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  • Lizzie Charbonneau

Why you should care about Balenciaga

TW: Balenciaga, discussion of CSA, discussion of CSA imagery





I’ll be honest: I hate everything about the Balenciaga scandal. Of course, I hate the pictures and the normalization of CSA. But I also hate

  • the misinformation surrounding the scandal,

  • the dismissive tone by some and the inflammatory tone by others, and

  • the pervading idea that CSA is the realm of the super-rich, Satanists, high-fashion brands, or whatever other category folks squeeze the people involved into.

I didn’t even want to write about Balenciaga. I was sick of it two days after it started making news–it was all over my feeds that center around CSA prevention. But then I asked my friends what they had heard about it, and they had either heard (1) nothing or (2) that it was a QAnon conspiracy theory blown out of proportion.


My opinion: It is not a QAnon conspiracy theory–I believe the allusions to CSA were intentional–though it is surrounded by misinformation and exaggeration.

So if you’re in the same boat as my friends, I wanted to share my take on Balenciaga. I've done my best to make it measured and fact-based.

I start by outlining the facts, including the scandal, the people, and the media coverage.

Then I go into my opinions, not just on the scandal itself, but also the response to the scandal.


Why is understanding the Balenciaga scandal important?


Because understanding the scandal helps us see how society normalizes the sexualization of children and will (hopefully) prompt us to take action against the normalization. It also shows us that the way media covers stories can damage overall prevention efforts.


THE FACTS


As much as possible, I sorted facts from speculation. My sources are not high quality, but that’s the nature of the topic. I’ve linked to my sources within the text. Many less reliable sources show photos from campaigns or social media posts that Balenciaga or others have removed.

I include people and events that aren’t directly related because some coverage has made them appear directly related.


The scandal


Two separate Balenciaga campaigns are at the center of the scandal.


The first is for Balenciaga’s Gift Shop and features children holding “bondage bear bags”: teddy bear bags where the teddy bears are dressed in bondage gear. The “bondage bear bags” are also in the background of many photos. The pictures show the children in different rooms of a house, including the bedroom. Other items are arrayed in front of the children including mugs, keychains, and jewelry (sold by Balenciaga) and dog leashes, collars, and harnesses (Balenciaga started selling these as part of their 2023 campaign and has since removed them from their store). Balenciaga has removed the pictures from their website.


The second is for Balenciaga’s 2023 Garde-Robe collection. Prop papers on a desk featured in photos of a Balenciaga handbag show text from a Supreme Court decision regarding child pornography, specifically the 2008 decision in U.S. v. Williams. U.S. v. Williams looked at whether laws that banned the promotion of child pornography curtailed freedom of speech. Other props included works by painter Michaël Borremans, which has been described as “toddlers engaged in playful but mysterious acts with sinister overtones and insinuations of violence.”


More context


The Balenciaga Spring 2023 runway show featured models in faux leather body suits that covered their faces. <my commentary: these body suits look like gimp suits>


The Balenciaga Summer 2023 runway show in Paris included a model holding one of the “bondage bear bags” who looked like they were assaulted.


The photographer for the Gift Shop campaign is Gabriele Galimberti. The campaign photos mimic Galimberti’s series “Toy Stories,” which documents children across 50 countries with their toys.


Christie’s auction house sold several sculptures by Jake and Dinos Chapman around 2010. These sculptures featured children in compromising poses and with genitals as parts of their faces. Christie’s has also sold some of the most expensive and renowned pieces of art in the world.


Balenciaga’s Response


Removed from Instagram


“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.”


“We apologize for displaying unsettling documents in our campaign. 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.”


The People


Demna Gvasalia


Demna Gvasalia is Balenciaga’s creative designer and founder of fashion brand Vetements. He is known for his subversive fashion designs. Many people claim he had complete creative control over the Balenciaga campaigns: ‘“Oh please,” Liriano said of the Vetements co-founder. “Demna doesn’t put out one image that he hasn’t approved. Demna is not only the creative director, he’s driving all the imagery behind the campaigns. To blame a production company is nuts.”’ In an interview years ago, Demna describes one person’s perceptions of himself, Lotta, and Gosha: “Someone wrote that Lotta, Gosha, and I grew up on child pornography and radiation from Chernobyl, which is why we’re so fucked up,” Demna laughs. Demna has responded to the backlash from the Balenciaga campaign stating, “As much as I would sometimes like to provoke a thought through my work, I would NEVER have an intention to do that with such an awful subject as child abuse that I condemn. Period.”


