So much for moral posturing and cultural sensitivity.
Dolce & Gabbana, the Italian brand that was, for a brief moment at the end of last year, a poster child for cultural ignorance and the comeuppance that can ensue; that was held up as an example of how a fashion brand can so profoundly mess up that repercussions are felt throughout the world; and that was variously seen as having a reputation “in rags” (Forbes) and being in the midst of a “downfall” (Hypebeast), is quietly, but publicly, on its way back. If not necessarily in China, the front line of its transgressions, then in the rest of the world. And not just because of its men’s wear show in Milan on Saturday.
Though conspicuously absent from red carpets at the Golden Globes and Oscars earlier this year, in April things began to change. That month, Emilia Clarke wore a Dolce & Gabbana red corset and tulle dress to the Time 100 gala. A few weeks later, Glenda Jackson wore a Dolce white trouser suit to the Met Gala.
Then, this month, Kacey Musgraves wore Dolce rose-print trousers and a matching bustier to perform at the Governors Ball, Will Smith wore Dolce to an “Aladdin” premiere, and Melania Trump (a longtime Dolce fan) wore custom Dolce to meet the queen during President Trump’s state visit to Britain.
And, on Sunday evening, four Tony Award attendees, including James Corden, the host; Gideon Glick, a nominee; Michael Shannon, a presenter; and Kate Arrington, Mr. Shannon’s date, all wore Dolce.
Outrage, apparently, lasts only so long when looking good and consumer desire are involved.
Especially since celebrities are not the only ones who seem to have moved on (though with the celebrity embrace comes implicit permission for others). According to Lyst, the global fashion search platform, Dolce & Gabbana moved back into the top 20 most-searched brands in the first quarter of 2019, after disappearing in late 2018, and ranks 15th overall, thanks to our yen for floral dresses, T-shirts, printed swimwear and men’s sneakers.
Even Kim Kardashian West, who in January deleted an Instagram post of herself in Dolce after fan backlash, put a new photo on her feed, to great enthusiasm. In this one she is wearing a white Dolce bodysuit and crystal bikini.
For those who don’t remember, here’s a brief recap of why this matters.
The Crisis and Its Repercussions
In November last year, Dolce & Gabbana was planning a mega-show in Shanghai, following in the footsteps of Valentino and Chanel in bringing a live catwalk directly to one of its biggest consumer groups.
It had more than 300 models and celebrities set to walk for 1,500 invitees at a reported cost of about $25 million. To generate excitement in the run-up to the show, the company released a series of videos on Instagram and YouTube featuring a young Chinese woman trying to eat a cannoli with chopsticks.
Asian viewers took offense at what they considered racial stereotyping. Then Stefano Gabbana, who, with Domenico Dolce, founded and designs the label, took offense in return.
There was name calling and insult trading on social media and claims (not believed) of hacking. Influencers and celebrities started canceling their participation; the international community moved to distance itself; and the whole shebang was finally called off amid news of Chinese consumers posting videos of themselves burning their Dolces.
Retailers like Lane Crawford dropped the brand; Yoox Net-a-Porter and other e-tailers removed its products from their websites. The designers officially apologized a few days later, but they were isolated and unsupported by an alienated Italian fashion establishment, and it was unclear if they could recover.
Not anymore. Now the episode is starting to look like another fashion fall-and-redemption narrative. Or more precisely, fall-and-return. Because the redemption part of this story is not exactly clear. And that has implications when it comes to call-out culture, and the ability (or willingness) of consumers and influencers to hold brands to account over time.
Blowing Up and Blowing Over
Katy Lubin, the vice president for communications for Lyst, said in an email: “While it seems like fashion customers are certainly becoming more woke and more vocal on their social channels, the data suggests they’re not necessarily following through when it comes to their purchasing decisions.”
Indeed, while Lane Crawford still does not officially stock Dolce & Gabbana, Andrew Keith, the chief executive, said: “We have had our personal shopping and styling teams working directly with customers on personal preorder appointments. So far there is limited interest.” The store is monitoring the reactions, and though “the initial impact and scale of response is still fresh in the collective memory,” Mr. Keith said, he added that he believed “Chinese customers will inevitably come back to the brand.”
Robert Burke, the founder of the Robert Burke Associates consultancy, said: “The fashion world as a whole has a short memory span. It lasts about the amount of time from one show to the next.” (That’s around five months, which is in fact about how much time has passed between the Dolce China crash and today.)
Then he pointed out that fashion loves a comeback story and noted that John Galliano, who was ignominiously fired from Christian Dior after reports of a drug-and-alcohol-fueled anti-Semitic rant in a Paris bar, is currently the much celebrated creative director of Maison Margiela.
“After what he did, people said Galliano will never dress anyone ever again,” Mr. Burke said, pointing out the mistaken assumption.
This is especially true if the crisis itself takes place in a geography once removed (even if it happens to a global brand), but it is also true that Mr. Galliano wore his hair shirt of penitence and rehab numerous times in the public sphere.
And brands that experienced their own accusations of ignorance and racism after Dolce, like Gucci and Prada, not only apologized immediately, but also followed up by creating diversity and inclusion councils and touting them loudly to the world. Gucci has since gone even further, with scholarships, education and other initiatives.
Dolce, on the other hand, issued one consumer-facing “sorry.” Mr. Gabbana suspended his Instagram account, and the company sent its management on what one stakeholder called a “re-assurement” tour for key local partners, landlords and media. Mostly, however, they stayed quiet, and now the whole thing seems to have slipped into the fog of history.
Return vs. Redemption
Which suggests that, for those who were looking to this as a seminal moment in the life of a brand, or a time when consumers rose up and drove change in corporate behavior, this is actually a teachable moment of a different kind. That there’s momentum to crying “bad!” and less incentive to take responsibility for checking in on what happens next. That the takeaway may be that while all the upset and outcry on social media is scary, for a moment at least, distraction comes just as fast — in fashion as in politics. That issues, as Mr. Burke said, “can blow up and blow over just as quickly.”
Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue and artistic director of Condé Nast, who was instrumental in the rehabilitation of Mr. Galliano and also that of Georgina Chapman, the ex-wife of Harvey Weinstein, whose Marchesa brand was one of the casualties of his alleged sexual assaults, emailed: “Fashion, like every aspect of our lives today, requires honest and ongoing conversation and reflection. I am sure Domenico and Stefano regret what happened last year and I would hope that they have grown and learned from it.”
Yet when Ms. Chapman and Marchesa began to re-emerge, it did not happen with impunity. It spurred discussion and musing over second chances and who was culpable for what and who was responsible for what in return in the wider sphere. Ditto Mr. Galliano.
It may be that Dolce & Gabbana has finally learned its lessons. It may be that all of the celebrities and armchair shoppers who are glorying in the designers’ florals and laces have privately interrogated their own superegos and decided wearing the label was the right thing to do. And the jury is still out in China.
But shouldn’t the rest of us at least have the conversation, now as then, before we put on the clothes?