Dolce & Gabbana haven’t played nice for a while. So when the brand released an undeniably racist video advertisement on November 17 in anticipation of a runway spectacle scheduled to take place in Shanghai on November 21, there was speculation on Weibo that the designers had intended to offend their audience, and perhaps the rest of the world. How could you be so ignorant that you couldn’t understand the insensitivity of showing a Chinese model in a sequin Dolce dress, struggling to eat a cannolo with a pair of chopsticks, as a narrator intones, “Is it too huge for you?”
When an Instagram user posed just that question, Stefano Gabbana slid into his DMs and issued a grotesque defense, writing, among many other things, “China Ignorant Dirty Smelling Mafia.” The following day, the brand claimed the designer and the official Dolce & Gabbana account were hacked; as I pointed out on Twitter, that seems not merely suspicious, but actually impossible, given that Gabbana’s account continued its typical robust posting schedule during the hours he claims it was compromised. The scandal made it all the way to the Chinese government, whose Cultural and Tourism Department ordered that the show be called off. The brand didn’t apologize for two more days, finally releasing a video on November 23 that looked like an Italian Baroque hostage video, its cheap production value clashing with a garish red tapestry.
Dolce & Gabbana is known for its camp celebration of Italian culture, and runways jammed with models whose parents are movie stars. For the past few years, inflammatory and insensitive behavior has also become on-brand for the luxury label started by Domenico Dolce and Steffano Gabbana in 1985. Even more troubling, this behavior is usually followed by a meek apology and a return to business as usual. (Read our full timeline of the Dolce & Gabbana situation for their controversy-ridden history.)
Other industries have pushed out writers, musicians, visual artists, and others who express or reveal insensitivities, racism, sexism, transphobia, or otherwise deplorable points of view. But Dolce & Gabbana have been insensitive, racist, and sexist for years now—and the industry continues to cover their shows, and their business appears to be better than ever. After all, Dolce & Gabbana is still available on e-commerce sites outside of China. Have we really #cancelled Dolce & Gabbana? Can we ever? Or does this crisis underscore the limits of #cancel culture?
This past February, the Business of Fashion’s Lauren Sherman wrote that Dolce & Gabbana’s habit of picking fights and inciting social media outrage may actually drive their sales, with total revenues reaching over €1.1 billion ($1.2 billion USD) in the fiscal year ending in March 2017, up from €1 billion the previous year (hence Weibo’s suspicions). “The brand is absolutely gaining traction,” a luxury goods analyst told Sherman. “They manage to deliver collections that are iconic but still feel new, tapping into the desires of the consumer.” This past May, the Washington Post’s Robin Givhan profiled the designers with a similar angle, writing, “They evoke rage and fury on social media. Then they douse the flames with some of the most breathtaking fashion imaginable.”
For the past week, western outlets including Diet Prada, the Business of Fashion, Jing Daily, the Financial Times, and the New York Times have been chronicling the the scandal, focusing on the impact the video, Gabbana’s Instagram comments, and the cancelled show will have on the Chinese market. Chinese e-commerce sites have mostly stopped carrying the brand, with a spokesperson for Secoo Holding telling the Financial Times that “this is a racism issue . . . Secoo cannot co-operate with such a company without integrity and morality.”
The Western e-commerce behemoth Yoox-Net-a-Porter pulled all the brand’s products from its Chinese site, a person briefed on the decision told the FT. Several Chinese influencers have posted videos of themselves cutting, burning, or otherwise destroying Dolce & Gabbana goods. “It’s too soon to gauge the long-term implications of the label’s blunder” in China, BoF wrote on Friday, “but it’s safe to say that the short-term sales impact could be significant.” The site further advocated that brands listen to their local offices, rather than dictate marketing and publicity strategies from European headquarters that might not be attuned to the cultures of markets outside their own. A moment of greater cultural awareness in the luxury market is perhaps finally on the horizon.
But what about the impact on the west? Condemnations of the brand have flooded Twitter and Instagram—particularly Diet Prada, who first posted the video with English translations. On Thursday night, the day after the show was canceled, Melania Trump wore one of her old Dolce dresses to Thanksgiving dinner, bringing a new wave of outrage. Is she “trolling” us once again? Or is she simply unaware? What is really the fallout when a brand is, for all intents and purposes, #cancelled?
