When “sorry” isn’t enough: Have Dolce and Gabbana joined the list of power players who became toxic to their own brands?
Surely, you've heard of Dolce & Gabbana's China debacle by now. Despite an apology posted on the brand's official Instagram account (after it had tried to pass off Stefano Gabbana's racist messages as the work of hackers), the fallout from their 'D&G Loves China' campaign intensifies. Several Chinese retailers have dropped the brand from their e-commerce platforms and pulled it off their sales floors. Net-a-Porter, the first international name to take a position on the issue, has removed all of Dolce & Gabbana's products from its site. It remains to be seen if others will follow suit; as of 2pm on 23 November, Dolce & Gabbana remains shoppable on other webstores like Yoox — which is, oddly, Net-a-Porter's parent company — MyTheresa, Farfetch, and Matches Fashion.
"But is this enough?" many ask. 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. And 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 dramatic prognostications on the future of Dolce & Gabbana (the company) notwithstanding, there is a high likelihood that the brand will survive, if only because crippling it would punish hundreds of innocent employees more than it would Domenico Dolce or Stefano Gabbana. Make no mistake: the unraveling of D&G's The Great Show marks a turning point in the power struggle between endlessly manoeuvring PR departments and their increasingly cynical audience.
"Unlikely..." the jaded fashionistas reading protest. True, there is no denying that fashion and culture as a whole have 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. Maybe all that is changing, as people grow fatigued by companies and tastemakers who flirt with and monetize progressive ideals, but don't do anything meaningful with them. This would constitute major growth in the social conscience of the general public.
Before that takes place, the manner in which incidents like #DGTheGreatShow are discussed 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 China-centric fallout of Stefano Gabbana's toxic behaviour can feel a little disappointing. Indignation at the sins of fashion's elite should no longer be contained within a localised bubble. The underrepresentation and frequent pigeonholing models of African descent are subjected to, for example, should matter as much in Tokyo — where people of non-East Asian ancestry make up less than 0.6% of the populace — as in Tallahassee. 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, whether or not you are directly affected.
That is a lesson that the fashion world needs to learn, and quickly.