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Everything there is to know about Balenciaga’s ad scandal and its alleged culprits

When Georgian fashion designer Demna Gvasalia—who had previously ignited the streetwear juggernaut as Vetements’ co-founder—was appointed artistic director of Balenciaga in October 2015, the luxury fashion brand almost became exclusively synonymous with controversy.

From its recent pair of distressed Converse look-alikes that retailed for £1,290 and its multi-layered colourful blanket bench aimed at fuckboys, to reimagining IKEA’s iconic carrier bag as a luxury good and its previous stiletto Crocs, provoking outrage has always been Balenciaga’s go-to move with Demna at the helm.

And, up until recently, his approach was mostly celebrated as it represented a well-needed breath of fresh air blown into the fashion industry. Originally, Balenciaga revolutionised women’s fashion with never-before-seen shapes in the mid-20th century, such as the ‘ballroom hems’ of the early 1950s, the ‘semi-fit’ lines of the mid-50s and the introduction of the ‘sack dress’ in 1957—all because of the creative genius that was the brand’s founder, Cristóbal Balenciaga.

Like his predecessor Nicolas Ghesquière—we’ll simply ignore Alexander Wang’s short stint as the brand’s creative director—Demna has worked closely with the Balenciaga House archives to look at the revolutionary founder’s original designs and maintain his artistic integrity in cut, shape, and material. The fact that the designer managed to attract the likes of Kanye “Ye” West, Kim Kardashian, and Justin Bieber through polarising yet ironic pieces that pushed consumers to ponder the very meaning of ‘taste’ only came as an added bonus.

But just like Ye took it too far with his ‘White Lives Matter’ T-shirts and anti-Semitic comments, the release of two new Balenciaga campaigns—one featuring photos of children clutching handbags that look like teddy bears in bondage gear and another including paperwork about child pornography laws—saw the Kering-owned brand fall from grace like never before.

Following a series of Instagram apologies that failed to quell the controversy it is facing—where the brand issued a statement admitting “a series of grievous errors for which Balenciaga takes responsibility,” announced ongoing “internal and external investigations,” and claimed it was reaching out to “organizations who specialize in child protection and aim at ending child abuse and exploitation”—it’s now been revealed that the luxury brand is waging a $25 million lawsuit against the production company involved in one of the problematic ad campaigns. So much for taking full responsibility, huh?

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The BDSM teddy bear ad

It all started on 16 November 2022, when Balenciaga published its ‘Balenciaga Gift Shop’ campaign which was shot by Gabriele Galimberti, an Italian documentary photographer who had previously made a book featuring images of children with their toys.

Galimberti’s photographs featured six children clutching destroyed teddy bear handbags, which had first been presented during Balenciaga’s Spring 2023 runway show in Paris. The bears had black eyes, fishnet tops, and leather harnesses. In the campaign, the kids had wine glasses and other gift items displayed around them.

According to the photographer, the objects as well as the children and the location chosen for the shoot had all been pre-selected by Balenciaga, with numerous staff members present during the two days of photography.

Soon after the Gift Shop campaign went live, outrage against the images flooded the internet, with many netizens condemning the juxtaposition of children with what looked like ‘bondage paraphernalia’. Only five days later, Balenciaga messed up again with the release of yet another highly controversial campaign.

A Supreme Court decision on child pornography laws as a prop

Though the brand’s 2023 Garde-Robe advertising campaign—which included Nicole Kidman, Isabelle Huppert, and Bella Hadid—was shot in July, so technically months before the Gift Shop campaign, and introduced looks from a May 2022 show at the New York Stock Exchange, it was released on 21 November.

In one of its images, a $3,000 Balenciaga x adidas Hourglass handbag was photographed on a desk along with printed copies of a legal-looking document. Social media users, who had the idea of zooming in on the paper, discovered that it was the Supreme Court’s 2008 decision in US versus Williams—a case that examined whether laws banning the promotion of child pornography curtailed First Amendment freedom of speech rights.

