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Balenciaga is under fire for allegedly ripping off a student's work

Artist Tra My Nguyen was contacted and then ghosted by the brand after sending her portfolio

Balenciaga is under fire for allegedly ripping off a student's work Artist Tra My Nguyen was contacted and then ghosted by the brand after sending her portfolio

Two days ago, Balenciaga posted on its account a photograph of a motorcycle entirely covered in clothes – a photo worth 54,200 likes. But the brand was immediately accused of plagiarism by Diet Prada and the artist concerned, the Vietnamese Tra My Nguyen, who, just over a year ago, for her Master's project at the University of Berlin had explored the culture of Vietnamese women's biking – a project with a deeply personal element because the artist's mother had sold her bike to afford to move to Germany.

The project consisted of a collage of clothes draped on a motorcycle like a wearable sculpture. A month later, a creative development strategist at Balenciaga contacted Nguyen and asked her about her portfolio twice. But after getting it, the woman disappeared into thin air and Balenciaga never contacted Nguyen again. The matter seemed closed until the same artist saw the post two days ago – identical to her artistic project, only with clothes by Balenciaga. 

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@balenciaga is known to turn out some of the most innovative runway presentations of the last few years and their sculptural silhouettes honor the house’s legacy while expanding upon it. Unfortunately, a lot of this mastery seems lost in translation between departments. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ In June 2019, artist Tra My Nguyen ( @tra.my1 ) , then a student at Berlin University of the Arts, explored Vietnam's female motorbike culture for her master’s project. Drawing inspiration from her own family history wherein her mother sold her bike in order to immigrate to Germany, she collaged and wrapped clothing over motorbikes to create “wearable sculptures.” ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ The next month, a “recruiter” from Balenciaga attended a master’s presentation and requested Nguyen's portfolio. Already in hand, she followed up again in October with a request for photos of her current collection. The Balenciaga creative development strategist, whose position was verified through LinkedIn, told Nguyen they were looking for interns. After sending her portfolio with multiple process images, she never received a reply. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Now, Balenciaga’s Instagram feed shows a near identical image to Nguyen’s sculpture, but wrapped in Balenciaga clothing. Even the backdrop and angle of the photograph is uncannily similar, though the caption made no mention of the inspiration or credit to Nguyen. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ As the creative director of Balenciaga, Demna Gvasalia knows full well the power a luxury brand has to elevate the work of independent creatives. For his inaugural Balenciaga SS17 menswear collection, he tapped British menswear designer Martine Rose to consult. Rose, then a relative outsider who founded her label a decade prior, was encouraged by Gvasalia to publicize their partnership, which elevated her profile and was pivotal in growing her namesake business. But too often, brands choose the easier route of copying, while unwittingly leaving a trail of receipts. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ In Nguyen’s Instagram post, she implored Balenciaga about their post. “What is your inspiration? Why are you even draping garments over a motorbike? What do you want to tell us with this pic!,” she said. “I am not your moodboard!”

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As Diet Prada's own commentary points out, Demna Gvasalia knows well how a heritage luxury brand can be an essential platform for an emerging creative. For his SS17 collection, in fact, Gvasalia asked Martine Rose to collaborate with him and provide a consultation for the show, a partnership that was advertised and that, in hindsight, provided Rose with the perfect platform to build his reputation in the world of fashion design. Similarly, for example, Kim Jones had given enormous visibility to Yoon Ahn and her brand Ambush by hiring her as a jewellery designer of Dior. Balenciaga, however, seems to want to ignore the controversy: not only no statement has been released, but the debated photo is still visible on its account – photos below which in these hours are gathering more and more comments denouncing the appropriation of Nguyen's work. 

To the issue of plagiarism and deception (in the email published by Diet Prada, the recruiter mentioned the possibility of an internship), there is also that of cultural appropriation. Nguyen's original project was linked not only to the artist's family history but to the wider phenomenon of female biking in Vietnam. The artist did not spare herself in denouncing Balenciaga, addressing the brand very harsh words through a long post on Instagram: 

«It’s an artistic process and not a random fashionable aesthetic you can profit on! […] The idea was to deconstruct the emerging street style in Vietnam, dubbed as ‘Street Ninja’. […] the project suggests a strategy for reimagining the female motorist as protagonists, countering their discriminatory experiences. What is your inspiration? Why are you even draping garments over a motorbike? […] I am not your moodboard!».