The Great Disaster: An Exploration of Dolce and Gabbana and Social Media’s Influence on the Global Luxury Fashion Market

The finale of the Dolce & Gabbana Fall 2017 runway show. Photo: Imaxtree

The finale of the Dolce & Gabbana Fall 2017 runway show. Photo: Imaxtree

By Courtney Lyons

This was originally submitted as my final paper for Columbia University’s “Culture of Italian Fashion” class. The original footnotes style is not supported on this platform. Please excuse the makeshift citations.

Luxury fashion is a digitized world. While only 8% of the luxury sales are conducted online, this action is set to triple by 2025 (Bain, Marc). In addition to the rise of online sales, luxury brands are seeing growth through social media. According to Engagement Labs, “19 percent of a brand’s sales — or between $7 trillion and $10 trillion in annual consumer spending in the United States — are driven by social conversations”(Morrissey, Janet). Suffice to say, the fashion industry is a different landscape than it was 33 years ago when the Italian brand Dolce and Gabbana was founded. Over the course of three decades, Dolce and Gabbana has grown to reach a global market. Despite this, social media platforms are proving to work against global fashion powerhouse. In November 2018, Dolce and Gabbana faced social backlash in the wake of their planned “Great Show”, which was set to take place in Shanghai and had the potential to be the largest fashion show in the company’s history. However, when controversial promotional videos were released, the brand received criticism online for their racists undertones. When messaged about this controversy, Dolce and Gabbana founder Stefano Gabbana allegedly responded with offensive statements, criticizing China. These messages were subsequently shared by the fashion blog Diet Prada and spread worldwide. In a matter of hours, the multimillion dollar “Great Show” was canceled by China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism (Bloomberg). Despite the firm’s public apology, Dolce and Gabbana’s mistakes have spread far enough online to lose them the respect of millions. While this is not the first time that Dolce and Gabbana has faced controversy, this occasion has had the largest global impact on its brand. In the wake of Dolce and Gabbana’s scandal, I believe that it is interesting to explore the effects that social media has on global luxury brands. First, I will dive deeper into Dolce and Gabbana's history, their past scandals, and next I’ll investigate the “Great Show” scandal specifically. I will explore the wider implications of this occurrence, discussing the relationship between western brands and global markets, social media’s role in luxury markets, and the rise of activism online. Social media provides consumers with a platform and direct access to the fashion elite, democratizing the average person’s say in fashion and allowing them to have a role in driving the industry.

A History of Dolce and Gabbana and Social Media

Dolce and Gabbana is one of the most famous luxury brands in the world. Known for their opulent and feminine designs, the Italian fashion house was founded by Sicilian Domenico Dolce (60) and Milanese Stefano Gabbana (56) in 1985. The duo met when Gabbana was asked to mentor Dolce at another fashion house (The Business of Fashion). The pair founded Dolce and Gabbana as a design consultancy. They had their first fashion show in Milan in 1985 and were adoringly referred to as “the boys” because of their energy and youth (The Business of Fashion). Soon after, the duo picked up traction for their sexualizing and feminine designs (Givhan, Robin.). Inspired by their Mediterranean upbringing, designs often had “romantic imagery and stereotypes of Southern Italy” including “black-clad Sicilian widows, macho Mediterranean men, voluptuous lingerie models, all anchored by the centrality of family, a devotion to Catholicism, the pleasure of food and the beauty of the Italian landscape” (Watson, L.).   Dolce and Gabbana is credited with modernizing corset silhouettes and reinterpreting black lace and leopard print (The Met's Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History). By the early 90s, Dolce and Gabbana had launched menswear, accessories, and knitwear collections. In 1997, Dolce and Gabbana reported a turnover of £400 million (Craven, Jo), and went on to make $1.5 billion in 2018 (Givhan, Robin). In 1993, Madonna used Dolce and Gabbana as her costume designers for her Girlie World tour and wore them to several red carpet events (The Business of Fashion). Since then, Dolce and Gabbana has become a celebrity favorite. In recent years, the fashion house has dressed everyone from Cardi B to Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge. Unlike many of their luxury peers, Dolce and Gabbana does not belong to a conglomerate and is privately owned, therefore permitted to “operate outside the laws of the luxury world” (Ellison, Jo).  This behavior has allowed for Dolce and Gabbana to rise to the top of the fashion food chain; it has also caused trouble for the Italian brand.

