“Move fast and break things.” Mark Zuckerberg’s famous instruction is one of the mottos of our age. Paraphrased by every big mouth from Dominic Cummings to Elon Musk, it became the beloved crutch of corporate geeks desperately seeking edginess. In 2019 an article in The Harvard Business Review declared its moment was over. It was time, the HBR intoned, to adopt a more measured, socially responsible approach.
But in fashion, where midlifers trying to look radical abound, it was far from over. Witness the latest kerfuffle at Balenciaga, where crisis management has now kicked in following the release of two recent ads. One features young children carrying the brand’s fluffy little teddy bear bags that featured in Balenciaga’s catwalk in September. The problem is the bears are sporting bondage gear.
The second ad looks innocuous enough at first glimpse. It stars French movie star Isabelle Huppert leaning sternly (‘tis what she does) over a messy desk in a high-rise office in Blandsville wearing a T-shirt from the brand’s latest high-low collaboration with Adidas.
So far, so meh. But look more closely – and never have so many magnifying glasses since been deployed over one ad – and it becomes apparent that one of the documents on Huppert’s desk is a page from a Supreme Court ruling in the United States on child pornography. Bingo. Controversy guaranteed.
But no-one could have anticipated quite how much, with collateral damage continuing to rise. Bring out the bodies… The conjunction of the first ad’s crassness, and the second ad’s sloppiness has ignited an out-of-control conflagration that has spread from fashion websites to mainstream news channels, engulfing in its flames Huppert, Kim Kardashian, Nicole Kidman and Bella Hadid, who starred in other pictures from the same campaign. Gabriele Galimberti, the documentary photographer of the teddy bear ad, who, while he has shot children with their toys before, had never done a fashion campaign, says he’s now treated like a leper.
Kardashian has been criticised for the mildness of her rebuke, which many feel amounts to the reality star saying “I wish you hadn’t done this, but please can I still have all the freebies I ordered?”. Kidman has been bashed for saying nothing. Fans are burning their Balenciaga merch and calling for its star designer, Demna Gvasalia, to be fired and/or cancelled. The Business of Fashion website has already revoked the award they were planning to give him next week while the British Fashion Council, which organises the glitzy fashion awards, due to take place on Monday, now have an awkward situation to deal with – to disinvite a star guest or not?
Conspiracy theorists have, inevitably, gone overboard, positing false claims that Balenciaga is part of a ginormous Democratic plot (shades of QAnon) to normalise child pornography, North Korean activist Yeonmi Park has even weighed in.
Initially Balenciaga reacted the way fashion houses so often do – saying nothing, then a little, then issuing a $25 (£21) million lawsuit against North Six, the company that supplied the ad’s props and its set designer Nicholas Des Jardins, in a move that has done nothing to appease anyone. As Nicholas Des Jardins’ lawyer said in her statement, Balenciaga representatives were on set during the shoot “overseeing it and handling papers and other props”. Others have pointed out that any big company’s campaigns get signed off by dozens of executives before they’re released. The idea that no-one noticed this is risible, they suggest.
But isn’t this exactly what happens when you break things just to make a noise? You get used to the cacophony – and the sales it generates. Until one day, you’ve smashed up your pad.
From a 15-year-old Brooke Shields asking the world in 1980: “You want to know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing” to Tom Ford for Gucci’s infamous close-up of a female model’s G-shaped pubic topiary in 2003, no-one went broke in fashion pushing ever more graphic sexual images. The photographer Terry Richardson’s meteoric multi-million dollar career importing sexual innuendo onto fashion ads, over which he layered a heavy pornographic aesthetic, was only sidelined when allegations about sexual misconduct – which he denied – became impossible to ignore post Me Too.
The more middle-of-the-road the brand, the more offensive the ads. Sisley, a high street Italian chain, used Richardson to shoot a dazed and tired model holding a cow’s teat in her left hand and spraying milk into her open mouth. Tongue hanging out, liquid dripping onto her chin, it was obvious what this otherwise forgettable label was implying.
Spurred, presumably, by the hoo-ha, six years later, the delightful Sisley featured semi-delirious models snorting a white vest from a shiny table.
These are far from isolated violations. Ads for Benetton’s preppie pullovers have featured Aids victims and – I kid you not – a model with a black eye, next to the tag: Colours of Domestic Violence. Nice jumper though.
Miu Miu has been accused of fetishising under-age models in an ad that was eventually banned, and I’ve lost count of the houses that regularly feature shockingly thin models, despite the opprobrium this invariably incurs.
The thing is, the brands rarely suffer any long-term repercussions. Sometimes sales are actually boosted. So what if you’re lambasted on Fox TV. Ultimately everyone moves on, mores change and the world waits to be shocked by the next outrage. But perhaps this is different. The speed at which news is now consumed, mangled and vomited out on social media makes already volatile situations unpredictable and means that relatively mild infractions can land a brand in scalding water. The inclusion of the SCOTUS paper was either provocative or negligent, but lest we forget, it was from a document upholding laws that protect children, not a recommendation the legislation be dismantled.
It may be that Gvasalia loses his job. It’s not as if the label, under his stewardship, doesn’t have form when it comes to guerilla warfare, from fashion shows featuring models dressed as war refugees to the black, face-covering bodysuit Kim Kardashian wore to the Met Ball in 2021. A house that once dressed Gloria Guinness and Ava Gardner now makes most of its money from trainers, leading some critics to suggest Gvasalia’s time is up creatively anyway.
On the other hand, the Kering Group, which owns Balenciaga, has only just parted ways with Alessandro Michele, its star designer at Gucci. To lose two creative directors in a week would seem more than careless, but perhaps this latest furore, however synthetic it ultimately seems, provides some useful cover.