Not since John Galliano's caught-on-tape antisemitic rant went viral in 2011 had fashion seen such an incredible implosion on the part of a designer.
In 2018, ahead of a blowout fashion show intended to woo its Chinese clientele, Dolce & Gabbana released a series of racially insensitive videos featuring a Chinese model attempting to eat Italian foods with chopsticks. The campaign was perceived as racist and arrogant, and the backlash on social was swift, prompting the brand to delete the series from its Weibo account. The model, Zuo Ye, has since claimed that the videos nearly ended her career.
Things went from bad to worse when the Instagram account belonging to Stefano Gabbana began responding to critics via DMs, insulting both China and the Chinese people. These messages were then screenshot and sent to industry watchdog account Diet Prada, which posted them in full. Dolce & Gabbana claimed the designer's Instagram account had been hacked; the brand released an apology video. But it was too late: Dolce & Gabbana was forced to cancel the fashion show at the last minute. Retailers in the Asian market pulled the brand's products from shelves, and the luxury fashion house faced protests worldwide.
"The #DGLovesChina campaign caused an uproar for instilling racial stereotypes, but I believe the Instagram screenshots that were suspected to belong to Stefano Gabbana did more harm," explains freelance journalist Yaling Jiang, who has covered the brand for outlets like Jing Daily. "Since late 2018, other fashion brands have also had their regrettable moments, but none of the missteps has such long-lasting effects. This might be that the tainted public image is closely associated with the designer and his brand. Even until this day, many netizens still refer to D&G as 'the brand that insults China.'"
Dolce & Gabbana was already known to court controversy before #DGLovesChina. Domenico Dolce raised eyebrows in 2015 with his comments about IVF that sparked a call for boycott started by none other than Elton John. (Dolce has since apologized, blaming his strict Catholic upbringing and telling Vogue in 2015, "I've done some soul-searching. I've talked to Stefano a lot about this. I've realized that my words were inappropriate, and I apologize. They are just kids.") As a brand, Dolce & Gabbana previously made missteps with racist products like "slave sandals" or Blackamoor earrings. And after former First Lady Melania Trump wore some of its pieces in 2017 — reportedly purchasing off-the-rack, though that didn't stop Gabbana from promoting the appearances on Instagram — it responded to calls for another boycott with its own tongue-in-cheek #BoycottDolce&Gabbana T-shirt, complete with a campaign centered around a fake protest. Gabbana was no stranger to making headlines for his antics on social media, either.
In many ways, the two are the last of their kind: They came up in a time where the more bombastic and headline-grabbing the designer, the better. All press was good press for peers like Galliano, Marc Jacobs and Alexander McQueen, so-called "bad boys" of fashion following in the footsteps of the industry's most prolific and iconic creative director, Karl Lagerfeld, who practically invented giving the controversial sound bite. But the industry has changed dramatically over the course of the last decade, and many of those designers have retired, reeled in their bad-boy ways or flamed out.
"I think because exclusivity has been honored as the God of fashion, there are people who have been allowed to act that way. Snobbery is rewarded in this industry," says Mory Fontanez, a "purpose coach" who's the founder and CEO of 822 Group, a values-based transformation consultancy that works with brands to help navigate crises. "And if we look at that [snobbery] in a more awakened way, then I'm sure that we'll see that there's been racism, there's been antisemitism, there's been anti-LGBTQ sentiment even. The industry has to decide how much [exclusivity] matters and how valued that is now that the trajectory is turning, and unfortunately some of these brands are stuck in a moment in time that's changing pretty rapidly."
These changes aren't coming from the top-down, either: They're being driven by a consumer base which increasingly takes to social media to demand transparency on issues ranging from product sustainability and ethical workplace conditions to social justice issues and internal company culture.
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In the very same month as the #DGLovesChina incident, Victoria's Secret faced its own "cancelation" after then-CMO Ed Razek made transphobic and fatphobic comments in an interview; the brand continues to struggle forward, but Razek ultimately retired in 2019, and in 2020, former CEO Les Wexner was forced to step down after it was revealed he had ties to convicted sex offender Jeffery Epstein. In recent years, fellow Italian brands Prada and Gucci have, like Dolce & Gabbana, faced backlash for racist products (a monkey keychain and a "blackface" sweater, respectively), but responded with much stronger measures, launching both internal and external programs aiming to address diversity and inclusion.