For the past three decades, Dolce and Gabbana has been no stranger to controversy. In 2007, the brand was called out for an offensive advertisement, which depicted a scantily clad woman, pinned down at the wrist by a shirtless man with another group of men looking on. The advertisement was subsequently banned from all Italian publications by the Advertising Self-Discipline Institute (IAP). The IAP claimed that “the passive and helpless position of the woman relative to the men around her, and the representation of abuse or the idea of violence towards her” promoted gang rape and did not meet their standards (Duncan, Amy). In 2010, the duo were indicted for tax fraud, convicted in 2013, and eventually found innocent in 2014 (Milligan, Lauren). In their Spring/Summer 2013 collection, the brand included earrings that featured Blackamoor artwork. Many took offense to these images, believing that they romanticized slavery (Alexander, Ella). Similarly, the pair came under fire for naming a shoe from their Spring/Summer 2016 the “Slave Sandal” (Paton, Elizabeth). Interestingly, the controversy surrounding Dolce and Gabbana has only seemed to escalate with the emergence of social media. In 2015, when speaking to Italian magazine Panorama, Domenico Dolce claimed he was against gay parenting and In Vitro Fertilization. Dolce claimed, “You are born to a mother and a father, or at least that’s how it should be.” He went on to say, “I call children of chemistry, synthetic children. Rented uterus, semen chosen from a catalog”(Bernstein, Jacob). These statements were followed with public outrage, spearheaded by celebrities like Elton John, Andy Cohen, and Courtney Love on social media platforms. In an Instagram post, John used the hashtag #BoycottDolceGabbana, which was then also shared by thousands of users across social media platforms (Bernstein, Jacob). The following year, after the election of Donald Trump, many designers such as Tom Ford and Marc Jacobs refused to accommodate Melania  Trump with clothing because of her endorsement of her husband’s offensive politics (Munzenrieder, Kyle). Despite this, Dolce and Gabbana are proud that the First Lady adorns their clothing, sharing photos of her on their Instagram page. When this social media activity was met with backlash, Stefano Gabbana responded with “Ti boicotto”: the Italian term for “go to hell” (Kratofil, Colleen). When people continued to criticize the brand for this, Dolce and Gabbana released a collection of shirts that read “#BoycottDolceGabbana” mocking the boycott against them (Wang, Amy B). In June 2018, Stefano Gabbana sparked controversy online once again commenting “E’ proprio brutta!!!” (“She is so ugly”) on a photo of Selena Gomez on Catwalk Italia’s Instagram Page (Salibian, Sandra). The designer faced backlash for his cyberbullying and received more than 10,000 angry replies from Selena’s fans.

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Screenshots of Gabbana’s Messages

Schuyler, Lindsey, and Tony Liu. “Diet Prada ™ on Instagram: ‘As @Dolcegabbana Prepares to Mount Their next Runway Show in Shanghai This Coming Evening (7:30PM) and the Rest of Instagram Fawns over...".” Instagram, @Diet_Prada, 20 Nov. 2018, www.instagram.com/p/BqbTkY_FB7X/.

The most recent outrage against the Italian fashion brand has probably been their most far-reaching. Last month, Dolce and Gabbana was scheduled to host a 500-look fashion show in Shanghai China on November 21st. The show was supposed to be a celebration of Chinese culture, so Dolce and Gabbana accordingly invited 1,500 of the most prominent influencers and celebrities in China( The Business of Fashion). To promote the show, the Italian brand released a series of videos on Weibo, China’s premier social media platform. The videos depicted a young Chinese woman adorned in a red sequin dress, attempting to eat Italian food - such as spaghetti, pizza, and cannolis - with chopsticks. She was instructed on how to eat the food by a male Mandarin voiceover with traditional Chinese music played in the background. The videos were immediately deemed offensive by the people of China. They took to Weibo to call out the video’s “sexist and racist undertones” (Pratten, Nyima, and Tiffany Ap).  Tensions were further heightened when Diet Prada (@Diet_prada), a fashion blog known for exposing the injustice of the fashion industry, shared a direct message between Stefano Gabbana and an Instagram user. In the messages, Gabbana claimed that China was the “country of [series of poop emojis]” and said “China Ignorant Dirty Smelling Mafia,” along with many other racist sentiments (Schuyler, Lindsey, and Tony Liu). Screenshots of this conversation quickly spread from Instagram to Weibo. Within hours, 24 of the show’s models, celebrities, and influencers decided to boycott the event and the brand (Pratten, Nyima, and Tiffany Ap). Soon after, the official Dolce and Gabbana Instagram released a statement claiming that both the official Instagram (@DolceandGabanna) as well as Gabbana's personal account (@stefanogabbana) had been hacked. Many people found this hard to believe because of Gabbana’s erratic use of the social media platform in the past (The Business of Fashion). Despite this, since the promotional videos and messages from Gabanna had gained so much attention on social media, the show was already canceled by China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism (Bloomberg). The backlash continues on social media today. Many people have began to share videos of themselves “burning, shredding and wiping floors and toilets with Dolce & Gabbana products”(The Business of Fashion). Dolce and Gabbana have since released an apology video, but clearly it’s too late for apologies.