Lotta Volkova


Lotta is a former Balenciaga stylist and has worked closely with Demna at Balenciaga and Vetements. She has also worked closely with Gosha (see below). Lotta has not worked with Balenciaga since 2018. She regularly featured disturbing photos on her Instagram page, many involving children. A representative for her stated “Lotta Volkova has not worked with Balenciaga or its team since 2018 and she has in no way participated in the brand’s recent Instagram or advertising campaigns.”


Gosha Rubchinskiy


Gosha Rubchinskiy is a fashion designer who has worked closely with Lotta. <I don’t know his relationship to Demna other than people compare them>. He was accused by two 16-year-olds for requesting explicit photos. He has defended his actions by saying they were casting photo requests. Some state that asking for explicit photos is frequent in the fashion industry: “What Rubchinskiy is accused of doing is so normalized within the fashion industry, according to Sara Ziff, founder of models’-rights group Model Alliance, that this kind of predatory act is common.” Gosha is not associated with Balenciaga.


François-Henri Pinault


François-Henri Pinault is the CEO of Kering, the parent company of Balenciaga. His holding company, Groupe Artémis, owns Christie’s Auction House.


Media Coverage


The New York Times


Headline:

When High Fashion and QAnon Collide

Quote:

The internet is full of trolls. Why did this controversy take off? As online criticism of the campaigns spread, the story was picked up across right-leaning media outlets, including The New York Post and the prime time Fox News show “Tucker Carlson Tonight.” The show has helped to publicize and mainstream QAnon, the internet conspiracy theory that “a group of Satan-worshiping elites who run a child sex ring are trying to control our politics and media.”

<I interpret The New York Times’ tone as dismissive, implying that associating Balenciaga with CSA is a QAnon conspiracy.>


Fox


Headline:

Balenciaga sparks outrage over 'depraved' ad campaign with toddlers, teddy bears in bondage

Quotes:

Kelsey Bolar with the Independent Women’s Forum echoed that sentiment: "Balenciaga has no business introducing ‘bondage,’ a perverse adult sexual practice, to young children."

"Worse, the fashion house is using these images to advertise its products, essentially profiting from the sexualization of children," she said. "The desire to sexualize innocent children is a disturbing trend that’s emerged in today’s culture, and this is a twisted, disturbing example."


Headline:

TUCKER CARLSON: No healthy society can tolerate pedophilia

Quotes:

“This week, Balenciaga rolled out a new ad campaign on Instagram and the selling point of the ads was sex with children.”

“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.”

<I interpret Fox’s tone as inflammatory and fear mongering.>


Vigilante reporters


This is where the misinformation comes in, which has been repeated by several CSA prevention organizations.


Some people are saying that Lotta is the current stylist and is behind the Balenciaga campaigns. This, paired with her Instagram posts, makes ties between the Balenciaga campaigns and CSA appear obvious. However, Lotta had nothing to do with the campaigns.


Others are saying (or implying) that François-Henri Pinault is directly responsible for the inappropriate sculptures of children that were auctioned at Christie’s. “CEO of Balenciaga's Parent Company Owns Site That Sells Child Sex Mannequins with Erect Penises on Their Face” “[Pinault] has also come under fire for selling explicit child-themed art pieces under his auction website of Christie’s.”


And some are saying that Demna stating, "Someone wrote that Lotta, Gosha, and I grew up on child pornography and radiation from Chernobyl, which is why we're so fucked up," indicates that he actually grew up on child pornography.


WHAT I THINK


And remember, this is what I think. It’s not the truth; it’s opinion.


Allusions to CSA in Balenciaga’s campaigns were intentional.

  • Balenciaga’s 2023 campaign already had sexual overtones: the gimp outfits in the Paris runway show.

  • Balenciaga chose to pair an already sexual campaign with photos of children that mimic documentary photos of children surrounded by their toys.

  • The “toys” that Balenciaga surrounded children with were “bondage bear bags,” non-sexual adult items, and dog restraints.

  • Documents of a court case about it being illegal to promote child pornography were on the desk in a photo shoot.

It’s too much to be accidental or coincidental.


I believe that a group of high-ups in Balenciaga agreed that parodying images of childhood innocence (Galimberti’s Toy Story series) by having children hold “bondage bear bags” surrounded by dog restraints would be commercially successful. They included children in a campaign that already referenced BDSM with gimp outfits. They thought (rightly or wrongly) that their consumer base views references to CSA as edgy and avante-garde.