In the aftermath of #DGLovesChina, Dolce & Gabbana moved to catch up with the moment. Gabbana permanently deleted his personal Instagram account and the brand took great pains to stay largely under the radar for nearly a year. The two largest pieces of press about Dolce & Gabbana in 2019 involved the brand extending its sizing to an Italian 54 (approximately a U.S. 18, which is an impressively large range in the luxury space, where most competitors stop around a U.S. 10) and an interview with both designers for Vogue Business in which the duo shared they had laid out plans for the company to continue after they retire (a departure from their long-held stance that it should not outlive them).
Since then, both the brand and the designers began to shift more attention to the artisans who help bring their creations to life, emphasizing that Dolce & Gabbana is about more than just its namesakes. The Fall 2019 runway — the first ready-to-wear show following #DGLovesChina — opened with a video of the duo in their atelier and focused on the house's signature design elements. The following February, it centered its runway presentation around its petites mains, highlighting the skillset of the team that makes Dolce & Gabbana happen behind-the-scenes.
Similarly, when telling the story of Alta Moda — Dolce & Gabbana's take on haute couture which has been not only crucial to maintaining valuable relationships with private clients, but also a way to support Italian artisans — the brand has put a greater spotlight on the makers they partner with to create those collections. A feature in the December/January 2021 issue of Elle highlighted its most recent Alta Moda debut, for which the brand took over the city of Florence for a multi-day affair. According to the piece, 38 Florentine workshops collaborated with the designers on the collection, encompassing everything from womenswear to jewelry. The mayor even dedicated the keys of the city to Dolce & Gabbana muse Monica Bellucci.
"Some people think that if you are positive, you are stupid. No! We have to have the integrity to react, to recount history, to recount the talent of the artisan workshops," Dolce told writer Laura Rysman of the importance of the extravagant weekend. "We need to try to encourage life. For the system, for the Italians, for fashion, for beauty. Beauty is like medicine for the world."
"Craftsmanship is not trendy, and it is not cool. It's not fashion. It's forever," Gabbana added.
The most recent Alta Moda womenswear collection was also the first to be made completely in Dolce & Gabbana's own ateliers, with workers who came up through Botteghe di Mestiere, a professional training course Dolce and Gabbana founded within their own company back in 2012.
"The 'Fatto a Mano' – the human touch – the essence of Made in Italy, represents value for us. It translates the love we have for our work, for the attention we dedicate to the construction of each garment, for the perfect balance between the harmony of shapes and the attention to details," the designers said in a joint statement emailed to Fashionista. "The craftsmanship, the excellence of the Italian masters are the core of our creations and we are proud to be able to shed light on their work."
In May 2020, as social distancing continued across the globe amid the Covid-19 pandemic, Dolce & Gabbana launched a series on its social channels called #DGFattoInCasa, which saw its artisans holding digital workshops with ideas for projects to do at home, part of a fundraising project for Fondazione Humanitas Per La Ricerca.
Back in February — less than two weeks before Italy would be shut down as the virus took over the northern part of the country — Dolce & Gabbana announced it would partner with Humanitas University (which it had already worked with to give out scholarships for students of the MedTec School) to fund research into Covid-19. A donation from the brand helped fund the research led by virologist Professor Alberto Mantovani, Dolce & Gabbana said. It also released a campaign starring Sofia Vergara called "Amore for Scientific Research," for which it pledged to donate a portion of proceeds from sales of its Devotion bag. In a further display of support, Dolce & Gabbana staged its Spring 2021 menswear show (its first following the shutdown) at Humanitas University, with Professor Mantovani in attendance.
"Supporting scientific research is a moral duty for us," the designers told Fashionista. "In February, when the problem was not yet affecting Italy, we felt the need to do something to fight this devastating virus, and we thought that Humanitas University — a special institution for excellence and humanity, with which we have been collaborating for some time on a scholarship project — was the ideal partner."