Western Designers a Global World

It is no surprise that Dolce and Gabbana are sorry for the mistakes they have made. Based on past behavior, the duo is obviously not afraid to offend anyone. Rather, Dolce and Gabanna is apologetic because of the financial toll this altercation is having on their brand. While the cancelled show was reported to have a multimillion dollar price tag (Bain, Marc), the financial impact of the event on Dolce and Gabbana has barely even begun. After the event, Dolce and Gabbana products were dropped from numerous large online retailers in China, including Alibaba and JD.com (Wilkinson, Bard). According to Business Insider Italia, more than €320 million of Dolce and Gabbana’s €1.29 billion sales revenue comes from the Asia-Pacific area (Scozzari, Carlotta). While this is a substantial chunk of Dolce and Gabbana’s sales, it could get even worse. According to Bain & Company, mainland China is set to “account for the lion’s share of growth in 2018” luxury markets and expected to “grow by 20-22 percent”(Bain Brief - Bain & Company). Overall, China represents almost one third of the total global luxury market in 2018 (Master, Farah).

The rise of Asian markets does not go unnoticed by luxury brands. In fact, “brands now habitually take shows on the road, alighting in cities and presenting collections often packed with product designed especially for the territory” (Ellison, Jo). Therefore, with such high stakes in China, it is puzzling why a luxury brand like Dolce and Gabbana wouldn’t make the effort to avoid all cultural discrepancies when hosting a fashion show in Shanghai. However, this behavior is nothing new in the fashion industry, and can be traced to a long history of perceived Western superiority over “non-white” civilizations. This is seen through forms of cultural and subject appropriation. The Cambridge Dictionary defines cultural appropriation as, “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture”(Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary & Thesaurus).  Cultural appropriation usually happens at the cost of an oppressed society. Similarly, subject appropriation “occurs when an outsider represents members or aspects of another culture” in works of art (Young, James O).  Often times in fashion, cultural appropriation happens when a designer steals aspects of racial or indigenous style without attributing proper credit to the source (Pham, Minh-Ha T). This has been exhibited by many designers, including the use of dreadlocks on white models in Marc Jacobs’s Spring/Summer 2017 collection and the inclusion of Native American motifs in Alberta Ferretti’s Milan Resort 2019 collection. The terms “cultural and subject appropriation” are relatively recent inventions, however the practice of cultural appropriation has existed for thousands of years, especially in the fashion industry.

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La Grande Odalisque

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, La Grande Odalisque,

1814, Oil on canvas, 36" x 63" (91 x 162 cm), (Musée du Louvre, Paris)