Other props of bad taste in the campaign included the book Fire from the Sun by the Belgian painter Michaël Borremans, whose work has been shown at the David Zwirner gallery, which once described his paintings as “toddlers engaged in playful but mysterious acts with sinister overtones and insinuations of violence.”

https://twitter.com/shoe0nhead/status/1594532715126202368

Balenciaga’s responses

As the internet burst into flames and right-leaning media outlets including Fox News linked the brand to the QAnon conspiracy theory, with TV host Tucker Carlson stating that “a group of Satan-worshiping elites who run a child sex ring are trying to control our politics and media,” Balenciaga began releasing a couple rounds of responses to the backlash.

First, on 24 November, it apologised for the Gift Shop campaign and promised to remove the advertisements from its social media channels. Then, only hours later, a second apology addressing the Garde-Robe campaign was posted to the brand’s Instagram Stories.

“We apologize for displaying unsettling documents in our campaign,” the statement said. “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 photo shoot. We strongly condemn abuse of children in any form. We stand for children’s safety and well-being.”

On 25 November, Balenciaga filed papers initiating a $25 million lawsuit against the production company North Six and Nicholas Des Jardins, who designed the set for the Garde-Robe campaign. It should also be noted that North Six has produced previous Balenciaga campaigns and worked with other impressive and high-flying clients such as Dior and Beyoncé.

Balenciaga alleged that the production company and set designer engaged in “inexplicable acts and omissions” that were “malevolent or, at the very least, extraordinarily reckless.” In other words, by claiming that the documents were placed in the campaign photographs without its knowledge and had led it to face false associations with child pornography, Balenciaga tried to wash its hands from any blame or close association.

https://www.tiktok.com/@marcusrogersgodsson1/video/7170541582138264878

Who’s really to blame?

According to one of Des Jardins’ lawyers, the documents featured in the Garde-Robe campaign came from “numerous boxes” that had been rented from a prop house. Yet, in its statement published on 28 November, Balenciaga claimed that all written props were supposed to be “fake office documents,” adding: “They turned out to be real legal papers most likely coming from the filming of a television drama.”

Although it goes without saying that the brand had the images in hand for months before their release, it ultimately called the inclusion of the Supreme Court page “unapproved” and “the result of reckless negligence.” Riiight…

Des Jardins’ lawyer added in her statement that “there certainly was no malevolent scheme going on.” Balenciaga representatives were on set during the shoot, “overseeing it and handling papers and other props, and Des Jardins as a set designer was not responsible for image selection from the shoot,” she wrote.

Ultimately, image selection came from the brand, which in one of its many statements said that it took “full accountability for our lack of oversight and control” and “could have done things differently.”

Online, however, as various conspiracy theories continue to spread, one specific argument seems to be picking up some speed. Focused on Russian stylist and consultant Lotta Volkova—who has been working with Balenciaga since Gvasalia turned it around—the theory claims that on her Instagram account, which has since been made private, Volkova had publicly shared many disturbing images depicting children in distress alongside gore scenes.

Though it’s unclear whether Volkova was involved in any of the recent campaigns, netizens are convinced that the presence of teddy bears and BDSM-inspired photoshoots in some of her Instagram posts confirm the same.

@itsnatlydenise

#Balenciaga #Balenciagakidad #fashiongate #balenciagagate L0tta V0lk0va

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Now, let’s be clear on one thing: luxury powerhouses like Balenciaga are vigilant crafters and protectors of their brand image. Nothing gets out of a luxury brand’s door without extensive review. It’s therefore inconceivable that no one inside the company saw the implicit (if not explicit) messages conveyed.

Balenciaga alone is responsible for the ads and will be held accountable in the court of public opinion. We can spend hours arguing about what exactly the company was trying to say, but we can also universally agree that these ads were inappropriate in some way or another and in bad taste.

The brand crossed cultural boundaries that it should have understood can’t be violated. “Using children to make political statements just bites differently and is seen in poor taste,” Dr Martina Olbert, founder of Meaning.Global and a leading authority on brand meaning told Forbes. “And if there’s one thing that’s the opposite of poor taste, it’s luxury.”

@ivoryflourcakes

Yikes 🫣 #balenciaga

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Why is no one talking about Jared Leto’s history of paedophilia and predatory behaviour?