Dolce & Gabbana has continued to dedicate resources to other charitable projects as well. On #BlackOutTuesday in June 2020, the brand pledged a "significant donation" to the NAACP, which it promised to make an ongoing commitment. On Global Pride Day 2020, it announced it would partner with The Trevor Project long-term, including to auction off the custom dress Sia wore to the 2020 Billboard Music Awards with Chic Relief and eBay. (It also rolled out a social media campaign highlighting gay fathers of the #DGFamily, like North America CEO Dan Rothmann, with their children on Father's Day 2020.) That fall, Dolce & Gabbana auctioned off Kerry Washington's 2020 Emmys look to benefit When We All Vote, the nonprofit dedicated to voter registration founded by Former First Lady Michelle Obama, and Maren Morris's Country Music Awards ensemble to support the Black Women's Health Imperative.
Most recently, for Valentine's Day 2021, it released a campaign meant to "celebrate love in all forms" as well as "show solidarity" for its work with The Trevor Project.
That turned 2020 into a veritable flurry of very public-facing charitable endeavors for Dolce & Gabbana, despite the brand historically not being open about that side of its business.
"We have always supported charity projects on a personal level, but we have never considered it important to give visibility to the initiatives we privately carry out. This year, what made the difference is the global scale and the objectives of the charity projects we have chosen to support," the designers explained to Fashionista, in a statement. "We decided to communicate our support to these projects that give voice to those values, in which we have always believed and recognized ourselves. We want to keep raising awareness, using our public platform and calling attention to important causes."
Meanwhile, Dolce & Gabbana has kept up efforts to rehabilitate its image in China, albeit more slowly and cautiously.
In late 2019, it hired Carlo Gariglio as its new Asia Pacific CEO. (On his LinkedIn page, Gariglio touts himself as a "Turnaround professional with measurable track record of success.") Under Gariglio, the brand has reportedly been making quiet overtures to the Chinese government, which included showing at the China Import and Export Expo (CIIE) in both November 2019 and November 2020. (Though the most recent appearance was not without controversy itself: Attendees criticized Dolce & Gabbana's typically ostentatious display style.)
Dolce & Gabbana's presence at the event "has definitely helped," Jiang argues, "because it solidified the brand's relationship with the government. I think it's very clever of Dolce to implement the trickle-down action of beautifying its public image in China, starting from the government, as that's also how the media works in the country. I'd say that investing in a grandiose exhibition booth with a mini-program and on-site artisans was a strategic move, as the CIIE was of high importance to Beijing — President Xi Jinping has spoken at every opening ceremony since its inception — and in 2020, it was a great occasion to flex China's capability of keeping COVID-19 under control. Backing Beijing's initiative gives the government a lot of honor and credibility; it might have also let state media to go easy on the brand in relevant features and commentaries."
While Gabbana's social media presence made the Hollywood and fashion set wary of the brand before #DGLovesChina, the events of November 2018 turned Dolce & Gabbana into a sort of industry outcast for several months, costing it valuable appearances on red carpets and in fashion editorials. But the Western fashion industry at large began easing back into featuring Dolce & Gabbana as early as late 2019, when it scored high-profile placements in publications like InStyle, Vogue and even the subscriber cover of Harper's Bazaar featuring Kylie Jenner. An entire editorial centered around the brand appeared in the December 2020 issue of British Vogue, starring Lara Stone and featuring an interview with the designers.
It's important to point out that it's an all-but-official practice in glossies to feature brands which advertise in its editorial pages to keep them happy, and that can't be discounted when it comes to this placement. By the end of 2020, Dolce & Gabbana began appearing in fashion media in China, where the line between editorial and advertisement is more blurred than it is in the U.S., once again. Posts announcing its participation in the China Import and Export Expo, for example, appeared in Elle China, Elle Men, Vogue China, among other publications, Jiang points out.
"I can't be certain whether this is paid as a non-PR professional, but the presence marked an important milestone, as fashion media in China had rarely featured the brand's collections or taken their ad money over the last two years," she says. "This week, I saw people posting on Weibo being surprised at seeing Dolce's ads in magazines again, which means it worked."
