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  • Hannah Martin

Balenciaga: One of Many Racist High-End Luxury Brands

Kering, the French luxury company which owns Balenciaga, just took an extra step to reestablish its brand’s reputation. As of February 15, 2023, the corporation decided to begin the hiring process for employees to oversee “brand safety” in response to the backlash received from recent controversial Balenciaga advertisements. One of these advertisements included young children holding teddy bears dressed in clothing that viewers believed resembled BDSM apparel. The brand received extensive criticism, causing Balenciaga to pull the advertisements and sue the creative agency leading the marketing campaign. This is not the first time Balenciaga has caused public outrage due to its distasteful advertisements. The brand has a history clouded with racism and has even recently dropped out of Lyst’s “Top Ten Hottest Brands” index for the first time ever, likely due to public condemnation. Issues with problematic political incorrectness can likely be attributed to a lack of diversity in the high-end fashion industry. Morals and ethical concerns seem to have a great impact on the brands individuals choose to support, as seen by reactions to Balenciaga’s troubling behavior.

Balenciaga has a history of problematic behavior, including many acts of racism. There were two wide-reaching instances that generated vast criticism. One situation includes a video that captures the brand’s racism toward a Chinese family, and another involves cultural appropriation.

In 2018, Balenciaga was found in a racist scandal as a video capturing security guards roughly handling a young Chinese man went viral on WeChat. Prior to when the video was actually taken, the young victim’s mother confronted a group of Albanian men for cutting in line. In response, the men threatened her, so her son stepped in to defend her. Eventually, tensions escalated, and security guards got involved. The special event was shut down, with very few customers able to get inside to buy limited edition items. The young Chinese man and her mother were kicked out of the store, while the Albanian men were allowed inside.

This video reached a large audience and enraged customers. Chinese customers decided to boycott the brand completely and shamed the superficial apology.

In September 2021, Balenciaga released sweatpants that had a sewn-in pair of boxers peeking out from the waistline. A video went viral on TikTok, with someone saying, “This feels racist.” in the background. The video prompted immediate outrage, with customers accusing Balenciaga of culturally appropriating “sagging pants,” a fashion symbol of hip-hop and the source of a legal ban that resulted in Black men being disproportionately targeted by police.

During a time when disproportionate police brutality towards people of color is an increasingly concerning topic in the United States, the sweatpants scandal is especially relevant. How could this problematic product go through multiple screenings and still reach the market? Some believe that the answer lies in the lack of diversity found in the luxury fashion industry.

The New York Times attempted to determine how much diversity is present in the fashion industry by directly asking companies, primarily focusing on the presence of Black talent in the industry. The publication asked diversity questions to 64 different brands, and the answers were extremely inconsistent. Many high-end brands would not give concrete answers in response to questions about diversity. Rather, they deferred the question by referring to a commitment to inclusion or a desire to eventually increase diversity in the company. These performative answers allow companies to avoid burdening themselves with the responsibility to catalyze change.

The State of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Fashion survey found 50% of employees of color in the fashion industry report their career as not equally accessible to all qualified candidates. The fashion industry depends heavily on networks and connections, which often only work in favor of white employees who hold generational familial or social ties in a country where Black people are systematically discriminated against. Very few chief executives or other leadership positions are held by a Black individual or any person of color. If there is representation present, the roles are typically temporary, such as hair and makeup artists, models, stylists, or photographers. This allows for brands to claim diversity, but lasting brand decisions are still only being made by primarily white employees.

The lack of diversity provides holes in important perspectives that should be represented in the fashion industry. Brands like Balenciaga are releasing offensive items because different viewpoints and experiences are not being considered throughout the design process. Disregarding the importance of diversity is beginning to result in a lasting negative reputation for these brands.

Balenciaga is only one example of brands being criticized for racist promotional campaigns. Gucci, Prada, and Vogue have all had actions backfire due to insensitivity, lack of diversity, and racism. As these brands have claimed solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, the criticism also refers to the hypocrisy of these corporations. Social media moves quickly and has an incredible impact in the modern technological age: on both brands and politics. Therefore, it is easy for consumers to condemn companies when promises of diversity, inclusion,

and political awareness are not upheld. If the negligent, performative activism continues, the future looks unfavorable for the long-reigning powerhouses of the fashion industry.

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