The fashion industry is hardly known for its respect for children and decency but the recent Balenciaga saga takes it to a new level.
For those unfamiliar with the Spanish-founded, now French, fashion house responsible for T-shirts that will set you back a tidy A$895 and high-heel Crocs (for about the same price), Balenciaga is an elite fashion brand favoured by celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Justin Bieber. It’s a very gay-friendly brand – the theme of its 2022 “Pride” collection is “Anybody is Queer”.
This week it made the news for a shocking campaign depicting children holding teddy bears dressed in BDSM bondage gear and an image with clearly visible documents relating to a child abuse court case. Another image included a book known for disturbing images of children.
It’s a scandal. And thankfully, for the most part, the condemnation has been swift and unequivocal – a rarity in these boundary-pushing times.
The management of Balenciaga issued a statement and an apology and is reviewing how these images slipped through. Kim Kardashian spoke out in condemnation and is re-evaluating her relationship with the brand.
There is a growing chorus of people calling on Balenciaga ambassador Nicole Kidman to condemn the campaign. Kidman has thus far remained silent.
So far so good, right? The campaign was creepy. It was shut down immediately. Everyone is outraged. The company is remorseful.
Not so fast!
The media class, who love producing fawning coverage of luxury brands almost as much as they love chasing down old ladies who voted for Donald Trump, are creating a backlash against the backlash.
The New York Times explainer framed it as something “right-leaning media outlets” and Fox News bogeyman Tucker Carlson have seized on. For the benefit of readers who had never heard of Carlson, the Times smeared him by linking him to QAnon, the fringe conspiracy theorists. So when Carlson said:
“Here you have a major international retail brand promoting kiddie porn and sex with children, and not promoting it subtly but right out in the open.”
… every word of which is true, Times readers were meant to snicker at his outraged naivete.
For certain prestige media outlets this is always the play: you can’t call something out as morally wrong, but you can sneer at the Big Bad Right for noticing it.
Related, the efforts to get Kidman to comment help transfer responsibility. It’s not enough to state the wrongness of the campaign (if you call it out at all), everyone associated with the company must state it too. I don’t think anyone believes that Kidman supports these images, but public affirmations of the Current Thing are necessary to maintain your status these days.
Then there is the deeper question of how this could have happened in the first place. The public may never know. Everyone involved is pointing the finger at someone else.
How many eyes saw these photographs without a single raised concern? How many steps of approval were there from conception to execution to publication? Who allowed children to participate? What does it say about our culture that putting children in these photo shoots was acceptable to anyone at all? Did no one object? Had no one at Balenciaga ever heard that silence is violence and complacency is complicity?
It also speaks to our age of corporate bureaucracy and diffused decision-making that no one has been fired. On the one hand, Balenciaga said: “The responsibility for this lies with Balenciaga alone”. On the other, it is suing the producers of the advertisement for US$25 million for “inexplicable acts and omissions” that were “malevolent or, at the very least, extraordinarily reckless.” This is two-faced behaviour for a company whose marketing strategy is pushing boundaries and stirring up controversy.
The media don’t seem terribly interested in the question of who was responsible for this sick campaign. It’s all brand-as-person and there’s no one behind the mask.
The outrage has faded away after some token Balenciaga breast-beating. Unlike scandals involving right-leaning (or those labelled right-leaning) people or organisations, no bank will drop Balenciaga. No store will stop carrying its products. No rent-a-crowd will picket its shops. There is no Boycott Balenciaga campaign.
Good. Cancel culture is pernicious. But, anyway, it’s impossible to imagine Balenciaga getting cancelled. It is a progressive, rainbow-coloured, transgressive brand and so it was always going to be hugs and kisses and forgive and forget.
The woke machine turns its gears enough to extract an apology — but Balenciaga will get a pass while Tucker Carlson never will.
And after all this – to coin a phrase – all we got was this lousy $895 T-shirt.