More headline-grabbing than fashion editorials, however, was the brand's return to the red carpet. Dolce & Gabbana scored a few big appearances in 2019, as noted by the New York Times. But this push began in earnest at the 2020 Grammys, when Dolce & Gabbana dressed artists like Gwen Stefani, Common and Little Big Town. That same week, Blake Lively donned one of its black velvet dresses for the premiere of her new movie, "The Rhythm Section," and Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge, re-wore a Dolce & Gabbana tweed suit to the National Portrait Gallery.
Then, in somewhat rapid succession, stars like Taylor Hill, Lupita Nyong'o, Lucy Hale, Renee Zellweger and Uma Thurman were wearing Dolce & Gabbana to various events. At the 2020 Oscars — arguably the most important red carpet of the year — the label dressed Mindy Kaling; for the after parties, it dressed Reese Witherspoon, Rachel Brosnahan, Sofia Vergara and Holland Taylor.
By the end of 2020, Dolce & Gabbana was beginning to have a presence on the red carpet in Chinese markets as well.
"I started seeing some celebrities in Hong Kong wear it in late 2020," Jiang remembers. "Their pop-ups for the summer collection across the mainland had the presence of some small Chinese celebrities on the opening day. In a recent social campaign, it invited a dozen mid-to-lower tier influencers to wear its Spring 2021 collection. Understandably, big-time celebrities still find it too risky to wear Dolce."
Even as they became more frequent, these placements still raised eyebrows within the fashion community. Many wondered how celebrities — and more importantly, their stylists — could endorse Dolce & Gabbana in such a way. One stylist under the microscope in particular was the politically-outspoken Karla Welch, who once said at a Business of Fashion conference that she took the brand off her rack altogether. "You are your brand," Welch explained at the time. By the 2020 Grammys, though, she was pulling it again for Little Big Town.
Welch is hardly alone amongst stylists who have had a quiet change of tune about the brand. There's barely been a red carpet — remote though they may be — in the past year without at least one Dolce & Gabbana credit. Already, the somewhat-strange 2021 awards season kicked off with a bang for the label: Angela Bassett, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Amy Poehler, Anthony Anderson, Sacha Baron Cohen and Susan Kelechi Watson all wore it for the Golden Globes.
"Honestly, it became so ubiquitous that it became exhausting to keep track," says podcast host and Fashionista contributor Evan Ross Katz, who runs red-carpet commentary on his Instagram and Twitter accounts. "I still do call it out on occasion but it would be a full time [job] to keep track of how omni-present the brand remains even today. I think D&G lost any cool factor they had from the 2000s, but they're not going anywhere, that's been proven. They have [money] and [money] is power, especially in fashion."
So what convinced these Hollywood power brokers to change their minds?
To Katz's point, there has been speculation amongst the L.A. set that money may be exchanging hands behind the scenes. Though a source familiar with Dolce & Gabbana tells Fashionista the brand doesn't pay for red-carpet placements, pay-for-play isn't uncommon in the celebrity dressing space. According to a 2019 story from The Hollywood Reporter, stars can earn $50,000 to $200,000 for one red carpet appearance; for an awards-season exclusive, that number "could go up to the mid-to-high six figures or even seven." And that money isn't just limited to the celebs themselves: In 2015, stylist Jessica Paster said she had received anywhere from $30,000 to $50,000 for making a placement happen.
However, even more than fashion editorial, red-carpet styling is a relationship business. And in January 2020, according to his LinkedIn, Dolce & Gabbana hired Lucio Di Rosa — a 15-year veteran of Versace — to serve as the worldwide head of celebrity and VIP relations. According to some insiders, Di Rosa is a beloved figure on the styling scene that has forged valuable connections with some of Hollywood's biggest players; some suggest he's responsible for pushing the brand to offer custom looks to celebrities, a game-changer in an increasingly competitive field.
Fashionista was unable to find a stylist willing to go on-record about pulling Dolce & Gabbana for their clients by press time, and that may well be part of the problem: No one is willing to explain this change of heart about the brand to a public that has not yet forgotten its sins.
"If an individual has actually thought about the issue, decided that Dolce & Gabbana have atoned or recognize their mistakes, and it's time to give them another chance, fair enough; I think those are decisions that people have to make for themselves," says Vanessa Friedman, fashion director and chief fashion critic at the New York TImes.