One of the largest forms of cultural appropriation and subjection can be seen in orientalist fashion. Western civilization has a long tradition of orientalism, as many people from the West viewed (and still view) Asian culture to be exotic and sexual (Boris, Eileen). While orientalism is often studied in famous works of art like Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, 1814’s The Grand Odalisque, its role in the development of Western fashion largely goes unnoticed. Eastern influences on European fashion can be seen as early as the 16th century with the emergence of Venetian chopine shoes. While chopines have been regarded as “one of the most extraordinary forms of footwear ever worn in Western dress”(Semmelhack, Elizabeth), they were heavily influenced by Moorish footwear and footwear trends coming from the East (Oatman-Stanford, Hunter).  Chopines are only one example of the influence that Eastern cultures had on the fashion of the West. During the booming global trade of the 17th century, Chinese silk goods and Indian shawls were continually absorbed and appropriated by European elites as fashion trends (Koda, Harold, and Richard Martin). This appropriation was only accelerated by the forced opening of Japanese ports in 1854 by Commodore Matthew Perry. Afterwards, Japanese art heavily influenced the work of European artists like Edgar Degas and Claude Monet (Tribe, Yugen, and Shovova). More unnoticed was the influence of Japanese kimonos on Western 19th century fashion trends (Koda, Harold, and Richard Martin). This practice continued into the twentieth century, as many popular western luxury brands continue to borrow from asian culture. In the 1990’s, Vogue and Harper's Bazaar both “evoked old colonial fantasies of eroticized women through photographs of a Prada cheongsam or a reconfigured kimono placed in lush landscapes” (Eileen Boris).  Even in the last few years, orientalism is still present in the fashion world. A major example of this was the theme for the 2015 Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute Gala - China: Through the Looking Glass. This theme explored the “impact of Chinese aesthetics on Western fashion and how China has fueled the fashionable imagination for centuries”(The Met's Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History).  Rather than solely look at China’s rich history of fashion design, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Vogue opted to explicitly focus on the Western version of China. The curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute Andrew Bolton claimed that the event and the exhibit would be a “collective fantasy of China” (Holpuch, Amanda). What occurred was a night of primarily white celebrities donning clothing inspired by a culture that is not their own. It is arguable that the 2015 Met Gala was a night of cultural appreciation rather than appropriation. Admittedly, the event organizers were upfront, saying that the exhibit and gala would feature a Western gaze of Chinese art and have “ancient Chinese treasures juxtaposed with modern Western couture” (Cronberg, Anja Aronowsky). However, does this honest description excuse the modern celebration of orientalism?

Social Media’s Role in Policing the Global Luxury Brands

Cultural appropriation is nothing new in the fashion industry and has mostly gone on unquestioned. This is because, for most of history, the taste makers of Western luxury fashion were a small group of designers, publications, and wealthy elite who could afford to purchase it. There had never been a platform for those negatively affected by this appropriation and subjugation to call out this injustice. Then came the rise of social media in the last decade. Prior to social media, there were “two main ways in which people communicated using media” - broadcasting media through “television, radio, and newspapers” and conversations via telephone (Miller, Daniel, et al). In both forms, the average person did not have the power to communicate messages to large audiences. Social media changed this. The growth of social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat has changed the “polarization between public and private media” (Miller, Daniel). Now, the average person has the power to reach millions of people across the world in a matter of seconds.

The rise of social media has affected the fashion industry by paving the way for the emergence of a new industry elite- the fashion blogger. The word blog is the “contraction of the words ‘web’ and ‘log’” (Detterbeck, Kimberly, et al).  Fashion bloggers are fashion-forward people who document their outfits and taste of fashion through blog posts on websites and posts on social media platforms. As the widespread use of social media continues to grow, many fashion bloggers now solely exist on social platforms, and have been relabeled as “social media influencers” (Kernis, Jay).  Instagram has been the preferred platform of the fashion world because of its emphasis on image. Therefore, anyone with access to a camera and the Internet has the power to become a fashion blogger or social media influencer. The most obvious example of this can be see in the rise of Italian fashion blogger Chiara Ferragni. In 2010, Chiara Ferragni was a law student in Milan with no connection to the fashion industry (Kay, Karen). After posting photos of her outfits online, Ferragni soon developed a large following. Eventually, Ferragni was able to monetize her blog, turning it into an online lifestyle magazine and fashion line (Keinan, Anat, Kristina Maslauskaite).  Now Ferragni boasts an Instagram following of nearly 16 million and a reported net worth of $12 million dollars (Kay, Karen). As exemplified by Ferragni, the growth of fashion blogs have rapidly changed the landscape of the fashion industry. Ten years ago, fashion was dictated by a small elite group - magazine editors, buyers, and stylists among others. Now, fashion bloggers and social media influencers are seated front row at fashion week and often have a greater influence over the fate of the industry. Many argue that this democratic shift in influence is even leading to the demise of publications like Vogue (Bain, Marc).

