Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to include a statement from Balenciaga to NextShark.
An emerging Vietnamese fashion designer in Germany has accused Balenciaga of stealing, appropriating and profiting from her idea of female motorbike riders in Vietnam.
In a scathing Instagram post last week, Tra My Nguyen recalled a recruiter from the fashion house visiting Berlin University of the Arts (Universität der Künste Berlin or UdK Berlin) in 2019, where she was enrolled in a master’s program.
The recruiter looked over her class’ projects and requested for her portfolio twice, Nguyen said. But when she finally sent the document — which includes process and editorial photos — the recruiter stopped responding.
Nguyen’s master’s project focuses on Vietnam’s female motorbike riders, a subculture of the country’s rich motorbike culture. She put together UV-protection clothes over a motorbike to create “wearable sculptures.”
Nguyen told NextShark that she had been working on her master’s project from 2018 to October 2019.
“Rooted in my own family history, from my mother selling her motorbike in order to migrate to Germany, Vietnamese motorbike culture has been a core focus of my work for the past few years,” Nguyen noted.
“The idea was to deconstruct the emerging street style in Vietnam, dubbed as ‘Street Ninja.’ I collaged UV-protection clothes from Vietnam over a motorbike to create ‘wearable sculptures.’ By doing so, the project suggests a strategy for reimagining female motorists as protagonists, countering their discriminatory experiences.”
For this reason, Nguyen found herself fuming when Balenciaga posted a picture of a motorbike covered with clothes on its Instagram page. The post had no caption.
“I’m so angry and speechless! Balenciaga has yet proved again for stealing, appropriating and profiting from POC artists’ ideas,” Nguyen claimed. “What is your inspiration? Why are you even draping garments over a motorbike? What do you want to tell us with this pic? TELL ME!!!”
Nguyen pointed out that Balenciaga never asked for her permission. She demanded the fashion house to apologize, delete its post and stop appropriating “low seen/read culture.”
“This is so typical of Balenciaga! 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,” Nguyen added. “I am not your moodboard!”
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As of this writing, Nguyen’s exposé has received more than 52,000 likes and nearly 2,000 comments from users expressing support. Balenciaga, on the other hand, has ignored over 19,000 comments — including Nguyen’s — under its still-available post.
“This is an absolute travesty. You lot should be ashamed! Don’t you have any original ideas of your own? You really need to be stealing work from a student and trying to pass it off as your own? Give her credit and PAY HER FOR HER WORK,” one user demanded.
Balenciaga has a list of allegations on cultural appropriation, among other issues that have drawn ire on social media.
In 2015, it was accused of ripping Chinese mesh slippers and selling them for hundreds of dollars more. The following year, one of its bags appeared to have come straight out of a Thai shopping market.
The fashion house also sparked outrage in 2018 when one of its stores in Paris allegedly mistreated Chinese customers in favor of French-Albanians. It has since apologized for the matter and vowed to do better.
In a statement to NextShark, Balenciaga claims the image posted on July 21 on Instagram is not based on any artist’s work.
“It was inspired by how street vendors sometimes display their merchandise as seen in the inspiration images we shared in advance with our photographer and illustrated by additional images from the shoot, see attached.
Our recruitment and social media teams are run separately from each other and do not share talent information.
Balenciaga will work to better follow up with applicants regarding the status of their submissions going forward.”