"This should not be about simply yelling publicly about what we think are transgressions, but for everybody, particularly in a consumer world, to think about their choices and make those choices for themselves. And I think they should also stand up for them and behind them," she continues. "If you are going to publicly support — and fund — a brand that has acted in a hurtful way in the past because you believe they have learned from their mistakes, I think you should then be able to say, 'I understand what they'd done in the past, and I feel this, and I thought this about it and I made this decision'; to me, that's completely acceptable. But I wish that people would do that instead of either pretending that there wasn't an issue, or revealing that they haven't bothered to think about their choices, and are ignorant of the issue."
Whatever the reason for the placement, Welch turned off the comments on her post of Little Big Town wearing Dolce & Gabbana at the Grammys last year, and didn't post anything in her feed at all about Poehler's Dolce & Gabbana Golden Globe look, which she also styled. Other image makers have been known to do the same, and it's not hard to see why: Negativity still follows the brand wherever it goes on social media. Immediately following the #DGLovesChina crisis, fashion critic Suzy Menkes found herself under fire for her positive review of its collection; after writing the piece noting the beginning of Dolce & Gabbana's comeback, Friedman found herself in the crosshairs of Diet Prada.
While public outcry may have calmed down since 2018, there's still a vocal audience on social media unwilling to let Dolce & Gabbana off the hook for its missteps. And if Dolce & Gabbana wants people to forgive and forget, they have a long way to go with that group.
"I feel for the team at Dolce & Gabbana, but honestly I think they're doing everything they can," Fontanez says. "Brands hire really brilliant communication and marketing teams and those teams are paid to understand where the trajectory is headed, so they're doing what they need to do to show that they get that, to be involved in causes that are relevant right now because the world needs attention on them. But, the dissonance is the leadership, the founders, the name on that label don't have that same level of awareness or opinion. So there is a chasm between those things."
In other words, according to Fontanez, critics still feel there's a disconnect between what the brand has been doing and the historic public presence of the individuals Dolce and Gabbana, who haven't publicly spoken about #DGLovesChina since releasing the apology video in 2018. Meanwhile, folks like Katz believe that all of the brand's actions over the past few years have been for show, an effort to shift public perception and to bury old, negative stories under a flurry of positive ones. "Just because bad people do good things on occasion doesn't make them better people," he argues. "It makes them just that: bad people that do good things on occasion."
Many who are critical of the brand argue that the solution would involve Gabbana stepping down from the label which he co-founded — or even having the brand shutter altogether. "They could exit the fashion industry stage left," Katz says bluntly. "As the popular meme template goes: We as a society have moved on from the need for Dolce & Gabbana."
Indeed, in the wake of Galliano's 2011 antisemitic rant, Dior was able to quickly distance itself from the designer by cutting him loose. He was even fired from the label which bore his name. But the Dolce & Gabbana situation is significantly more complicated: Not only is Gabbana's name on the door, but he also holds 40% of the privately held company, according to a 2019 report in Vogue Business, with the remaining 60% held jointly by Dolce and members of his family. Perhaps more significantly, the brand's core customer — especially among the valuable private clientele set — loves him just as much as they love Dolce. Gabbana is widely known to be the life of any Dolce & Gabbana party, mingling with the clients rather than hiding up in VIP section with more famous faces.
"They make me feel alive and young and pretty. I love Domenico and Stefano. I love the whole group," one such Alta Moda client told Christina Binkley in an August 2020 story for Vogue Business. "A lot of designers I've known before, they go and smoke with their muses in the corner, and they don't even say hello to you."
To paraphrase the great Mark Twain: Rumors of Gabbana's departure, which first popped up early in 2020, have been greatly exaggerated. But Fontanez predicts that customers will only become more aware and more invested in whether those at the top of fashion's biggest institutions are actually aligned with values of inclusivity. Action for Dolce & Gabbana, she says, will have to do more than just check off another activism box or make a D&I hire. It would need to involve a more public-facing engagement on the part of the designers themselves.
