next season’s must-have isn’t a handbag, it’s a conscience

What does the Dolce and Gabbana China scandal say about the future of the fashion industry?

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Nov 27 2018, 1:47pm

Change in the fashion industry is usually something to be welcomed and embraced; those trend cycles and seasonal change are after all how the industry makes its money. Hell, nobody loves change like fashion does… but does it?

The change we have come to expect, and have been told to want from the industry, has usually only been skin deep –– expressed through the superficiality of designs and aesthetics, cuts and fabrics. The industry has always obliged, preening through the rituals of Fashion Week, where models walk up and down a runway wearing next season’s must-haves.

But what if next season’s ‘must-have’ is a conscience? What if what people really want is that you do not abuse your assistant, the planet or your power? What if for people to buy your products, they expect your brand to not be racist, sexist or transphobic? What if they have a hard time looking at your photography because your #TimesUp?

These are the changes pushed by a new generation of fashion consumers and industry insiders. To generalise, until now fashion’s primary concerns have been aesthetic, rather than social, environmental or moral. But the arrival of social media changed just about everything, allowed key opinion leaders like Diet Prada to have a free platform that encourages people to call out toxic behaviour. An industry that has had a habit of brushing everything under the carpet is now forced to take a long and hard look at itself and the behaviour of its key players. Social media allows the artists, writers, assistants, models, consumers and everyone else working in the industry, who are affected by such behaviours, to start speaking up.

Last week’s Dolce and Gabbana debacle was a prime example of that. The brand, which have previously been in hot water for controversial comments made by its designers, first posted short advertising videos on their social media account, which were meant for their Chinese customers. In three of the videos a Chinese model was depicted awkwardly eating Italian food with chopsticks.

"Social media allows the artists, writers, assistants, models, consumers and everyone else working in the industry to start speaking up."

Called out for their racist stereotyping, the videos caused such a backlash on Chinese social media platform Weibo, they were taken down less than 24 hours after they were shared by the fashion house. And then racist DMs sent from Stefano Gabbana’s Instagram account –– according to Stefano he was hacked –– were published by Diet Prada and went viral. The Chinese government promptly cancelled the mega show the designers had planned -- called a Tribute To China. The deleted social videos had been part of the lead-up to the event, which cost millions.

The videos were accused of “trivialising China's centuries-old culture and depicting Chinese women in a stereotypical and even racist way” by users on Chinese social media. And beyond that they showed a total failure to sit down with a culture and a nation and create something interesting and desirable for the audience it was speaking to. This kind of attitude conveys a colonial-era arrogance. A reckless desire to go and sell their goods to other cultures with the attitude that their culture is superior, and act like they’re there to civilise the savages while taking their money.

D&G learnt the hard way –– China is a massive market for luxury goods, and one most brands cannot afford to alienate with their arrogance –– about being culturally insensitive and tone-deaf. D&G were dropped from many Chinese ecommerce sites, Yoox Net-A-Porter dropped it from their Chinese language sites, and people were posting pictures and videos of themselves burning their Dolce garments.

This was the biggest issue picked up by social media this week but we should see it within a wider context, one that includes the calling out of non-diverse catwalks and magazines –– this includes race and gender and body types. Diversity is an ongoing battle to change the current landscape of fashion and media. This debate has also turned its attention to the make-up of the front row, with people asking why there are no people-of-colour or minorities in positions of power within many brands and publishing houses –– is ‘wokeness’ nothing more than a marketing tool used to shake down millennials for their money?

Superficial change or wokeness as a marketing tool can be described as hiring a woman but expecting her to uphold your company’s patriarchal system: that’s not feminism or woke. The same goes with hiring a black person and expecting them to uphold systemic racism or lack of diversity.

"This was the biggest issue picked up by social media this week but we should see it within a wider context, one that includes the calling out of non-diverse catwalks and magazines. It is part of an ongoing battle to change the current landscape of fashion and media."

Having a diverse team, when it’s done right, allows those companies to create change which is not just superficial and cosmetic, they create a product which reflects and supports those views (Teen Vogue hiring a socially minded African-American editor for example.)

So can the fashion industry deliver on the real change its customers and insiders are asking for? A new generation of designers and brands do it naturally and automatically, the diverse catwalk with different size models like Rihanna’s Fenty Puma Lingerie does not feel like a compromise of her vision because her vision is not transphobic or racist. Some magazines do not have to think long and hard before putting Adwoa Aboah, Binx Walton or Sui He on their cover.

What the D&G racism scandal really shows is how far and fast things are changing. The new generation of fashion consumers and insiders are global, progressive, and will not support fashion ventures that promote sexism, racism, transphobia, or any other problematic values. These scandals can now have massive financial implications. Hitting the fashion industry at its bottom line might just force it to change. If the fashion industry manages to deliver on those changes this will be one of the greatest and most important shift in its history and they will have social media to thank for that.

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