Balenciaga’s Spring/Summer 2023 show opens with Kanye West in a black oversized utility jacket littered with bulky pockets and paired with black motorcycle leather pants, stomping down the mud soaked runway.
The nightmarishly constructed runway resembles a film set in the apocalyptic future with rivers of mud, wet concrete and dimmed overhead lights that obscure the faces of the young models.
Top model, Bella Hadid walks down the muddied hill as music with a slow disembodied EDM beat coupled with chilling synth notes reminiscent of a siren’s song plays in the background. The stray flashes from DSLRs are seen as faces in the crowd are covered by a rainbow of iPhones.
Model’s hunched over, deliberately grotesque, as thousand dollar tennis shoes splash up mud onto their legs. The dystopian inspired show that featured mud drenched clothes, dirty and tattered teddy bears, and fake infants cradled to the chests of models in Balenciaga-branded carriers now appearing more sinister than originally interpreted.
The show was enjoyed by star studded attendees including Doja Cat, Kylie Jenner and Khloe Kardashian, Alexa Demie of Euphoria, and actor Daniel Kaluuya. Many would be diving off the Balenciaga bandwagon in the months that followed.
In November 2022, photos surfaced from Balenciaga’s holiday ad campaign photoshoot. The images immediately gave people pause as children were the subject of Balenciaga’s typically avant garde themes. While Balenciaga has been touted as controversial in the past, this campaign immediately sparked outrage for its exploitative nature of its child models. In the pictures, children are seen posing in front of adult toys and clutching teddy bears outfitted in BDSM-inspired outfits. Another ad released later that month showed an office setting littered with legal papers from a 2008 Supreme Court case, United States v. Williams, which centered around child pornography. Many immediately called out Balenciaga for its seeming references to child pornography and child abuse.
“My concerns are that there seems to be a common ideology across Kering’s Fashion Houses.”
As the outrage continued to escalate and celebrities such as Kim Kardashian, actress AnnaLynne McCord, and the Los Angeles Rams’ Cooper Kupp denounced the brand, with Bella and Gigi Hadid removing Instagram posts relating to the company. Balenciaga released a statement claiming little responsibility for the “unsettling” ads. The brand expressed that while the company was responsible for not ensuring an appropriate work environment, the content itself was the work of “third parties” and that it would be looking into the issue, citing that moving forward it would pay more attention to “content validation.”
I have been quiet for the past few days, not because I haven’t been disgusted and outraged by the recent Balenciaga campaigns, but because I wanted an opportunity to speak to their team to understand for myself how this could have happened.
— Kim Kardashian (@KimKardashian) November 27, 2022
THE PARENT TRAP
With this newly ignited controversy centered around Balenciaga, many began to look towards its parent company and other big name labels under its umbrella. Kering is a French conglomerate founded in 1963 by billionaire François Pinault that houses iconic luxury brands like Gucci, Alexander McQueen, Bottega Veneta and Yves Saint Laurent.
“My concerns are that there seems to be a common ideology across Kering’s Fashion Houses,” writes Alexandra Gucci Zarini on social media. Zarini, a children’s-rights advocate and heiress of Gucci, criticized the brand’s “HA HA HA” campaign, which appears to show Harry Styles posing with a toddler-sized mattress. “Why would you create a ‘performance piece’ with a toddler’s mattress and an adult man?” Zarini continues.
Gucci was created to be the most elegant brand with the highest quality product. The direction it seems to be taking now is concerning. The protection of children should always come first and not be laughed at. #GUCCIHAHAHA #Gucci #Kering #Balenciaga
— Alexandra Gucci Zarini (@GucciZarini) December 19, 2022
To many, this seemed like another blunder by a major fashion house under the Kering Group, and buzz around the company’s ethicality and that of its fashion Houses began to grow louder.
Simultaneous to Kering’s recent scandals, in November 2022, Remake released our second annual Fashion Accountability Report, scoring over 50 big name brands and 15 small sustainable brands.