"I don't think that there's more to do, unless Dolce and Gabbana attend a talk where all of a sudden a light goes off, something happens in their own lives where empathy builds around these communities and there's enlightenment, and they share that enlightenment," Fontanez explains. "I think that would be a moment that would be interesting for people: to see these two people actually be honest about a change or a growth they've had."
At the end of the day, none of this might matter to customers — or at least not Western ones. In the 2018/2019 fiscal year, the Asia-Pacific market represented 22% of Dolce & Gabbana's business, according to an August 2019 report from Reuters, a 3% drop from the previous year. This figure doesn't include Japan and Korea, which made up another 5% of Dolce & Gabbana's revenue, with half of it coming from Europe and an additional 16% came from the U.S., according to Vogue Business. The company doesn't publicly disclose finances, but the brand is projected to post losses for the fiscal year ending in March 2021, as was the case for nearly every other brand in the luxury sector impacted by the Covid-19 crisis.
The push into plus-size has also been a success: Jess Sims recently wrote for Vogue Business that retailer 11 Honoré "saw a 70 and 80% sell-through rate for Dolce & Gabbana's first two collections."
And in China, where the #DGLovesChina offense occurred and where so-called "cancel culture" can have an even stronger grip, recovery seems to be the horizon. Though retailers (including Net-a-Porter's Chinese website) still don't stock Dolce & Gabbana, Jiang has been monitoring mentions of the brand on Weibo during fashion weeks in 2020 and noticed sentiment appeared to be softening around summer, when the brand was promoting its summer collection on the platform and a few — "very few," she emphasizes — of the comments centered around the clothes themselves, versus criticism of the company. (Dolce & Gabbana has disabled comments on its own Weibo page.)
Combined with the brand's efforts to work with the Chinese government, these small but significant steps could bode well for its presence in China. "They are making their way down from the government to fashion media to small celebrities/influencers," Jiang says. "If the brand has a long enough financial runway, one day the public would see big celebrities and actresses wear them and Dolce will once again appear on the street in China."
While detractors on social media can feel daunting — amplified as they are by their willingness to be extremely vocal on issues they care about — that doesn't always translate into real-world action.
"It's not like there's a strike going on where every day someone's protesting outside of a Dolce & Gabbana store," Friedman says. "I think if there was a backlash to celebrities wearing Dolce & Gabbana, then perhaps stylists would rethink their choices. The fact that they haven't rethought those choices, or that those choices are still being made, would indicate to me that that backlash doesn't exist except maybe when someone raises the subject or in the social media echo chamber of a certain part of the fashion world."
Katz, meanwhile, argues that "people also love their faves more than they hate D&G, so it's easy to turn a blind eye when your fave pops up in a problematic brand. That, or they'll just blame the stylist."
"I also think given other fashion headlines, like most recently the [Alexander] Wang allegations, this simply is competing for 'biggest fashion offender,' which is incredibly sad, but unfortunately a reflection of the times we are living in," he adds.
Ultimately, Dolce & Gabbana and its detractors will likely reach an impasse. The brand is clearly not going anywhere, and neither are its critics. After all, no one owes a brand forgiveness, especially in our current fraught social environment where fashion professionals are still engaged in fighting for anti-racist movements. Furthermore, there are still those who take to social media to remind the industry that Galliano — who, after his own period of rehabilitation, found a job at the head of Maison Margiela in 2014 — once made those infamous anti-semitic remarks. The industry may have forgiven, but people haven't forgotten.
The question then becomes whether Dolce & Gabbana — and really, the fashion industry at large, as more and more brands slip to reveal the layers of ugliness that have been baked into the culture of the industry itself over the course of decades — will be granted the space to navigate its way into a better, more aware, more inclusive future.
"I generally feel that public discussion and civil discourse about any of these issues is the ideal situation and something that we should all be aiming for, because we live in a time of great flux and high emotion — whether it's moral change or political change or social change — and being able to talk about it and listen to people as they struggle to come to terms with it is really important," says Friedman.
"This is a case where maybe we should do that more instead of leaping to simply call someone out; call them out and try to understand what's going on," she continues. "Engage in that conversation and keep the conversation going, both so that we don't forget what happened and also so that we can use that to move forward as a broader sector."