I find myself on the ‘Discover’ page of Snapchat, reading articles from Cosmopolitan about how being a Leo will affect my Thursday morning or which type of melon I am (cantaloupe, if you were wondering). Every so often, a headline from The Daily Mail will boast an ‘exclusive’ article like “DOES KIM KARDASHIAN HAVE SIX TOES? FANS DEMAND ANSWERS!!”
It seems as though recently, we have become better at calling out celebrities for their wrongdoings. In other words, we “DEMAND ANSWERS!!” for a small crime such as an extra pinky toe or an eerily warped abdominal muscle. When a celebrity has done something seemingly unforgivable – often discriminatory – we “cancel” them. To be technical, the severity of the ‘crime’ is directly correlated to the rate at which their follower count drops.
Due to this renewed sense of accountability that has arisen with the Internet, I have learnt a lot too. This sense of accountability has been imposed on the fashion world as well as on celebrities. I am a little disgusted that I ever bought anything from Victoria’s Secret, and I am also genuinely more aware of the many impacts of fast fashion. The rise of social media has contributed largely to this distribution of knowledge. @diet_prada on Instagram is one of the most dedicated accounts to ‘calling out’ brands, with an influential 1.5 million followers. If you follow them (I would highly recommend) you will be no stranger to collages of ridiculously similar silk shift dresses, other fashion scandals, creepy photographers, and dodgy comments.
You’re probably wondering where Dolce and Gabbana (D&G) fits into all of this. It may not come as a shock that this article focuses on their problematic incidents. However, it is more likely that the multitude and nature of these incidents - racist, homophobic, fatphobic, sexist, anti-IVF (anti-In Vetro Fertilization) - will surprise you.
Interestingly, the majority of my friends simply shrugged when I asked them about their thoughts on D&G. “I don’t really have any,” was a common answer. A couple others commented on their use of prints, or the numerous celebrities that they’d seen draped in D&G on the red carpet. Only one of my friends was aware of the scandals: in a short text she typed “Stefano’s comments are disgusting and have no place in the world of fashion.” I was curious - why do a large number of people in Western culture know nothing about this?
Before addressing the scandals, it is important to understand a little bit about the brand. D&G is a luxury fashion house founded in 1985 by Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana in Legnano, Italy. Along with clothing, they also sell sunglasses, perfumes, cosmetics, footwear, watches and jewellery. Both Dolce and Gabbana are known for their simultaneously seductive and traditional styles, selling the wealthy consumer a suggestive Sicilian dream. D&G has several signatures: leopard print, tailoring, lingerie, and flowers. Elaborate embroidery often lies among black lace and more flowers. Recently, their Spring 2020 Ready to Wear show was titled “The Sicilian Jungle”, and it is pretty obvious why: larger than life palm trees lined the runway while beautiful models strutted down on a leopard print carpet.
For over a decade, Dolce and Gabbana have been under pretty consistent fire. They have managed to extinguish every flame (even the one that sentenced them both to one year and eight months in jail) – and even the ones that seemed close to burning down the very foundations of the fashion house.
It started in January 2007, with one of their adverts showing models brandishing knives. Normal protocol followed, with a warning from the authorities and the subsequent pulling of adverts. But only a month later, D&G produced one of the “most controversial advertisements in fashion history,'' as declared by Debonair Magazine. The image depicts a topless man – wearing D&G, of course – pinning down a woman by her wrists, while a group of oiled up and eerily similar looking men watch with chiselled intent.
This advert was released just days after Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana referred to IVF babies as ‘synthetic’. In response, America’s Next Top Model judge Kelly Cutrone tweeted “I GUESS SIMULATING GANG BANGS ARE FINE - BUT IVF AND SAME SEX MARRIAGE ARE NOT - LIFE ACCORDING TO @dolcegabbana”.
