Demna on the Record: The Balenciaga Designer on the Brand’s Controversy and His Path Forward

Demna, photographed in January in Paris.Photo: Malick Bodian

In November of last year, Balenciaga released two advertising campaigns: one to promote its holiday offering, called Gift Shop; the other, which appeared five days later, in support of its Spring 2023 collection, which had been shown at the NewYork Stock Exchange some months earlier.

Within days of its publication, the social media reaction to the Gift Shop campaign rapidly went from a trickle to a storm: Critics condemned the house for showing children holding bags designed to look like destroyed teddy bears, with studs and harnesses, amid an array of grown-up items before them—a Balenciaga-branded wine glass, for example. Many felt the bags referenced BDSM, and that their presence on the shoot was an abhorrent sexualization of children. (The bags had been shown in October during Paris Fashion Week, and were carried by adults; Balenciaga stated the design reference was not BDSM but punk.)

Days later, the Spring 2023 campaign was published, and internet sleuthing revealed the presence of three props that added to the furor: a printout from the Supreme Court ruling in the case of United States v. Williams—which confirmed that First Amendment rights did not include the promotion of child pornography—half visible from beneath a Balenciaga handbag; a book by the Belgian artist Michaël Borremans, whose work has stirred controversy in the past, particularly around sinister-seeming images of toddlers playing in ways that appear disturbed, deranged, or violent (though the book in the campaign did not contain such work); and a fake framed college certificate on a wall bearing a name that, when googled, brought up the identities of many real people, including that of a convicted child abuser.

Balenciaga responded in multiple ways. It withdrew both campaigns, denied the allegations of promoting child abuse through its images, and, in the case of the Spring 2023 ads, launched a $25 million lawsuit against those contracted to do set design and shoot production. On November 28, the house apologized for what it called “a series of grievous errors for which Balenciaga takes responsibility.”

“We strongly condemn child abuse,” the statement continued. “It was never our intent to include it in our narrative…. We take full accountability for our lack of oversight and control of the documents in the background and we could have done things differently.”

A few days later, on December 2, artistic director Demna (he has chosen to go by a single name since 2021) issued a statement, saying in part: “I want to personally apologize for the wrong artistic choice of concept for the gifting campaign with the kids and I take my responsibility. It was inappropriate to have kids promote objects that had nothing to do with them. 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.”

In a statement to Vogue, Balenciaga’s president and CEO, Cédric Charbit, elaborated: “The artistic director oversees the creative. I take all the business decisions, have the final cut and responsibility.  In between there are many steps, in terms of creation and validation, and several teams are involved in a collaborative way. All this was unintentional, but we collectively failed. I made the wrong judgment and take responsibility. We all learned from this and have taken actions and changed our ways of working so this never happens again.” Charbit also outlined specific actions: The house was undergoing internal reorganization, he said, implementing new editorial controls and educational programs, and would begin a listening tour with advocacy groups whose work is aimed at protecting children. Charbit also indicated that the lawsuit was being dropped. When later asked by Vogue about that, Balenciaga responded: “Our investigation revealed that there was no set-up or malevolent act, at which point we immediately discontinued the action.”

Yesterday, Balenciaga and the Kering Foundation announced that it would partner with National Children’s Alliance (NCA) on its recently launched Mental Health Institute for the next three years. The aims, Balenciaga said, are helping children heal from trauma, and for NCA to work with the house on educating itself about child protection.

Vogue asked Demna about all of this during a series of lengthy conversations that took place in Paris earlier this year. What follows has been condensed and edited.

Vogue: The two campaigns that appeared toward the end of last year, Gift Shop and Spring 2023, which appeared within days of each other, sparked a crisis for you and for Balenciaga. What was the genesis of those campaigns? What was the creative process and intent? What conversations were happening around them?

Demna: The Spring 2023 campaign was directly inspired by the show we did last year on Wall Street in New York City. I wanted to shoot it in a typical New York corporate setting, emphasizing the idea of power dressing. Basically, shooting a CEO-style office. I saw the example of how the offices could look, approved what type of furniture they would use, and what kind of poses the models would do. Since I am never on shoots, images were presented to me to select the photos I liked most out of the selection made by the photographer.

The Gift Shop campaign was completely unrelated to the Spring 2023 campaign—they were shot at a different time, one in October and the other one in July. The campaign was made to promote the line of objects in relation to the end-of-the-year holidays. It was a large variety of unrelated products, which required a concept in which many different products could be shot all together. Kidswear was a part of the selection for the “gift shop,” as well as the plush teddy bear bags, referencing punk and DIY culture, absolutely not BDSM, and they were worn by adults in the October 2022 show.