This is all the information I need to be convinced that Balenciaga’s photos were on purpose.


Why is this harmful?


Not only is it an indicator that CSA is being normalized, it further normalizes CSA. For people who suppressed their urges towards children because they knew it was wrong, it makes them wonder if it’s not so bad.

Some of those people may be people you know and trust.

This is why you should care about the Balenciaga campaigns.


Regarding the rest of it:

  • Lotta’s Instagram posts,

  • Demna joking about growing up on child pornography, and

  • high-priced art featuring children with erect penises as noses

These are cultural indicators. They show permissiveness towards references to CSA. They imply that allusions to CSA have artistic shock value and are “acceptable” because they are “thought-provoking.”


Nope. Nope nope nope nope nope.


So yes, we should be disgusted by Balenciaga.


Hopefully, the response will hurt their bottom line, and whoever in the organization thinks that references to CSA are acceptable will understand that no, it’s not.


But I also have issues with the general response.


First, I’ve seen people saying things like “elites get away with everything” or “the satanic threat to our children is real!”


This reaction plays into the “stranger danger” narrative: that “other” people commit CSA. The reality, as you know, is that over 90% of CSA is committed by someone the child knows. As discussed in my previous newsletter and this blog post, believing in “stranger danger” makes parents complacent when their kids are with people they know.


Second, media organizations are playing their roles to a T.


NYTimes dismissive tone plays into the idea that liberals are either complacent or are actively grooming children.


Fox’s inflammatory tone plays into the idea that conservatives will jump onto any controversy to further their agenda and prove their moral superiority.


Honestly, I’m most upset with the NYTimes response, and I say this as a left-leaning NYTimes subscriber. They are basically saying, “Ignore this! It’s another pizza-gate!”

But when they say that despite a lot of evidence saying, “they did it on purpose!” people wonder if they are covering for people or, worse, if there’s some validity to things like pizza-gate.


Third, CSA prevention organizations are perpetuating misinformation.


I’m not all that upset that misinformation exists. Of course it does. What gets me is seeing credible organizations having knee-jerk reactions that result in them spreading information that either isn’t true or is misleading.

I’ve seen organizations:

  • Talk about Lotta Volkova as though she styled the Balenciaga campaign.

  • Imply that the CEO of Balenciaga’s parent company was directly involved with selling the “art” of children with genitalia for faces.

  • Claim that Demna watched child pornography growing up.

These statements are so close to the truth, but they are not the truth. Why does that matter? Because they are used to imply a grand conspiracy of elites involved with child exploitation.


And maybe there is a grand conspiracy of elites involved with child exploitation.


I’m not saying there isn’t because I admit these statements are so close to the truth.

But they’re not the truth.


And if untruths are being used to bolster conspiracy claims, when people discover that these statements aren’t true, it becomes easier to dismiss what is true.


Perpetuating misinformation damages CSA prevention efforts.


Fourth, media outlets have missed the opportunity to discuss the broader issues of CSA.


My ideal view of how the media would report the Balenciaga scandal is this:

  • Layout the facts around the photos, the designers, the organization, and the broader 2023 campaign.

  • Quote activists condemning the photos and organizations, explaining why these things are despicable.

  • Quote those same activists explaining why these photos are part of a broader societal issue around CSA.

  • Layout facts around CSA statistics and increased reports of CSA since 2020.

I haven’t seen any coverage that’s done this.


So what can YOU do?


If you have Balenciaga clothes, bags, or shoes, by all means, feel free to destroy them and stream it on a social media platform. Showing that you won’t buy from a brand that commercializes references to CSA helps demonstrate to others that this behavior is unacceptable.


And if someone defends Balenciaga as no big deal, shut it down. Talk about the harm it causes, and make sure that whoever is in the room with you hears that this is unacceptable.


But don’t stop there.


Practice body safety with your family.

Understand safe and unsafe situations, and mitigate unsafe situations where possible.

Pay attention to all red-flag warning signs, even if you know and trust the other person.

Let your child know that you love them no matter what happens.

Keep a no-secrets household.

Teach your child their body safety rules.


Finally, talk to the adults who are around your child about CSA, CSA prevention, and your family’s body safety rules.



 

… that was a lot. Apparently I had a lot to say about something I didn’t want to say anything about. As always, I'd like to hear what you think.

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