A majority of these popular fashion blogs focus on the personal style and opinions of a singular blogger. Often, these bloggers turn into bonafide celebrities. However, the fashion blog that is arguably the biggest disrupter of the fashion industry, operates in a very different way. Diet Prada (@Diet_prada) is one of the fastest growing fashion accounts on Instagram. While the focus of their account is fashion, they do not share images of their personal style like their blogging peers. Instead, the account primarily operates anonymously and calls out the injustices in the fashion industry. Back when the account was started in 2014, their posts revolved around  “exposing designers pilfering from one another”(Sherman, Lauren). Because fashion design is essentially “not copyrightable”(Pham, Minh-Ha T), Diet Prada gained attention by calling out the plagiarism that is so widespread in the fashion industry. Posting anonymously on the free platform of Instagram, Diet Prada is fearless in confronting any fashion malpractice as they are free from any industrial ties (Petrarca, Emilia). Since its founding, Diet Prada has “transformed into something far more layered and impactful”(Sherman, Lauren). Diet Prada has used its online platform to call attention to the more serious and previously unacknowledged issues that silently plague the fashion industry. Some of these issues include cultural appropriation, model harassment, and racial discrimination (Sherman, Lauren). They have called out Kim Kardashian for copying a Comme des Garcons design, and initiated a successful boycott of fashion photographer Terry Richardson after he was accused of sexual assault (Petrarca, Emilia). It is not surprising that a sense of online activism has reached the fashion industry. Since social media provides a voice to everyone, it has increasingly been used as a forum for activism. Hashtags advocating for social justice movements such as #blacklivesmatter and #metoo are used thousands of times a day. According to a study by Pew Research Center, 69% of Americans believe that social media platforms are important for activism and 53% of United States adults have participated in some form of activism online (Anderson, Monica). Diet Prada is just one of many accounts that are now aiming to change the moral climate of the fashion industry. However, the most remarkable aspect about Diet Prada is that  they are actually driving change in the fashion world, despite not being considered a traditional industry elite. Although Diet Prada is blocked by some designers like JW Anderson (Sherman, Lauren), they have real influence on designers and industry elites, and they are using it to the clean up of the fashion industry. Many designers, such as Kerby Jean-Raymond of Pyer Moss, are scared to face the immense consequences of being chastised by Diet Prada (Sherman, Lauren). A call out from Diet Prada has the power to taint an entire brand to their one millions plus followers. This is significant, because shoppers now “base their purchase decisions on whether a company’s practices and mission aligns with their values” (Amed, Imran, et al.). This is especially true of younger consumers, who are posed to be “driving the growth of the luxury market” in China (Bain Brief - Bain & Company). It is important for luxury brands to keep a clean image, especially on social media, which is considered by experts to be an increasingly “important marketing tool for them” (Deloitte). Therefore, it is not surprising that Dolce and Gabbana now feels the financial toll of their “Great Show”, a takedown initiated by Diet Prada and thousands of other social media users.

Lasting Effects of the “Great Show”

Prada’s“Pradamalia” Figure with Racist Imagery.

Schuyler, Lindsey, and Tony Liu. “Diet Prada ™ on Instagram: ‘Woke up on the morning of our fourth birthday to some news about our namesake @prada..".” Instagram, @Diet_Prada, 14 Dec. 2018, https://www.instagram.com/p/BrYU8M6l6Eq/.

The cancelling of the “Great Show” by the hands of social media marks a shift in the fashion industry. However, there is still work to be done in order for the industry to be free of corruption. Just last week, Italian luxury brand Prada has come under fire for releasing racially insensitive figurines. These charms were meant to be a fictional creature but heavily resembled “ a Golliwog, the 19th-century blackface character with big round eyes and large red lips” (Givhan, Robin). This is unacceptable. As global entities, brands like Prada and Dolce and Gabbana have a moral and economic responsibility to consider all cultures during their design process. One reason why these blunders keep occurring for luxury brands is because the people behind the brand are not diverse. According to the Business of Fashion, 73% of the “largest 15 largest public companies in fashion and apparel by market capitalisation” are run by white male executives and only 11% of board were made up of ethnic minorities (Fernandez, Chantal). The simple solution to avoid these issues would be to hire a diverse workforce that can give insights to a greater cultural scope of the world. For example, Valentino’s latest collection was shown in Japan. Rather than simplify Japanese culture into a few “tourist stereotypes, like the lotus flower and the kimono” (Ellison, Jo), extensive research was conducted by Valentino’s designer Pierpaolo Piccioli. Piccioli sought inspiration from both “Grecian ideals of beauty with the Japanese culture of wabi-sabi and its acceptance of imperfection” (Ellison, Jo). Thus, Piccioli was able to beautifully acknowledge Japanese culture without mocking it. A diverse workforce would help luxury brands to easily navigate cultural discrepancies and create beautiful collections based of shared values, not stereotypes. As a population with access to a platform through social media, it is our responsibility to keep pushing the fashion industry to become a more inclusive and respectable place for all people.

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Courtney Lyons