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 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.”
Balenciaga has not yet responded to CNN’s request for comment.
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.
Process shots from Nguyen’s master’s project show motorbikes draped in garments. Below, Balenciaga’s contested Instagram post shows a motorbike being wrapped in the label’s clothing. Credit: Tra My Nguyen
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.
Berlin-based DJ Kanucia models clothes by Nguyen Credit: Melanie Glück
With designs that draw on pop culture and elevate everyday imagery into status symbols, Balenciaga has attracted criticism of appropriation in the past.
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.”
“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.