It is no secret that fashion is a fast-paced, consumer-based industry where profit lies in people’s reactions to marketing. Techniques like shock advertising, through sex appeal and controversial topics, are regularly and effectively used. And controversy draws attention: something perfectly demonstrated by President Donald Trump’s Twitter account. The simple fact is that attention in the fashion industry is pretty easy to capitalise on. However, it is hard to know where to start when looking at this picture; it brings up problems bigger than the billboards it was displayed on. Not only does it suggest that men who wear D&G will be able to bend females to their will – quite literally – through male dominance, but also reinforces the toxic stereotype of inferior and weak women. Spain’s Labour and Social Affairs Ministry commented on the striking fact that “the woman’s unnatural body position had zero relation to the products that D&G were attempting to sell”. This advert did result in protests and boycotts around the world, but, 12 years later, for many people it’s an “oh yeah, I kinda maybe remember that” moment.
The real problem arguably lies in the aftermath of such controversies. A quick google of the net worth of Dolce and Gabbana (combined $3bn) makes it pretty clear that right now D&G is thriving rather than surviving and it is not because they meekly apologised and learnt from their wrongdoings. For starters, Stefano Gabbana defended the advert, saying that the image is “artistic” and meant to “recall an erotic dream, a sexual game”. Is this image supposed to be a fantasy? Showing exactly what men in this society desire? When questioned about it being pulled in Spain, he simply responded “Spaniards are a bit backward” – suggesting that any forward-thinking individual should fail to see anything other than artistic genius in that image. Even if you are familiar with the more recent (less than a year old) D&G scandal where in an overtly racist advert an Asian women helplessly attempts to eat pizza, spaghetti and cannoli with chopsticks, you may not recall how just 17 days later, they delivered their Alta Moda show in Milan to a round of rich applause: complete, of course, with an extravagant wall of flowers.
Let us not forget that the weird and wonderful world of fashion would not exist if people did not talk about it. As well as changing our personal perspectives, it is important that journalists are equally critical, holding those guilty accountable. In response to the Chinese advert that resulted in boycotts and protests all over China, Suzy Menkes in Vogue said the marketing campaign was “branded racist, where I would see it as insensitive and stupid.” Cue facepalm. Suzy seems to have forgotten that the narrative of journalists, stylists and editors often constitute a large part of any designer’s legacy. Not to mention the implications that smoothing over this advert has on perpetuating harmful racist and stereotypical views of Chinese culture.
So, what do we need to do?
Firstly, we need a larger response from people in positions of influence and power. If they do not manage to change our perceptions, they should at least educate us so we have no opportunity to be ignorant. Kim Kardashian, who has had two children herself through surrogates, is seen on her Instagram story after Gabbana’s controversial anti-IVF statement unboxing a giant D&G delivery. An excited, oblivious North West jumps up and down in the background. If Kim was not aware of the impact of endorsing such a brand before, she definitely was after – yet she stayed silent.
On the other side is Antoni Porowski, a star in ‘Queer Eye’. He was sponsored by D&G, and posted a series of stories on his Instagram head to toe in the brand, oblivious to the controversies surrounding such an endorsement. After meeting fierce backlash, especially due to the homophobic nature of some of D&G’s comments and his own sexual orientation, he stated: “With public collaborations come social responsibility… larger conversations and rigorous vetting needs to take place before aligning with certain brands.” By taking accountability, his apology is proof that we can make mistakes but also learn from them: increasing awareness to prevent others from doing the same.
Secondly, we need to recognise the impact that marketing has on us. Short attention spans are more than common in today’s world, but are also irrelevant when dealing with racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. Western cultures need to take advice from Eastern cultures. After this racist advert with a Chinese woman, Chinese e-tailers have made steps to eradicate any selling of Dolce & Gabbana products. Additionally, this graph below shows that D&G monthly Weibo (a Chinese microblogging website) engagement has plummeted since the incident. Companies should not be able to release a controversial campaign and only worry about how long the backlash will last before they turn over a profit.
Lastly, we need to make a larger effort to connect the company’s deeply problematic status with that baby blue skirt that calls our name through the store window. Often, we think - what difference can one person make? The individual’s influence in a larger problematic situation is often underestimated.
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Author: Eden Bray (@eden.bray)
Editor: Alessandra Aguirre (@ale.ssand.ra)