Depending on which generation you were born into, you might know the American actor and musician Jared Leto for a wide array of reasons. I personally remember him from Requiem for a Dream and the absolute trauma that movie caused my 15-year-old self. Some may also associate Leto with Fight Club’s Angel Face character while for others his face brings forth unwanted flashbacks from the car crash that was his performance as Suicide Squad’s Joker. Heck, if you’re not much of a movie buff but know a thing or two about fashion, then Leto can only represent one thing to you: Gucci’s creative director, Alessandro Michele’s most favoured muse, placed even before Harry Styles and Lana Del Rey on the pedestal.

But Leto should be known for more than his surprisingly long-lasting acting career or the name he’s made for himself in the music industry with his band Thirty Seconds To Mars—fronted by the man himself along with his brother Shannon Leto on drums. It’s time for Leto to be dragged for more than his embarrassingly meme-worthy acting attempt in House of Gucci—it’s about time we addressed the problematic behaviour he’s been displaying for years without ever facing the repercussions. From accusations of paedophilia and rape to his bizarre cult island, we’ve gathered all the receipts.

 

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Thirty Seconds To Mars: a band that turned into a cult

When the Leto brothers formed their rock band in 1998, they probably never imagined the fan base it would accumulate over the years. Thirty Seconds To Mars (also known as 30STM) went on to consistently enjoy sold-out tours and even headline numerous festivals. Known for its energetic live performances, fused elements from a wide variety of genres, its use of philosophical and spiritual lyrics, concept albums, and experimental music, the band took a strange turn when it started holding cult-like “summer camps” for its audience in 2015.

What seemed to have started as an ironic comment—in 2013, Leto told The New York Times Magazine that it was “a joke, a response to journalists saying, ‘You have such a cult following.’”—quickly turned into a golden opportunity to fleece their audience. In August 2019, while on yet another island retreat they’d held in Croatia for hundreds of fans, Thirty Seconds To Mars tweeted, “Yes, it’s a cult,” sending the internet into an understandable frenzy.

As reported by KQED in September 2019, the band’s fans “collectively refer to themselves as ‘the Echelon’, and are a group that seems overwhelmingly immersed not [just] in music nerd-dom, but rather a more general sort of love for the community surrounding the band.” I mean, just watch 10 seconds of the fan-made video below and you’ll get an idea of the megachurch vibes 30STM is giving off:

Oh, and in case you’re still not convinced, keep in mind that the Echelon also seems more than happy to don all-white uniforms and worship Leto’s feet. No biggie.

KQED further noted, “Like many cults, the Echelon espouses an us vs. them mentality via the hashtag #YouWouldntUnderstand, a refrain Leto repeats often. That idea has pushed supporters to ever more fervent degrees of devotion any time the band receives any degree of criticism.”

Looking into the band’s eyebrow-raising trips, the publication revealed that its Camp Mars event, which was held between 7 and 9 September 2019, charged $999 for two nights of outdoor camping, where you had to bring your own tent and supplies, Fyre Festival-style. The getaway also included daytime outdoor activities like rock-climbing and archery, plus two Thirty Seconds To Mars concerts, which the band called ‘Church of Mars’. More expensive dorm options were also offered, but the only way to sleep in a space that wasn’t shared with strangers was to pay $6,499 for a “VIP experience.” Neat.

But that’s all fine, because Leto declared the band “anti-greed” back in 2013. Whether the whole cult aspect surrounding 30STM started as a joke or not, what certainly seems to be serious is how aware Leto is of his fans’ dedication to him. This thirst for devotion has most definitely played a part in the worrying accusations the celebrity has faced both before and after.

The industry accused him of sexual assault and paedophilia

In May 2018, in the midst of the #MeToo movement, Dylan Sprouse—yep, that’s the twin brother of Cole Sprouse who is best known for his role as Zack Martin on the Disney Channel series The Suite Life of Zack & Cody and its spin-off, The Suite Life on Deck—posted a tweet accusing Leto of sending DMs to every model aged 18 to 25.

