Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana

How far is too far?

There is nothing challenging about Dolce & Gabbana’s fashion. It’s beautiful, romantic and sometimes over the top. Or so it seems from perusals of the brand’s windows and photos that I happen upon. (I don’t go to the shows. See below.) But from an aesthetic/conceptual/philosophical viewpoint, challenging norms and pushing boundaries are not part of the brand’s sartorial m.o. With Dolce & Gabbana, the question of how far is too far registers not about the clothes themselves, but in terms of insularity, self-aggrandizement and ego. All of the above have played into the woeful saga of Dolce’s canceled show in Shanghai, a debacle of epic scale — humiliating, farcical, sad.

Upon hearing of the cancelation, my first thought was that Stefano Gabbana’s Instagram account must have been hacked, as per the company line. (Actually, that was my second thought. The first was that this episode couldn’t have happened to more deserving fellows. Not proud of the schadenfreude, but long ago, Dolce & Gabbana espoused a corporate ethos of strong-arming and intimidation, at least in the brand’s dealings with press, with one half of the designing duo spewing venom for years.) The hacking story must be true, I figured. Because while Gabbana is unfiltered in a way that exposes a serious mean streak, he’s not a stupid man. Poop emojis? In reference to a country? The country driving luxury, no less, and that until now has accounted for about 30 percent of the brand’s sales? The middle school-ness of it all defies credulity at least as much as the insult itself.

A few days in, I came around on the hacking excuse. For an adult businessman with a major international profile to put poop cartoons out into cyberspace is ridiculous, yes. But much about the way Domenico Dolce and Gabbana conduct their business is ridiculous. Now, perhaps even they realize it. In their mea culpa video, perched in front of a rococo red brocade wall, they look like sorry-sack, tired-eyed, middle-aged guys bitten in the fanny by the sudden realization of their own lack of savvy. In the language du jour, they lack wokeness. In the language du forever, they’re plain old out of touch. Those chopstick videos should be subtitled, “What were we thinking?”

The reality is that in recent years, the world has changed swiftly and dramatically in terms of what’s deemed acceptable. Wherever one stands on political correctness and its ever-expanding borders, who wouldn’t see as problematic a spoof that depicts a national population confounded by the notion of eating a pizza? The lack of awareness stuns, particularly so because presumably, that video series was not conceived, written, shot and edited by the two designers alone, with no other input. Did no one in their insular circle think to question it? Was the whole event planned with zero input from the brand’s Chinese team whose opinions they might have solicited? If someone did voice reservations, were the objections rejected after careful consideration or shot down immediately as insubordination?

The latter wouldn’t be out of the question. Considering long-term past behavior, one might wonder at the origins of Dolce & Gabbana’s often-beautiful Virgin Mary imagery — an ode to the designing duo’s Sicilian Catholic roots or wannabe family portraiture? Because ample evidence suggests that Gabbana views himself as the Second Coming (although let’s hope when the time comes, the real guy will prove less harsh when sitting in judgment).

That Gabbana is a sledge hammer-wielding baby who can neither take criticism nor consider the possibility that his opinions on any given topic are other than sacrosanct is known far and wide on the editorial side of fashion. He and Dolce can exert fierce pressure for positive coverage. In the case of WWD, they were particularly unrelenting in pushing for the post-show, page-one visual, until we were banned. Yes, banned; shunned; Katy, bar the door. We’re not alone. The list of the unwelcomed also includes, or has included at various times, the New York Times, Italian Vogue, W Magazine and Vanity Fair.

As I recall, we were disinvited when, in reviewing spring 2013, which swung particularly costume-y, my colleague Jessica Iredale delivered a walk-off of which I will be forever envious: “Sicily is an island, not an outfit.” It didn’t sit well. Gabbana later maintained that the real reason for the ban had to do with WWD’s temerity in covering the designers’ tax fraud trial. Never mind that post-trial, one of the Dolce lawyers wrote in a letter to Milan bureau chief Luisa Zargani that she was the only journalist who got the complicated verdict right. Whatever the particulars, a half-decade in, we’re still banned. (Full disclosure: While professionally, the lack of access registers as unfortunate, practically speaking, that Sunday afternoon hole in the Milan schedule makes for a nice little catch-up window in advance of moving on to Paris.)

