The Examination of Fashion's Moral Compass is Long Overdue
“Can you separate the art from the artist?” is a question that's never been asked more than in recent months. Whether it’s watching a movie featuring an alleged sexual assaulter or listening to music made by a person facing criminal charges, many clearly believe that yes, you can separate these two entities. Some people believe it is possible to enjoy works of art without thinking about the moral compass of the individuals responsible for its creation. Never has this been more true than in the fashion industry.
At the end of November, Dolce & Gabbana found itself in seriously hot, but not uncharted, waters when it attempted to pay tribute to China and advertise its upcoming Shanghai show. The resulting tone-deaf video showcased an Asian model struggling to eat a variety of Italian delicacies with chopsticks and was set in what Dolce & Gabbana would call a ‘traditional’ Chinese restaurant. The Chinese community, however, viewed the stereotypical portraiture as completely offensive, and the campaign was taken down from China’s main social media platform, Weibo.
Before an apology came to fruition, private Instagram messages reportedly sent by Stefano Gabbana were leaked. Repeating the exact phrases the 56-year-old used to describe China isn’t necessary, but let’s just say they were inherently racist. A hot minute later and Dolce & Gabbana had sent out a brief apology, claiming that Gabbana’s account had been hacked. (A taped speech from both designers later followed.) This did little to stop Chinese influencers and models pulling out of their multimillion-dollar show on the day, forcing it to be canceled, and nothing to stop several online Chinese retailers removing the brand from their sites.
Those people had been forced to think about their responsibility as fashion lovers. Undoubtedly, A-list attendees at Dolce & Gabbana’s Shanghai extravaganza would have been gifted free clothes and/or accessories. And despite D&G’s previous indiscretions (which include but are not limited to labeling a pair of shoes “slave sandals”, admitting to opposing gay adoption, and calling Selena Gomez “ugly”), these people would have been more than happy to promote the brand to their hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of followers.
But showcasing an alleged racist ideology upended that attitude. It angered one of the luxury climate’s biggest markets and may have signaled the downfall of a dominant brand. If Dolce & Gabbana do lose their footing on the ladder of success, it will mark the first time that the average person has significantly taken control.
After all, there’s a thinking that the luxury shopper’s main priority is sourcing well-made apparel and accessories, no matter the cost. And arguably, it’s true. Dolce & Gabbana’s annual turnover increased by nine percent in 2017, perhaps proving that the people who buy into the brand don’t care about the designers’ personal viewpoints. Or could it be the case that they are simply unaware of such controversies? After all, not everyone gets as caught up in social media storms as ‘woke millennials’.
Even these switched-on consumers occasionally overlook a designer faux pas. Raf Simons and Jeremy Scott have both been criticized for glamorizing drug use; Marc Jacobs, Junya Watanabe and Valentino have faced cultural appropriation accusations; John Galliano went on an anti-Semitic rant that was captured on camera. Yet each of these names are still at the top of their game. So when does a simple statement become something much more sinister? When a designer openly supports a President who fails to acknowledge the plight, or even existence, of certain communities? When a designer uses a racially derogatory term in a personal letter to a friend? When a designer completely denies the #MeToo movement and tells models who have a problem with being inappropriately touched to join a convent?
Kanye West, Ulyana Sergeenko and Karl Lagerfeld have all committed one of these morally contemptible acts and have received varying degrees of clap-back. The latter became the subject of several critical think pieces (but is still undeniably untouchable). West lost considerable support. His once highly prized sneakers now often find themselves at the bottom of the pile, and even a change of heart from the man himself hasn’t greatly altered the hypebeast's opinion. The couture schedule may not have waved goodbye to Sergeenko, but one red carpet stylist has, likely resulting in greatly diminished coverage of her brand.
In a political climate that is working to widen the gap between the marginalized and the privileged, purchasing responsibly is about more than environmental considerations. It has now branched out to include barring people, whose values are the antithesis of your own, from profiting from your hard-earned money. And while you may think you have no power in the rankings of an industry that favors wealth above all else, the above examples prove that you do.
That isn’t to say that certain individuals don’t deserve a second chance. Take Galliano, for example. After being fired from Dior in 2011 for his anti-Semitic outburst, he quietly rehabilitated himself and hasn’t suffered a catastrophic slip-up since. Before his appointment at Margiela, two writers debated whether he should be invited back into the fold for The Guardian. One had the view that a person could not change; the other believed in the ‘second chance’ theory because “the truth is that a morally elevated fashion industry would bore the tailored pants off most people.”
Wrong. People who really understand the role of fashion in modern society will not be ‘bored’ by a designer who embodies goodness or a creative talent who amplifies the voices of those who have been silenced. People know that they have the tools to hurt a brand that consistently does the opposite and that they don’t necessarily have to have a certain financial status in order to do so. People know what’s right and what’s wrong, who’s in and who should be out, and that an eccentric personality doesn’t excuse ignorance.
It’s true that individual voices can get lost in all that content. But collectively, we have the capability to push the fashion industry in the right direction. Dolce & Gabbana’s fall from grace, however temporary, is a testament to that.