It quickly escalated when Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn tweeted the following as an answer to Sprouse’s initial tweet, “He starts at 18 on the internet?” Though the tweet has since been deleted, many netizens managed to grab a screenshot beforehand:

Why is no one talking about Jared Leto’s history of paedophilia and predatory behaviour?

This was not the first time Gunn tried speaking up about Leto’s predatory behaviour either. In June of 2015, the director reportedly did a live stream on the video app Periscope in which he made similar remarks about the actor’s habits of sleeping with underage girls. SCREENSHOT did not manage to locate a copy of the video in question.

In that same year, the New York Post reported that the 30STM frontman had been pursuing teen models. “He’s been approaching all the girls and inviting them to his shows,” an anonymous source told the paper. “He’s a serial texter. He is constantly texting these 16- and 17-year-old girls. It’s really kind of creepy.”

For a man who openly held a competition in which the prize was a night sleeping in his bed and who fronts a band that is known to specifically request their fans get tattoos in their honour, to be accused of such things should have been enough to eventually lead the actor to face at least some kind of consequence. And yet, not much happened to the cult leader in 2018, even after a worrying number of allegations, some from years before then, started appearing online.

Oh, and so did his own fans

Though the article has since been wiped clean from the internet, in July 2015, pop culture writer for the now-vanished media criticism site Contemptor, Evangeline Van Houten, made some waves for her piece titled Another Cosby? A Reminder That Several Women Have Accused Jared Leto Of Sexual Assault. In it, the journalist collected several confronting allegations of sexual misconduct from fans of 30STM.

A number of victims, as young as 15, described having sex with Leto and some of the allegations suggested the singer acted despite a lack of consent or continued even when asked to stop. One account stated, “He was very pushy into coercing me to do sexual acts with him and he was quite rough and forceful. Once he was unnecessarily rough and when I told him it hurt he didn’t stop—he never did anything slowly or for my pleasure… And no, he never asked me if I was ever ok or comfortable with anything he wanted to do, simply because he is not the person to care.”

The 50-year-old actor never tried to respond to such accusations, and let’s be honest, it never seemed like he really had to, especially since barely anyone even made the effort to shed light on his alleged predatory behaviour. A Reddit thread based on the article mentioned above includes many more shocking accounts, in case you’re wondering exactly how many victims we’re looking at here.

In 2014, a Star Magazine print issue featured an interview with former adult film star Vicki Marie Taylor claiming that, back when Leto dated Cameron Diaz, she and three other strip dancers had been invited to a post-concert get-together one night in April 2002.

“The other girls and I stripped down to bikinis and hung out with Jared and the band backstage,” Taylor told Star. “After a while, Jared invited me onto his tour bus. His brother, Shannon, the band’s drummer, was already on it and the three of us were the only people there. I gave Jared a lap dance for just a minute, but then he asked me to do the same for his brother, who was sitting on a couch. As I started to dance for Shannon, Jared suddenly grabbed me around the throat from behind and said to me, ‘I can reach pure sexual enjoyment in 30 seconds just by looking into your eyes’. Obviously, it was kind of a weird situation.”

She went on to say that Leto then sat back down and watched Taylor lap dance his brother for ten minutes until a roadie announced it was time for them to leave for their next gig.

https://twitter.com/Ninjaharlot/status/1463604100440866817

The internet is home to many (many, many) more accounts of Leto allegedly sexually assaulting (sometimes underage) victims. However, some internet users have suggested that such online accusations are not to be taken seriously due to the fact that they never actually evolved into sexual assault and rape police cases—a very stupid and uneducated way of looking at the situation.

How many times do we have to say it? The fear of not being believed makes it even harder for victims to come forward, so imagine how frightening it must be for anyone facing Leto and his somewhat invincible yet invisible team of lawyers. Almost 90 per cent of sexual assault survivors will never go to the police.

And it’s not only that victims are worried people won’t believe them, they also worry they will face horrific repercussions for coming forward with their story—whether personally, professionally or from the perpetrator themselves—especially if they go on to report the assault to concerned authorities. Seeing how much of an expert Leto is at emptying his fans’ pockets, it’s not hard to think of the many options he has under his belt when trying to silence his victims.