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Balenciaga is suing the producers of its own ad campaign after facing backlash

A Balenciaga retail store is seen closed to customers due to pandemic lockdowns in Melbourne, Australia in 2021. The brand has come under fire in recent weeks due to back-to-back ad scandals.
Asanka Ratnayake
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Getty Images
A Balenciaga retail store is seen closed to customers due to pandemic lockdowns in Melbourne, Australia in 2021. The brand has come under fire in recent weeks due to back-to-back ad scandals.

Balenciaga, the luxury fashion brand that sparked back-to-back controversies over two recent ad campaigns, has signaled its plans to sue the production company North Six for its role in creating one of the ads.

The backlash began when online scrutinizers noticed a page from the 2008 Supreme Court decision United States v. Williams in the backdrop for an ad showcasing a $3,000 purse.

The ruling upheld the constitutionality of a child pornography conviction.

The ad, which has since been removed from the company's website, was part of the fashion house's Spring 2023 collaboration with the activewear brand Adidas.

Balenciaga watchers might not have noticed the Supreme Court decision excerpt had it not been for a controversy earlier this month with another ad — one from the brand's holiday collection.

That ad campaign also drew backlash because it featured images of children holding plush bears wearing fishnet tops and leather harnesses, surrounded by objects like flasks and chain necklaces.

The ad was photographed by famed documentary photographer Gabriele Galimberti, who shot in a similar style (though with less provocative objects) for a series called "Toy Stories".

The ad was met with accusations that the fashion house was condoning the sexual abuse of children. Social media users and media commentators described it as "creepy," "demonic" and "horrifying."

Galimberti wrote in a statement that he had no oversight over the products or models used for the Balenciaga shoot.

"As is usual for a commercial shooting, the direction of the campaign and the choice of the objects displayed are not in the hands of the photographer," he said.

He added that the hate messages sent to him "are addressed against wrong targets, and distract from the real problem, and criminals."

Balenciaga apologized for both ads in two different statements last week and then again on Monday, saying first "our plush bear bags and the Gift Collection should not have been featured with children," and that all the items used as props in the second ad shoot were "provided by third parties that confirmed in writing that these props were fake office documents."

"They turned out to be real legal papers most likely coming from the filming of a television drama," the company said, adding that it was internally investigating the incident and exploring ways to work with organizations that combat child abuse.

"We want to learn from our mistakes and identify ways we can contribute. Balenciaga reiterates its sincere apologies."

On Friday, the brand issued a lawsuit summons to the production company, North Six, and set designer, Nicholas Des Jardins, for their role in creating the second ad.

The ad that sparked the lawsuit was part of Balenciaga's Summer 2023 collection in collaboration with active wear brand Adidas.
Screenshot / Balenciaga
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Balenciaga
The ad that sparked the lawsuit was part of Balenciaga's Summer 2023 collection in collaboration with active wear brand Adidas.

Balenciaga says North Six included documents in the campaign "without Balenciaga's knowledge or authorization," according to the lawsuit. The company will seek $25 million in damages.

Neither Balenciaga nor an agent for Nicholas Des Jardins immediately responded to NPR's request for comment. North Six responded to confirm it received the summons, but said it had no comment on the allegations.

Balenciaga says that [North Six]'s inexplicable acts and omissions were malevolent or, at the very least, extraordinarily reckless".

"As a result of [North Six]'s misconduct, members of the public, including the news media, have falsely and horrifically associated Balenciaga with the repulsive and deeply disturbing subject of the court decision," the court document reads.

In an industry that's long been accused of under-prioritizing morality and ethics, Balenciaga has long walked the fine line between edgy and offensive.

In 2021, the brand was lambasted by fashion and history experts for selling a $1,190 pair of sweatpants with boxers peeking out from the waistband, a garment that critics said was appropriating Black culture.

More recently, Balenciaga was criticized last month for being slow to end its limited brand collaborations with Kanye West after he made antisemitic comments.

Some of the company's recent products have included Croc stilettos, a $2,000 tote bag that mimics the company's paper shopping bags, and white cotton socks that sell for $130 per pair.

The brand is famously popular with celebrities like Kim Kardashian, who came under fire for being slow to respond to the teddy bear ads, especially from right-wing media figures.

She said on social media Sunday that she was "re-evaluating" her ambassadorship with the fashion house.

"I appreciate Balenciaga's removal of the campaigns and apology," she wrote. "In speaking with them, I believe they understand the seriousness of the issue and will take the necessary measures for this to never happen again."

Other social media users are viewing the lawsuit as an attempt to place blame elsewhere, which is only reigniting public interest in seeing the ads in the meantime.

"No apology can ever be enough for what they let happen," one user wrote. "Canceled for good."
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Emily Olson
Emily Olson is on a three-month assignment as a news writer and live blog editor, helping shape NPR's digital breaking news strategy.