An up-and-coming fashion designer has accused Balenciaga of appropriating her work, alleging that the luxury label posted an image to social media strikingly similar to one in her portfolio, which it had requested to see.
Tra My Nguyen said she was left “angry and speechless” when the French-owned Spanish brand, uploaded a photo of a motorbike draped in colorful garments to its official Instagram account Wednesday. She accused the company of “stealing, appropriating and profiting from POC (people of color) artists’ ideas.”
In a statement posted to Instagram on Thursday, Nguyen, who is based in Berlin and of Vietnamese heritage, said the image was based on her master’s project exploring Vietnam’s female motorbike culture.
She claims that a Balenciaga recruiter who had seen her work exhibited at Berlin University of the Arts, twice requested to see her portfolio. A screenshot of an alleged email exchange from last October appears to show one of the brand’s employees asking for Nguyen’s portfolio on the premise that the label was looking for interns.
After replying with information and images of her work, which included pictures of motorbikes draped in clothing, Nguyen said she didn’t hear back and was not asked for permission to use her idea.
“I am not your moodboard!” she wrote in an Instagram story, demanding that the brand apologize and remove the image from Instagram.
On Monday, Balenciaga posted a response via Instagram Stories, claiming that the image was “not based on the work of any artist.”
“It was inspired by how street vendors sometimes display their merchandise,” the message read. The brand then posted a series of “inspiration images” featuring cars covered in clothes and fabrics that it said were shared with its photographer in advance. The post also included additional images from the shoot, showing a car and a tractor covered in clothing.
Balenciaga said that its recruitment and social media teams “do not share talent information,” and that it will “work to better follow up with applicants regarding the status of submissions going forward.”
In an email to CNN, Nguyen said she wanted to make people more aware of the “exploitation of young creatives,” especially those who are Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOCs). “Not only (do big brands) steal students’ artistic ideas and intellect, but also expect them to work for free as interns,” she said.
She added that “systematic exploitation” had “become normality in the fashion industry.”
Nguyen explained that her project had been rooted in her own family’s history, and that her mother had once sold a motorbike “in order to immigrate to Germany.”
“The idea was to deconstruct the emerging street style in Vietnam, dubbed as Street Ninja,” she wrote on Instagram. “I collaged UV protection clothes from Vietnam over a motorbike to create ‘wearable sculptures.’
“I feel betrayed and hurt as it’s a part of my culture, it’s an artistic process and not a random fashionable aesthetic you can profit on!” she added, saying in her statement that the move was “so typical” of the brand.
Nguyen told CNN she thought an appropriate response from Balenciaga would be an apology.
“Furthermore, I expect them to acknowledge their toxic design practice of appropriating ‘low/read culture’ and trying to make it ‘high fashions,” she added.
Nguyen called on universities to do more to protect the intellectual property rights of their students.
With designs that draw on pop culture and elevate everyday imagery into status symbols, Balenciaga has attracted criticism of appropriation in the past.
In 2017, the label unveiled a blue bag closely resembling those produced by Ikea, though Balenciaga’s were on sale for $2,145. Music producer Swizz Beatz previously accused the brand of copying the “R” logo used by hip-hop collective and label Ruff Ryders, while another collection’s logos were widely compared to that of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign — Balenciaga creative director Demna Gvasalia denied that Sanders had been his inspiration.
Gvasalia’s own label, cult brand Vetements — which he left in September 2019 — is known for its use of mass culture imagery, including a scene from the film “Titanic” which was printed on an oversized hoodie and donned by Celine Dion, who featured on the soundtrack for that film.
In a 2019 interview with Women’s Wear Daily, Gvasalia addressed such criticisms, saying that appropriation is “a big word everyone is throwing around left and right, but nobody really knows where it actually comes from and why.”
“It’s not Demna who started this,” he said, referring to himself, before likening his approach to that of Marcel Duchamp, the artist who turned everyday objects into desirable works of art, and who has of late, also been accused of appropriating ideas.
“I just wanted to point out that appropriation didn’t start as a concept in fashion with me,” Gvasalia is quoted as saying. “I’ve just maybe modernized it in a way that’s understandable for my generation of consumers who I talk to.”
Critics argue, however, that there is a big difference between ironic gestures aimed at widely recognized references and allegedly not crediting a lesser known individual for inspiring a brand’s imagery.
Nguyen says that Balenciaga had not yet attempted to contact her. “Instead they are still posting their feed as if nothing has happened,” she said.
In response to Balenciaga’s statement, Nguyen wrote on Instagram that she found the statement to be “unempathetic.”
“Instead of apologizing to me and deleting the stolen concept feed, you chose denial,” she wrote.
This story has been updated to include a statement from Balenciaga and additional response by Nguyen.