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Dolce & Gabbana: Has Stefano Gabbana's racism been forgiven too quickly by the fashion world?

Dolce & Gabbana: Has Stefano Gabbana's racism been forgiven too quickly by the fashion world?

Back from the brink

Text: Ryan Sng


Dolce & Gabbana's China incident from November of last year (catch up here in case you missed it) was a PR disaster of epic proportions. Yet, despite countless denunications and — admittedly temporary — withdrawals of support from key retailers and press outlets, it seems that D&G is now back and stronger than ever.

In June, the New York Times's Vanessa Friedman published an op-ed titled The Resurrection of Dolce & Gabbana, in which she interrogated the unusually quick comeback of the brand and, by extension, the short memories and malleable consciences of the fashion set. July's Alta Moda showing from the Italian duo was warmly reviewed by international outlets including Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, and the South China Morning Post.

We've seen countless similar situations play out in the past, with hollow-sounding apologies from the disgraced paving the way for a quick-ish restoration of the status quo. This issue is far from limited to the rag trade, as evidenced by sexual harasser Louis CK's speedy return to the comedy circuit, and Mel Gibson's double win at the 2016 Oscars for Hacksaw Ridge.

Over the last few years, however, lasting consequences for fashion's offenders have become reality. Shortly after each of their controversies, American Apparel's Dov Charney, Lululemon's Chip Wilson, and Buro.'s own Miroslava Duma exited the companies they founded and, for better or worse, played key roles in defining. The cult of charisma doesn't appear to hold as much sway in the 2010s as it once did, and even well-connected linchpins can be — and are — held accountable by the social media masses.

The unraveling of D&G's The Great Show should have been a turning point in the power struggle between endlessly manoeuvring PR departments and their increasingly cynical audience. But less than a year later, the debacle's predicted long-term consequences for Dolce & Gabbana the brand have not materialised. To those of us who hope and fight for a more inclusive, conscientious fashion industry, this is, unsurprisingly, a disappointing outcome.

There is no denying that culture as a whole has been guilty of performative activism. Influential figures loudly and regularly declare their wokeness, but demonstrate shockingly little follow-through in their outlook and lifestyle choices. Major companies and tastemakers, in particular, flirt with and monetize progressive ideals while failing to do anything meaningful with them. It is time to say "enough". The way in which we deal with social conscience and prejudice in fashion needs to change.

Reportage, particularly from fashion business observers, tends to speak of minorities or people who don't fit the traditional image of the western luxury client in a reductive way. East Asian, South Asian, black, Muslim, non-binary, transgender, special needs, and non-size zero models have all at some point been reported on as trends.

Non-white consumers are usually depicted as cash cows, their spending habits deconstructed and dispassionately analysed in the tones of a factory farmer discussing their livestock. Interest seldom rests in the humanity of the subjects, but in the perceived cultural and economic cachet of their identity category.

The root of the problem is the flattening of living, breathing human beings into statistics and crudely-drawn lists of stereotypical behaviours. Case in point: it may get mentioned in every article concerning cultural appropriation, but US fashion's abuse of Native American traditional costumes has historically borne fewer repercussions than the identical practice with black people's hair texture and subcultural fashion.

Why, you ask? I have a hypothesis: Native Americans currently account for less than 2% of the country's population, while African Americans account for at least 10%. To the offenders, the risks of incurring Native American's outrage (and very real emotional pain) probably weigh less than that of more sizeable — and thus more economically consequential — groups.

What happens then, for example, when the enticing economies of China and India wane? Or when mainstream culture's LGBTQ+ 'moment' passes? The populations of those countries and LGBTQ+ folk aren't going away. Neither are their concerns, aspirations and sensitivities, nor should they suddenly matter less. This truth holds for all other demographics, whatever their size or average disposable income, as the human right to dignity — of which freedom from invalidation and the burden of self-justification are indispensable pillars — is universal.

In light of this, the short-lived fallout of Stefano Gabbana's toxic behaviour is an damning indictment of the fashion industry, whether or not individuals within it were direct targets of his vitriolic racism. Because when powerful companies and institutions make irresponsible statements, or take actions that dehumanise entire groups of people, it is our collective humanity that is under assault.

That is a lesson that the fashion world needs to learn, and quickly.

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