Based on this, the image team proposed the photographer for this campaign, because earlier in the year they presented his work to me and I liked the composition of his pictures, and he was added to the folder of potential talents to work with one day. Because the photographer’s work often included a multitude of toys placed around a room with kids in the middle of it, we thought we would be able to include the variety of products and items of the gift shop assortment into each picture, because, you know, we can’t make 100 images for all of these different products we need to show.

This is where my error comes in. That was my big mistake. I didn’t realize how inappropriate it would be to put these objects [in the image] and still have the kid in the middle. It unfortunately was the wrong idea and a bad decision from me. We should not have featured kids in images that included objects that were not related and inappropriate to them. No one, myself included, raised a question of it being inappropriate. There were control processes in place, people involved—internal and external—but we just did not spot what was problematic. This was an error of judgment. I regret this a lot. We learned from this now and there are going to be closer and more attentive checks and validation steps applied before any image goes out. For this I want to say I am sorry; I sincerely apologize for what happened and to anyone who has been hurt by it.

The Gift Shop campaign was released online, and for a week or so, nothing, and then there was a reaction on social media—a very negative reaction, a very critical, very angry reaction, specifically to the images of children carrying the bags. What did you think of the reaction?

I realized that I really have to look at everything from a very objective point of view and imagine how it can speak to a different audience and be responsible for that. It was a reaction I would never, ever want to cause. I realize that my work has been seen as provocative, but this specific situation would never be part of my, you know, provocative nature. That was the most difficult thing for me personally: How could I not see [the problem]? Because it is so clear to me now that it was the wrong thing to do.

I mean, I’ve been called terrible things, which I’m not, and Balenciaga is not. That was difficult on top of the horror of being associated with that problem [of child abuse]. These are the mistakes we have made, and we have to be responsible for them. I would never want to mess around with a subject like that. I mean, who would? And I realized that the nature of my work before this has been deemed provocative at times. And I think it also played a role in that, you know, in the way that people saw [my work]. Like it might be another stunt. But that was not the case. I had to think about what was wrong with my judgment.

The Spring 2023 campaign was released soon after the Gift Shop campaign. Three props in that campaign provoked a lot of controversy. Some, especially on social media, have claimed they were there intentionally, and that the two campaigns were linked. What do you say to that?

I was shocked when I heard about their presence on the set of the Spring 2023 campaign. It was a set of negligent and unfortunate but not intentional coincidences. At first, we were told the documents were confirmed to be fake. The Gift Shop campaign was different because the inappropriate nature of associating kids with those objects was clearly our mistake. When the scandal was sparked [by the documents and props], I was like, everybody, my team, was shocked. I don’t know how they ended up there. They were not supposed to be there. I was completely stunned.

I have seen a lot of drama in my life, but this was particularly hard to live [through], a mistake to learn from. It was mostly painful for me because I could not explain all of this, but also, the name of Balenciaga and the legacy of Cristóbal Balenciaga is one I cherish and have the utmost respect and fascination for. Balenciaga is a house that is over one century old and is based on strong and beautiful creative values, and I have been busy doing all in my creative power to bring it to its modern relevance, and suddenly we were under attack and labeled as something we’re not at all. We certainly made a huge and stupid mistake with the gifting campaign, and we certainly have learned from it.

I could feel that the whole Balenciaga family was put into trouble. I know that many employees of the house suffered from this situation. I know also this mistake was hurtful for some people who love the brand. This experience has forced me to reevaluate a lot of things in the way I, we, work, in the way we create and communicate images, the way we interact with our audiences, and the way we learn from our mistakes and move forward.

You say that the presence of those three items in the pictures is coincidental. Can you expand on that notion of coincidence?

It’s the only explanation that is plausible to me. That’s the only way I can explain it. Obviously, if you look for the dots, you can connect anything, but I don’t have any other explanation for it.

There will be those who agree with you that it was coincidental, and there will be those who don’t. What do you say to those people who believe it was intentional?

Intentional from who? From us? What I can definitely say is that it was not intentional by me or Balenciaga. If it was intentional by someone else, I don’t know.

How is Balenciaga responding to all that has happened? What initiatives are you taking to guard against imagery that could be deemed inappropriate? How are you going to go forward?

