A Dolce & Gabbana show was canceled after racist online messages leaked

A still from Dolce & Gabbana’s “Eating with Chopsticks” ad campaign.
Dolce & Gabbana/Instagram

Dolce & Gabbana’s Shanghai runway show on November 21 was set to involve 500 looks, last for one hour, and cost millions of dollars. But after what some criticized as a racist marketing campaign, and what appeared to be damning leaked messages from brand co-founder Stefano Gabbana, the event was abruptly canceled.

It’s just one of many instances in which Dolce & Gabbana’s creative directors have received blowback for controversial and offensive statements. Yet they’re hardly an anomaly in the fashion industry: Criticism is growing of instances of racism, sexism, body shaming, or cultural appropriation by fashion brands, and the fallout seems to only be getting messier.

The Dolce & Gabbana trouble began with a series of Instagram ad campaigns released this week in which a female Chinese model attempts to eat various Italian dishes with chopsticks. In one involving cannoli, the male narrator asks in Mandarin, “Is it too huge for you?” All three are set in a highly stereotypical-looking Chinese market stall and backed by soundtrack with an erhu, or Chinese violin.

But when Instagram DMs that appeared to be from Gabbana were leaked, the outrage was further exacerbated. Diet Prada, the social media watchdogs of the fashion industry, posted screenshots of an exchange that appeared to be between Gabbana and model Michaela Tranova. During the conversation, Tranova challenges Gabbana on the ad campaign, and Gabbana retorts by insinuating that Tranova herself is racist for “eating dogs” and that “the country of [series of poop emojis] is China.” He then apparently messages, “China Ignorant Dirty Smelling Mafia.”

The response was swift: The hashtag #BoycottDolce was reportedly trending on the Chinese social media site Weibo, and many of the show’s models publicly announced they would not attend. According to another post by Diet Prada, Shanghai government officials canceled the event just hours before it was to take place.

Meanwhile, Gabbana claimed via Instagram that the messages were a result of a “hack” and that Dolce & Gabbana’s legal team was currently investigating the matter. But even though the comments were shocking, the allegation that they came from Gabbana is not.

In an industry in which racism and cultural appropriation is extraordinarily common, Dolce & Gabbana has made a name for itself as being one of the most unconcerned with offending others. As Business of Fashion notes, the list of appalling statements made by its two founders include referring to babies conceived by in vitro fertilization as “synthetic,” describing gladiator sandals as “slave sandals,” and calling Selena Gomez “ugly” and the Kardashians “the most cheap people in the world.” They also have opposed gay adoptions despite being openly gay and have been extremely vocal about their support for first lady Melania Trump. Rather predictably, they’ve also minimized the idea that sexual harassment is bad.

Curiously, however, though racist and sexist comments by CEOs have had the power to take down entire brands in the past, Dolce & Gabbana seem largely immune to any actual repercussions: Its events remain as star-studded and critically beloved as ever, and sales last year were strong.

That’s likely because Dolce & Gabbana does not consider its customers to be “customers” at all. When dresses can cost $60,000, buyers are, as Robin Givhan noted in a recent Washington Post piece, the sort of people for whom clothes are “meant to be worn aboard the 600-foot private yachts of Russian billionaires and Middle Eastern royalty, and behind the security perimeters of walled-off European estates.” These clothes, Dolce & Gabbana claims, are art.

Because Dolce and Gabbana themselves are so fabulously wealthy that they are free from the burden of pleasing investors, they can continue posting rude comments about celebrities and saying politically incorrect things to journalists with fewer consequences to their business than others.

A smaller company, or one with less artistic cachet, for instance, might be bankrupted by committing just one of the many social crimes of Dolce & Gabbana; consumers could boycotts or investors could withdraw funds. Yet brands such as Dolce & Gabbana or Chanel, whose creative director Karl Lagerfeld has rarely managed to do an interview without saying something wildly offensive, face no such threat.

Offending Chinese customers, however, could have potentially major consequences for Dolce & Gabbana. Major brands have been aggressively courting the Chinese market over the past few years due to its fast-growing luxury goods market and huge population of young, social media-influenced shoppers (notably, this year Victoria’s Secret held its annual fashion show there). It’s as yet unclear what impact the controversy of the past few days will have on Dolce & Gabbana’s bottom line, but it could be a warning sign for other creative directors with a history of putting their foot in their mouths.

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