5 lessons from fashion’s worst scandals: Dolce & Gabbana's racism, the fall of Victoria’s Secret, and mental illness tragedies

5 lessons from fashion’s worst scandals: Dolce & Gabbana's racism, the fall of Victoria’s Secret, and mental illness tragedies

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Text: Gordon Ng

Editor: Jolene Khor

Fashion's come a long way in the last decade, and although big, bad, and terrible at the time, central to many of the changes we are experiencing today were sparked first by scandals. Not all of them have yielded positive results, for sure, but boy was there a lot to learn from. Here's what we learned from the biggest fashion scandals of the last decade.

Don't be racist

Sounds simple enough, but it still remains baffling how many luxury megabrands — with billions in income and worth — continue to keep saying or doing plainly racist things. It happened most famously with Dolce & Gabbana in their Shanghai show debacle. The gist of the affair was: brand releases an infantilizing video of a Chinese model trying to eat bread with chopsticks, brand gets called out on Instagram for it, Stefano Gabbana responds to critics with bald-faced racist remarks against Chinese people. The multimillion dollar show was canceled, and celebrities and consumers took to social media to boycott the brand, some even burning products they had purchased.

Gabbana claimed his account was hacked, and the two designers released a strange apology video. The brand's sales dipped for a while, but it has recovered since and is doing better than before. The lesson here? While racism is reviled and unacceptable, it remains a fact that powerful European brands in fashion can often get away with it.

It was a bit better, outcome-wise, with Gucci and Prada. Gucci released a black balaclava sweater with exaggerated red lips, and Prada sold black monkey charms with similarly large red lips. The subtext was an offensive rekindling of blackface that evoked the pickaninny illustrations of Sambo. Both brands issued near-immediate apologies and product recalls.

Gucci's controversial "blackface" sweater which the brand apologised for. Said product was just as swiftly pulled from shelves.

Prada set up a diversity council chaired by Theaster Gates and Ava DuVernay to "elevate voices of color within the company and the fashion industry at-large" according to a statement by the Prada Group. Gucci CEO Marco Bizzarri was also quick to respond, accepting accountability and using the scandal to acknowledge the brand's deficiencies as far as diversity was concerned. The brand has since set up initiatives, and even hired Renée Tirado for a newly created 'Head of Diversity and Inclusion' role in the company. It's not a sea change, but it's legitimate action that Dolce & Gabbana would do well to learn from.

Fashion belongs to all genders and bodies

Thanks to a host of queer and feminist voices, fashion has managed to move past an initial stage of corporate trend capitalising and on to engaging issues of gender and sexuality. At the centre of this change is the unfortunate and dramatic decline of Victoria's Secret, which faced massive flak when its then Chief Marketing Officer Edward Razek made transphobic comments attempting to explain why the brand would not cast transgender models. Cue outrage, resignation, and a quick hiring of Valentina Sampaio, a transmodel. The stench of tokenism is, however, strong, and consumers are disillusioned. Many also take issue to the brand's seemingly narrow version of female beauty and body standards.

Months later, Rihanna launched her Savage x Fenty collection of lingerie, designed for and modeled by, people with a range of body types and gender identities. It was pretty much the nail in the coffin for Victoria's Secret, which recently announced that it would not be staging its annual fashion show, citing low viewership and financial woes.

Rihanna's lingerie brand Savage x Fenty is one of the leaders in a new generation of brands that put inclusivity and diversity at the core of its philosophy.

Fashion design is much harder than it seems

When Alber Elbaz was fired gracelessly from Lanvin, it felt like a lesson in corporate mismanagement. After all, what were the brand's owners doing getting rid of the designer who had effectively given the brand new, contemporary life and put it back among the ranks of Paris' marquee heritage brands? When replacements were hired, it soon became apparent how rare a fit such as Elbaz for Lanvin was.

Industry buyers and critics lamented the creative and financial freefall that the house of Lanvin was suffering as it continued to put out dud collections after the firing of Alber Elbaz.

Though talented, couturier Bouchra Jarrar left the company after a year. Designer Olivier Lapidus resigned after just eight months after disastrously-reviewed collections. Then, the company was sold to the Chinese Fosun fashion group, and it is now rebooting itself with trepidation under the hand of Bruno Sialelli. It brought to light the immense difficulty of designing a collection well, of being able to hit both critical and commercial high notes in a fashion city that easily ranks as the most influential in the world. CEOs beware: don't let a good one go.

Critics like Robin Givhan and Cathy Horyn savaged Lanvin during its interim season without a lead designer, as well as the disastrous and short-lived run of Olivier Lapidus at the brand.

Models are saying #metoo

The fashion industry has had a long history of sexual abuse and harrassment, especially towards models — many of whom enter the industry as underaged teenagers without the means to resist powerful photographers. This all came to light when the New York Times' reporter Matthew Schneier broke a story about five male models claiming that famed photographer Bruce Weber sexually exploited them. Mario Testino was soon similarly accused, and allegations against the renowned sexual predator Terry Richardson were finally taken seriously. Richardson has been boycotted from international publications and brands.

Although they've been leveled with serious accusations of sexual exploitation, powerful fashion photographers like Bruce Weber continue to receive support from industry peers — the influential editor Grace Coddington and supermodel Naomi Campbell among Weber's defenders.

It came to a real bear when, in 2018, Russian streetwear designer Gosha Rubchinskiy was accused of soliciting nude photographs from an underaged boy he was allegedly casting over Instagram for a runway show. The brand has since lost its shine as a fashion darling, and the exploitation of models is taken more seriously. Kering group and Condé Nast, for example, have both agreed to guidelines that vow to not use models under the age of 18 and that have outlined standards of working conditions for models that they cast or hire.

Mental health needs to be taken more seriously, and quick

The mental health debate was brought back to light when it was reported that the Dutch designer Josephus Thimister, formerly of Balenciaga, killed himself. Thimister's talent was undeniable, and he was primed for success in the 1980s and 1990s, until the industry was turned on its head by the domination of marketing and product. Haute couture and fashion design, as his generation had been trained in, was falling out of favour. Thimister's career struggled, and he seemed to fall through the cracks.

It happened too with Lee Alexander McQueen, who at the peak of his career, took his own life. McQueen was suffering from depression and anxiety, and was said to have been hit very hard by the death of his mother as well as the immense pressures of being one of the world's leading fashion designers.

Designer Alexander McQueen took his own life in April 2010. He suffered from depression, anxiety, and insomnia prior to his death.

The stresses of the industry are very real, and this was made clear when John Galliano was fired from Dior in 2012 following a very ugly and public anti-Semitic tirade. Galliano was, at the time, a high-functioning addict with substance abuse problems, a condition he ascribed to the untenable pressures of producing nonstop collections for both the house of Dior as well as his eponymous label. Galliano is, thankfully, still around — and has made apologies to the Jewish community, sought rehabilitation and forgiveness, and made amends with the help of a rabbi. The inimitable designer has since moved to Maison Margiela, where the anonymity of the brand no doubt helps provide respite from freneticism and celebrity mania.