Were WWD the only blackballed entity, you might chalk it up to an outlier bad-blood situation (hello, Geoffrey Beene). But fold in the others, and you’ve got a trend. As for less systemic behavior, Gabbana has been known to make casual, inappropriate observations about industry figures, sometimes repeating comments made to him that were obviously not intended for press, and is reportedly not adverse to giving someone a piece of his mind at an industry event if he feels it’s warranted. There have been larger-scale, more serious dustups as well. Two biggies: fallout over a 2007 ad widely viewed as depicting gang rape (with all parties spiffily dressed), and the designers’ 2015 stance against gay marriage in which Gabbana called IVF-conceived babies “synthetic children.” Social media has only upped the ante, and Gabbana frequently shares his pique with the world. But to what purpose? Apparently, he just loves taking shots at others. Because there can be no professional benefit in posting opinions such as the word “cheap” about one of Chiara Ferragni’s Dior wedding dresses. Not his bride, not his business. Sure, a lot of people use social media to hurl insults around. But Gabbana is not anonymous, and he’s not speaking only for himself. He shares the helm of a company with a reported 1.3 billion euros in sales. Whether intended as personal commentary or not, everything he posts reflects on that company, and much of it is incredibly mean-spirited.

Which begs the question: What’s with Dolce? Does his silence — until the “sorry” video — indicate tacit agreement? That he’s willfully seceded operational control to Gabbana? That he’s checked out? He is widely thought to be the lead designer, with Gabbana focused more on communication (great job there). Dolce and his family reportedly own a majority share of the company and control the board. If so, they could have put the brakes on Gabbana’s antics years ago, but have chosen not to.

Now the whole thing’s an open, ugly mess. Perhaps that’s why there has been virtually no support for Dolce and Gabbana in this cancelation travesty, no loyalist groundswell emerging to offer that the pizza and cannoli videos, though misguided, were intended not to ridicule, but to endear. Rather, global reaction has been unified in its censure, while anecdotal industry conversation muses on comeuppance. “We haven’t talked about Dolce,” a friend noted at the end of a dinner date. His take: “What goes around comes around.”

Redemption won’t come easily. Why should Chinese consumers forgive and forget? It’s likely that elsewhere around the globe, others will also think twice about that next Dolce purchase, whether out of genuine dismay or so as not to seem on the wrong side of cultural enlightenment. To that end, the brand’s red carpet presence is now in jeopardy. With so many talented designers and beautiful dresses out there, why should a movie star risk the potential fallout of donning Dolce? There, the designers may be in a worse position than Marchesa principals Georgina Chapman and Keren Craig, who maintained ignorance regarding the malfeasance of one of their earliest backers, Chapman’s then-husband Harvey Weinstein. While a few ill-conceived dining videos starring a pretty girl and a pair of chopsticks are a far cry from sexual assault, the degrading racial subtext came directly from the designers.

A cautionary tale, and then some. Every non-hermit should already know that the current cultural climate (as well as basic human decency) demands that businesses proceed judiciously and with the utmost sensitivity when developing projects, particularly those referencing another group’s identity. That sensitivity can manifest in a degree of self-censorship detrimental to creativity is a serious issue with which creatives grapple all the time. While it would be a shame for fear to win out, all creative projects are not equal. There’s a difference between pure art and supposedly cute videos touting a high-profile fashion show. Then there’s the control issue. Time was, the brand directed its ire at industry targets, and the greater Dolce-buying world was none the wiser. Now, the denizens of that world are very much the wiser. They know their clout — both buying power and voice, and that the latter can be marshaled into a movement via social media. Thus, ye hawkers of expensive merch — merch that nobody needs so you have to make them want it — be openly nasty and obnoxious at your own risk. And grown-ups, think before you poop-emoji.

—Contributions from Luisa Zargani

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