Kering’s luxury companies failed to reveal their Tier 1 suppliers and neglected to disclose facility labor conditions or the extent of factory unionization
The report, prompted by Remake’s dedication to holding brands accountable for labor and environmental injustices, while simultaneously providing safe working environments and living wages for garment workers around the world, examines brands in various categories, awarding them points for how well they score.
Household name holding brands like Gucci, Alexander McQueen and Balenciaga were scored under their parent company, Kering, to assess how these iconic luxury brands fared when it came to production practices.
BRAND #1: GUCCI
Known for its vibrant colors and risk taking fashions, the household brand is immediately recognized by its signature “GG” emblem.
Describing itself as “Eclectic, contemporary and romantic,” Gucci boasts itself as the pinnacle of Italian fashion and redefiner of 21st century luxury.
Among the Kering companies, Gucci is noticeably ahead in transparency and sustainability, including pre-consumer waste reduction initiatives and fair wage measures. In fact, in the 2022 Fashion Accountability Report, Kering earned 20 points out of a possible total of 150, scoring its highest points in the Environmental Justice categories with 13 points. With the exception of Gucci, Kering’s luxury companies failed to reveal their Tier 1 suppliers and neglected to disclose facility labor conditions or the extent of factory unionization. In contrast to its company partners, Gucci disclosed up to 87% of its Tier 1 suppliers with a list updated as recently as April 2022 that includes manufacturing and assembly suppliers in categories such as Ready-to-Wear, leather goods, shoes and jewelry. According to Gucci, all of its suppliers and subcontractors are required to comply with Gucci’s Sustainability Principles and Code of Ethics by contract, in addition to acting in accordance with Kering’s statement on Modern Slavery. Gucci also boasts that their manufacturing operations are monitored in compliance with the SA8000 certification management system.
This ability to maintain oversight of its manufacturing practices is largely attributed to the vast majority of Gucci suppliers being based in Italy (95%), the brand’s base of operations. Of its provided list of suppliers, all but two are based in the European country, with the two others operating in Spain.
This close proximity to manufacturers also allows Gucci to have more control of the workers and fair wage practices. As of 2019, the Kering Group is working with the Fair Wage Network to create further transparency surrounding the wages of their employees. However, little is disclosed about the living wages of its employees outside of Gucci, with there being no indication of targets, data, or progress surrounding the partnership. According to the 2022 Fashion Accountability Report, Gucci “reported that “most workers” in its Italian facilities are paid the living wage, based on a survey by the Fair Wage Network. In the 2019 Report by Fair Wage Network, Gucci published the gross average monthly salary for its Italian suppliers, which amounted to 2,062 Euros ($2,220.99), nearly 50% above the living wage for Italy at 1,387 euros ($1,493.94).
BRAND #2: BALENCIAGA
Among the Kering Group brands, Gucci has a few redeeming qualities, however, the same can not be said for Kering’s other luxury houses.
Balenciaga, known in modern fashion for its “meme marketing” strategy, has become a brand at the forefront of streetwear and haute couture, having been popularized by fashion industry staples like Kim Kardashian, Kanye West and Bella Hadid.
Balenciaga came under the Kering Group brand in 2001 after an extended hiatus from the fashion industry. The brand, originally founded in 1917 by Spanish designer Cristobal Balenciaga, proved to be a pioneer for fashion early on, but flourished in modernized fashion in 2015 when Georgian fashion designer, Demna Gvasalia, became its creative director. Gvasalia was the recipient of much of the controversy surrounding Balenciaga in recent months.
