being both indie and counterculture while also achieving bestseller status.
“It makes you think about what is luxury and what is valuable and why,” shared Dr. Martina Olbert, founder of Meaning.Global and a leading authority on brand meaning.
“Balenciaga under Demna revolutionized how we think about luxury as a part of our everyday cultural conversation by its juxtapositions, clever remix of high and low and satirical takes on what’s ordinary versus extraordinary, thinking of the IKEA bag or the ugly sneaker,” she continued.
Satire is dangerous when luxury crosses cultural bounds, as in 2019 when Dolce & Gabbana was slammed for its culturally insensitive “Eating with Chopsticks” ads in China.
Though a private company, Statista estimates revenues fell from $1 billion in 2019 to $776 million 2021. This is while the personal luxury goods market grew to fully recover from the pandemic’s downslide.
Balenciaga’s cultural appropriation of children in the teddy-bear ad wasn’t necessarily meant to sell products to kids, but it has a line of children’s clothing it promotes to the Millennial-aged parents of their GenZ and Generation Alpha offspring.
Marketing to children has been a problematic issue for many brands, notably sugar cereals and junk food. And using children as props to make a cultural statement is even more dangerous.
“This campaign is a step too far because it’s not just culturally insensitive. It uses children to make a statement and that is a no-go,” Dr. Olbert said. “That’s why it feels distinctly different from any other previous campaign. It’s stretched too far for the public taste.”
“So the learning here is clear: You can poke culture but beware, it pokes back and it can cost you,” she continued.
Poking culture and the fashion establishment has been Demna’s guiding principle for the Balenciaga brand.
“Fashion should not please,” Demna said to Vogue, as he explained, “the most important quality is the lack of fear because fear blocks creativity, and if you’re trying to please, you’re never going to make it. You should not please.”
He achieved that goal, ironically, by trying to exert sadistic control over what luxury fashion is and should be. Regrettably, he crossed a line by bringing children into the picture.
“Using children to make political statements just bites differently and is seen in poor taste,” Dr. Olbert concludes. “If there is one thing luxury isn’t, it’s poor taste.”