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After teddy bear backlash, Balenciaga announces lawsuit for separate ad

A Balenciaga store in Berlin last week. (Michael Kuenne/PressCov/Sipa USA/AP)

Balenciaga had apologized just hours earlier for its new holiday campaign featuring children holding bags shaped like teddy bears wearing bondage gear when another controversy erupted last week. That led the luxury fashion house to issue its second apology in a day after a Supreme Court decision on child pornography laws was spotted in an earlier ad.

A printout of the 2008 United States v. Williams decision, which ruled on the constitutionality of a law prohibiting the pandering of child pornography, was photographed among papers scattered across a desk in an ad for a black-and-white purse that retails for over $3,000. Now, Balenciaga announced it will take legal action against the production company, North Six, and set designer, Nicholas Des Jardins, for its spring 2023 campaign.

The fashion house alleged that “inexplicable acts and omissions” made without Balenciaga’s knowledge were “malevolent or, at the very least, extraordinarily reckless,” according to court documents filed Friday in the New York State Supreme Court for the County of New York. The company says it will seek at least $25 million in damages for the resulting “false association” between Balenciaga and the “repulsive and deeply disturbing subject of the court decision.”

Balenciaga did not respond to a request for comment from The Washington Post. North Six declined to comment on the allegations.

Des Jardins’s agent, Gabriela Moussaieff, told The Post that the legal papers used in the ad “were obtained from a prop house that were rental pieces used on film [and] photo shoots.”

“Everyone from Balenciaga was on the shoot and was present on every shot and worked on the edit of every image in post production,” Moussaieff said, adding that Des Jardins is “being used as a scapegoat” and is hiring a legal team.

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The image, which appeared on Balenciaga’s website, was shot in July. It showcased the “Hourglass” handbag, a Balenciaga and Adidas mash-up featuring the sporting brand’s famous white stripes against black leather and a buckle shaped like the letter “B.” A printout of the Supreme Court decision spills out of a manila folder beneath the bag in the advertisement.

The ad became the second to be pulled by Balenciaga last week — a move the company announced in a statement that also apologized “for displaying unsettling documents in our campaign.”

“We strongly condemn abuse of children in any form,” the statement adds. It followed a separate statement in which the company apologized for the way children appeared in its holiday ads.

The fallout began earlier this month, when Balenciaga unveiled its “Toy Stories” holiday campaign, which was shot by National Geographic photographer Gabriele Galimberti. The images in that ad campaign resemble Galimberti’s previous work featuring children surrounded by their toys. In this case, however, the children were photographed near wine glasses and other trinkets, while holding plush bears with battered eyes that were dressed in fishnet tops and leather harnesses.

While Balenciaga also removed the teddy bear ads, a spokesperson for the fashion house told the Daily Mail that Galimberti’s shoot would not be the subject of a lawsuit.

In a statement posted to his Instagram account last week, the award-winning Italian photographer said he had no say in what props or models were used in the shoot.

“I was only and solely requested to [light] the given scene, and take the shots according to my signature style,” Galimberti wrote. “As 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.”

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Priscilla Gonzalez, 27, a Mexico-based stylist and fashion content creator, referred to Balenciaga’s “Toy Stories” campaign as “an attempt at ‘let’s give people something to talk about’ gone terribly wrong.”

The edgy fashion house has gained a reputation for being “almost an anti-fashion brand,” Gonzalez said, stretching the line of what’s cool with its collections inspired by “The Simpsons” and Crocs. Earlier this year, it debuted an $1,500 leather clutch made to look like a bag of Lay’s chips.

“But just how much can you challenge what’s cool?” Gonzalez said. “There’s a thin line between being creative and essentially using children as props or having them pose with inappropriate items.”

In the age of social media, backlash over the ads spread quickly. After Balenciaga apologized over the plush bear bags it said “should not have been featured with children,” eagle-eyed social media users “started looking at previous campaigns almost with a magnifying glass and ran into the spring 2023 ad with the child pornography case document,” Gonzalez said.

Balenciaga is now being scrutinized for both ad campaigns. Kim Kardashian, who frequently wears Balenciaga items and has appeared in several of its campaigns, said in a statement on Sunday that she’s “currently re-evaluating my relationship with the brand, basing it off their willingness to accept accountability for something that should have never happened to begin with” and “the actions I am expecting to see them take to protect children.”

Gonzalez said she would also like to see the brand take responsibility for the ads.

“All of these decisions go through so many levels of approval and eyes,” she said. “So who approved this and where did everything go wrong? There really needs to be some accountability within Balenciaga.”

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Gonzalez, who used to consider Balenciaga one of her favorite brands, said there’s a lesson for the fashion industry out of the back-to-back advertisement controversies: “Brands can’t get away with these massive mistakes anymore.”

“In this digital age where anything can go viral and anyone can investigate, consumers have a really big and loud voice,” she said.

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