In contrast to Gucci, Balenciaga has yet to disclose much of the brand’s inner workings. Many of its initiatives surrounding sustainability and transparency are attributed to Kering rather than the individual brand itself. According to the 2022 Fashion Accountability Report, Kering was one of 14 companies (18%) that provided either upcycling or repair services, helping consumers extend the life of their clothes, while also making up one of five companies (9%) that provided “partial information” stating that some of its direct employees, such as corporate employees or retail workers, earned a living wage. While this is encouraging to hear that some information was provided, the vagueness of Balenciaga’s reporting fails to disclose if of Kering’s 38,553 employees, as recorded in December 2020, garment workers and manufacturers are included in those being adequately compensated and if these numbers can be attributed to the viral brand: Balenciaga.
Of note, Balenciaga gives priority to tanneries and denim suppliers that are making a genuine effort to reduce energy and water use in their treatment and finishing processes and aims to use FSC-certified viscose and lyocell, working primarily with conglomerates Enka and Lenzing, which house fashion suppliers such as Tencel and EcoVero. This initiative is in accordance with Kering’s goal to use 100% of certified organic, regenerative, or recycled cotton and the use of 100% recycled fibers or materials from sustainably managed forests by 2025.
Prior to Balenciaga’s recent scandals, the company launched a program aimed at the resale market. The program in partnership with resale platform Reflaunt allows consumers to sell their pre-owned Balenciaga clothing and accessories in return for store credit. Many took notice of Kering’s formal introduction to circular fashion, with both Balenciaga and Alexander McQueen engaging in resale partnerships. According to the 2022 Fashion Accountability Report, Kering’s “Circularity Ambition” places emphasis on extending the life of products already in existence, rather than replacing linear production with “use-phase-extending circularity initiatives.” However, as Kering increases its use of total packaging and the use of plastics in its packaging, the company will need to prove to consumers that its commitment to waste management will persevere.
BRAND #3: ALEXANDER MCQUEEN
Much like Balenciaga, it’s hard to attribute Kering’s few transparency wins to the British powerhouse brand, Alexander McQueen.
In an effort to keep up with Kering’s 2025 goal, Alexander McQueen is gradually incorporating sustainable materials into its manufacturing practices. However, while Kering boasts initiatives like its “Clean By Design” program, conceived by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), America’s largest environmental advocacy organization, there is not much concrete evidence that the brand is doing its part to contribute to the transparency practices seemingly adopted by its parent company. As a part of the Clean By Design program, factories received a detailed assessment of their energy efficiency, and water and chemicals use, and as a result, set target-based goals to improve various practices.
In the 2022 Fashion Accountability Report, Remake found that Kering was among 11 companies (19%) that were able to demonstrate their investment in suppliers, offering financial incentives or assistance for factories to decarbonize. The report also noted Kering’s investment in Vestiaire Collective, a luxury second-hand consignment shop, and Cocoon, a membership subscription company for luxury goods. Preceding Balenciaga’s partnership with Reflaunt, Alexander McQueen launched a collaboration with Vestiaire Collective in 2021 in an effort to extend the lifespan of its products and “embrace circularity.”
ARE PROMISES ENOUGH?
While the Kering Group takes pride in its small victories surrounding the company’s transparency and sustainable practices, as consumers we must begin to ask ourselves if glacial steps towards a more ethical fashion industry is enough and if luxury brands are actually delivering on their promises.
Luxury fashion will continue to be the driving force of change within the industry, as it has historically set the standard for what it means to be “en vogue.” However, are we ignoring the more impactful changes smaller, more ethical brands are making to accommodate those of fashion powerhouses such as Gucci, Balenciaga, Chanel, and YSL, who pale in comparison and often only offer vague IOUs?
Kering’s brand Gucci has notably surpassed its parent company’s other brands in numerous categories. However, Gucci appears to have undisclosed suppliers in Bangladesh, and the brand has yet to sign the International Accord, a life-saving, binding agreement that ensures the safety of workers in garment factories across Bangladesh. The census developed by Mapped in Bangladesh, reveals that Gucci has 9 factories scattered around Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh. Combined the factories’ employ 989 garment workers, with over 72% of them being women.
Too often in our quest for a more ethical fashion industry that champions those that make our clothes, we are met with brands that say they will, but don’t.