The energy around the condemnation of the brand was almost gleeful. Diet Prada has done significant and important work calling out designers for copying predecessors or lesser known designers, as well as raising awareness around fashion’s lamentable obsession with cultural appropriation. It chronicled the scandal with an almost perverse delight—you can see their coverage under their story #DGTheShitShow—and condemned coverage by other outlets that did not mention their part in bringing the issue to the attention of western media. Diet Prada’s bitchy, take-you-to-task attitude has been part of secret to its rise: it criticizes a Devil Wears Prada world not by questioning its tone and values, but by criticizing those who do not meet its standards. It’s not Andie’s boyfriend telling her the fashion world is shallow; it’s Stanley Tucci telling you, “Wake up, 6!” Its bread and butter is giving cerulean belt-style lectures.
The recent crisis at Victoria’s Secret was met with a similar attitude, not merely at Diet Prada but across the internet. “How dare you?” it asks. How dare you, indeed—but what else? Diet Prada notably hasn’t called on American stores or American consumers to boycott Dolce & Gabbana—and I don’t expect them to. Over the weekend, they posted stories from a Valentino show in Tokyo that suggested they were there as guests of the brand. I, too, have gone on sponsored brand trips, such as a recent trip to Russia paid for by Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week. But I’m also not an “industry watchdog.” What kind of change does this activism seek?
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Let’s return to Victoria’s Secret and their senior leadership’s transphobic and misogynist words. Victoria’s Secret is notoriously an incredibly lame, bro-culture fantasy in which a very narrow kind of female body is treated as human capital—and that’s been clear for years. But runway inclusivity is a problem across the industry: I struggle to think of examples in which models who don’t fit into the narrow high fashion ideal are cast in a way that feels like something beyond tokenism. Eckhaus Latta and Gypsy Sport come to mind, suggesting that we’re getting there, but we aren’t there yet.
That is to say: the fashion industry is rife with these kinds of judgments, this kind of ignorance. And so we—and by that, I mean people in the industry and those who follow and care about it—can only criticize something when it’s safe. When it’s both undeniably wrong, and when a critical mass of people, usually on Twitter or Instagram, have spoken up against it. We may have #cancelled Ulyana Sargeenko last January, for example, but what was there for us to lose? There was no denying that what she said and did were wrong. Safe opportunities for criticism come so rarely in fashion, that when they arrive—like Dolce & Gabbana, or Victoria’s Secret, or even the hysterics over the changes at Celine—it can feel like relief.
When fashion fanatics unleash vitriol against Dolce & Gabbana online, that vitriol carries the weight of a hundred other rejections, misdeeds, and pain that can’t be vocalized because of the reality Diet Prada recognizes: at the end of the day, every part of the fashion industry is still tethered to a need for institutional respect. Does #cancel culture ask for structural change to those institutions, or is it asking for the structure as it exists to accept it? (It almost goes without saying that this is also tied to advertising and paid sponsorships, which now take many forms, including the kind of trip Diet Prada is currently on. GARAGE, for our part, has decided to discontinue any business discussions with Dolce & Gabbana for the foreseeable future.)
This past week, I kept returning to Sherman and Givhan’s words of wisdom about Dolce & Gabbana as I struggled to measure my outrage and what this crisis would mean for the industry. Is it all just an act? Is it just a stupid business strategy?
Melania’s Dolce Thanksgiving look suggests she, like many of Dolce’s customers, simply do not know. It underscores the pain of this situation, and a troubling truth about fashion’s #cancel culture: when a luxury brand screws up, the harm it does is not to the people who are asked to buy the clothes, but the masses asked to buy into the dream. These are often young, smart, politically and socially engaged people, who are often queer, or non-white—the kinds of people who may have grown up feeling like outsiders. The kinds of people who have long found find solace in the fantasy of the fashion world and, more recently, in its marvelous opportunities for identity exploration. The sales growth at Dolce likely has no relationship to their bad behavior: the brand’s main product is clothing that flawlessly captures the imagination of the one percent. Outrage and ignorance are its diffusion line for the rest of the world.
Melania, as her jacket infamously told us, doesn’t really care. Because to care, you have to be paying attention in the first place.
This article originally appeared on GARAGE.