It starts with the restructuring of the image department and establishing new rules of checks and validations that go through multiple channels, internal and external, for the image to be checked and approved. There is now a new image board, which involves different sensibilities; before its release [the board] will give their opinion about an image.

From my personal point of view, as creative director, I will have to question absolutely everything now. It really changes my way of working, which has previously been more instinctive; doing something that would be seen as maybe provocative just because I was thinking, Oh, that’s fun. This is part of my learning: I will have a more mature and serious approach to everything I release as an idea or an image. I have decided to go back to my roots in fashion as well as to the roots of Balenciaga, which is making quality clothes—not making image or buzz.

Learning from the mistake also includes educating ourselves on this issue and contributing to the actual cause. We are partnering with a nonprofit organization called National Children’s Alliance (NCA) for a multiyear partnership, which I find absolutely amazing because it will help thousands of kids in the process of overcoming trauma and dealing with their mental health. It’s the one thing that makes me happy about this whole horrible situation: to do something good out of it.

From a creative point of view, how are you thinking, wanting, wishing to take Balenciaga forward?

I have always believed that I have grown and evolved through the hardships in my life, and this has been the very biggest one. What I realized of this situation is that making clothes is what makes me most happy. I was cutting and sewing garments with my team throughout most of December last year. I reconnected with where I started, and I realized the importance of it to me. It’s a serious job, you know, to make clothes. It’s not about creating image or buzz or any of those things. I am back to making jackets. That’s where this house started, and that’s where I started as a designer.

Many of those ideas [from December] will be part of the show in March. I had this indescribable desire to make things. I went back to cutting jackets and pants, experimenting with patterns and shapes. I cannot explain this in any other way than I sheltered myself doing what I love: making clothes. This is exactly what I will be focusing on at Balenciaga from now on. I want to be more manual and hands-on rather than just directing the process. I realized how much I miss that, and how much it makes me feel happy.

You’ve used the word provocative, and a certain amount of provocation has certainly been part of your vision for Balenciaga. Why has that been the case?

The provocative aspect of my work often got misinterpreted and misunderstood, and I no longer feel like applying it to my designs. I often used some kind of wit in my design language, and it has often been deemed provocative. For me it was more about having fun and not taking fashion too seriously. Despite what many people may have suspected, the issue with the campaigns was absolutely not in any way part of my provocative design language—never, ever would I have an idea to mess around with such an awful and horrible thing as child abuse.

Your career at Balenciaga has often taken an unflinching view of the reality of the world—climate disaster, for instance—and it has also had moments that were joyful: The Simpsons red carpet show, say, or the “Sunglasses at Night” ’80s pop video. But it has felt in the last year, perhaps less, that things have been definitely much darker at Balenciaga—heavy, bleak.

I do think that has been the case. When we are in creative work, we cannot completely block our, maybe, inner state. How we feel about things, about pain, emotionally or psychologically, and that bleeds into our work, whether we want it to or not. There was something in me that was transmitted through the work and made people feel it too. It was always kind of there, but it was, as you say, broken up by the fun elements of something a bit lighter—let’s, you know, laugh and not be so dramatic. But last year…I don’t know what it is related to….

There was no specific trigger?

Maybe something from the past is coming through. It’s something I can’t really explain. This is the reason I want to change my approach, in the way I make collections and the way I show them as well, because it’s very hard to keep them apart. I focus on my collections, because that’s the emphasis [for me] on how I express myself, but when you speak about [heaviness in my work], it’s about set design, the type of shows I made. So that’s going to change as well. The show will become more about showing the collection than creating a moment. I’ve realized that that can take a lot of attention away from my actual work, which is making clothes. I want to make sure that’s what people are looking at, because I think my value as a creative is designing the product and not being a showman.

At the end of last year, the house’s Instagram account featured a montage of Cristóbal Balenciaga salon presentations from back in the day. Those were definitely about being a designer making clothes—not creating a spectacle of a show. Do those Cristóbal presentations figure in your current thinking?

Yes, exactly. The emphasis is on my love for the craft of making clothes now. I have already referenced that in our couture collections, but now it is going to be applied to all the rest. That is ultimately why I do what I do. My interest lies in armholes, sleeve heads, and shoulder lines, not in making seasonal campaigns, even if that is also part of my job. It was deliberate to end last year with the video edit of footage from Cristóbal Balenciaga’s collections from the ’60s, to remind our audience what this historic house stands for and where it comes from.

It was a very important video to me. Cristóbal Balenciaga’s legacy, defending it and evolving it is the number-one reason why I am here. I am not interested in pop culture, to be very honest. Yes, we have become part of it, sort of unconsciously on my part, and it’s okay, but I cannot say that my creative vision or approach to design has been influenced by it. It came to us and not the other way.

Can you say more about the role of pop culture in your work for the house? Because from the outside it has sometimes looked like Balenciaga has positioned itself to be part of pop culture quite consciously and deliberately.

Often in my work I reference things that are somewhat mundane and relatable and easy to understand, and over time, that approach is why we’ve become associated with pop culture. Of course, there is also the celebrity aspect, but I have to say, I have never thought about dressing celebrities or aiming my designs at them. Actually I was quite opposed to it for a while, until the brand grew in a certain way, by which point it was inevitable [we’d work with them].

For me, the whole notion of pop culture is really…it is popular; it is appealing to many different types of people. And the branding part of pop culture was very beneficial to Balenciaga for its visibility, and consequently, obviously, for commercial success: The more you are appealing to, or having an impact on, more people as a brand with your language and your aesthetic, it has an impact on your business.

Now, was it beneficial to be such a part of pop culture during this crisis? I certainly think not. Being part of pop culture brings virality to any subject, so the viral aspects of that subject can end up having a massive impact.

What about your role in that pop cultural landscape? Designers are often expected to be more than just creatives these days; there’s this idea that they also need to achieve a certain fame or visibility for a brand to work. In your case, it has felt like you were both highly visible in the culture—you now go by only Demna; not many of us can do that—while simultaneously trying to remove yourself from it, by wearing a mask to obscure your identity.

I’ve never really explained to anybody outside of Balenciaga, outside my close friends, why I wanted to change my name professionally, to just go by Demna. For me, to lead a house, especially a heritage house like Balenciaga, the main thing that is required is to have a creative vision.

I certainly do not think it requires a celebrity face or celebrity image from a designer to be in charge of [a house]. My wearing a mask and not wanting to be seen, and the name situation, it all indicates how uncomfortable I was feeling with something that is part of my job. I work at a global brand for which I have a vision, and I think part of my job is to be associated with that vision.

Yet at the same time I am a person; a person who has complexes and feelings; a person who has had many issues with my name, and I have been trying to find ways to make it easier for myself this past year. So, covering my face meant I wouldn’t need to care about how I look in pictures, or on the internet, or at the Met. It wasn’t hiding behind [a mask]; it was to make it easier to deal with the focus, and the spotlight that naturally comes with the job that I do.

In my case I never looked for that [spotlight]; it was something I had to get used to, to learn how to deal with by myself. When a vision for the brand is there, it has an impact: The person behind the vision is put in the spotlight, and willingly—or unwillingly—becomes part of celebrity culture in some way. It is part of my job, but I don’t feel part of it. That’s something that I’ve not really managed to communicate in the right way, because everybody wants to be a celebrity, but I am an introvert who actually just wants to be in my atelier.

What concerns my decision to go by my first name is a really personal, and somehow artistic choice, as well. I just considered it more appropriate for me to go by my first name because, like wearing the mask, it made it easier for me to deal with my position and what that represents. Sixty percent of the time [my surname] was either said or spelled the wrong way, and I had a bit of a problem with that, and it was associated with my previous project [Vetements]. I wanted to detach myself from my past career, and just present myself as Demna.

How does the return to emphasizing the craft of creating and making clothes factor into what you will show and how you will show in March?

The set of the show will be intentionally simple, to be able to focus on the collection and really bring attention to that. I am leaving it to the essentials: collection, sound, light. I am excited about that. That’s more in line with who I am, who I am becoming, evolving into. And it also corresponds much closer to the heritage of this house. We’ll show a lot of clothes, clothes that involve a lot of work.

Can you expand on what the collection will actually look like?

It’s an evolution. When I work on couture, there is a very direct link to the heritage and to Cristóbal’s work, which has not been translated enough to the ready-to-wear yet. And I think the March collection will have a lot of those elements. I want to keep you surprised as to what you will see, but there will be three parts: One part is really based on tailoring and a lot of experimentation with that, cutting, deconstructing, and reconstructing, which is my base in dressmaking. There will be another part where the work is on silhouette and really more fashion orientated, very, like, shape. And in the third part, which I feel is most connected to the heritage of the house, not so much the couture, as I don’t want to have this overlap, but in the way I see modern elegance. There will be things that I think we don’t really do much in our ready-to-wear shows, for sure.

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