In Issue 09 of In the News, we examine Dolce & Gabbana’s problematic lack of accountability, consider the challenges that continue to face emerging Black designers, explore the controversy around Tiffany & Co.’s recent campaign, and review the status of the Bangladesh Accord.
Last weekend, Dolce & Gabbana hosted their latest Alta Moda fashion show in Venice, featuring a star-studded audience that included Jennifer Lopez, Normani, Jennifer Hudson, Ciara, and Sean Combs, whose daughters walked in the event. While mainstream publications like Vogue lauded the extravagant show, a much more critical perspective emerged via social media. Many influential Black fashion industry leaders utilized their platforms to remind followers that the brand had been canceled – many times over. The repeated and irrefutably racist and homophobic actions of founders Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana have been widely covered in the media: engaging in blackface (2013), opposing gay marriage (2015), selling ‘slave’ sandals (2016), and aggressively mocking Chinese culture (2018). As designer Christopher John Rogers tweeted soon after the show, “I thought we collectively agreed that D*lce & G*bbana was over…”
One of the most vocal critics of the recent Venice show has been Louis Pisano, who in a series of tweets asked, “We just spent the last year fighting racism in the industry only to do what? Publicly co-sign notorious racists,” and pointed out that those Black celebrities and stylists in attendance were “Oscar & Grammy winners, rich and famous, world renowned, full of accolades and admiration, influence and power and yet ready to throw away all integrity for a check.”
Pisano’s perspective was echoed by influencer and writer Chrissy Rutherford in an Instagram story video during which she asks, “How do we push the industry forward and make the progress that we want when the most powerful people — some of the most powerful people in the industry, and in entertainment (which is intrinsically linked) — are willing to turn a blind eye for a check, for a free trip, for a dress, etc.?” Rutherford goes further, questioning, “What message does it send to other brands?,” if cultural icons, like Jennifer Lopez, continue to openly support a brand that has repeatedly committed such blatant acts of racism and homophobia?
Stylists Gabrielle Karefa-Johnson and Shibon Kennedy delved deeper into this point when voicing their own opinions and personal discussions of the topic via Instagram. In a story post, Karefa-Johnson counters the oft-used “business is business” argument that “a professional should be able to divorce their own values from their work,” by contending that this approach is problematically ineffective: “You’re here for the revolution or you’re not…Either we believe in changing this industry and we make sacrifices to do so or….we don’t.” Kennedy then took the additional step of sharing a helpful personal example of a professional email in which she firmly and concisely expresses why she will not, under any circumstances, work with companies that have a history of racist and/or homophobic practices.
As leaders like Pisano, Rutherford, Karefa-Johnson, and Kennedy work tirelessly to create positive change in a problematic industry, the apparent lack of accountability on the part of brands and gatekeepers becomes increasingly frustrating.
it’s beyond embarrassing the amount of black celebs + black stylists in Venice for D*lce G*bbana. We just spent the last year fighting racism in the industry only to do what? Publicly co-sign notorious racists as soon as 2 crusty old white 🚬 put you on the image rehab payroll— LOUIS PISANO (@LOUIS_via_ROMA) August 30, 2021
Consider the intersections of fashion and social justice with this podcast episode on Fashion Activism.
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Allure examines the issue of American Black hair deserts — which force people to make lengthy trips simply to find a salon and stylist that has experience with textured hair — and their implications for the Black community.
Business & Retail
When it comes to the industry’s progress in advocating for Black designers and Black-owned brands, the outlook seems similarly precarious. In a Business of Fashion piece on, “The Road Ahead for Black Designers,” Sheena Butler-Young speaks to several founders about how the spike in demand over the last year has actually impacted their businesses: “For many Black entrepreneurs, all of that support has amounted to everything, and on some days, not much at all.” A follow up piece explored in more depth why some of these entrepreneurs feel “uneasy about fashion’s diversity initiatives.” One issue that comes up often is the reality of inequitable partnerships, wherein a large brand approaches an emerging designer for a collaboration but demands significant oversight or claims some level of ownership over the creative output. This approach continues to strip Black designers of agency and equity in the creative process.
Another take relates to growing interest from department stores and big-box retailers looking to increase the proportion of Black-owned brands in their assortments, often creating special sections dedicated to showcasing these brands. Business of Fashion shares that some founders “worry that closely aligning their own racial identities with their brands will alienate some customers,” and dislike the idea of being tokenized in this fashion. Founders of consumer research firm Fayetteville Road, Brittany Hicks and Jessica Couch contend that “creating Black-owned sections is not a long term strategy, especially without other efforts to market those brands to customers based on more than their founder’s racial identity and without other strategies to advance equity across the organisation.”
Moreover, creator Jazerai Allen-Lord points out that true change will come from going beyond simply stocking Black-owned brands and requires a focus on “how to provide necessary and equitable resources so that these brands are in the same positions as the brands they compete against.” This argument intersects with the perspective shared by Lindsey Peoples-Wagner in her Editor’s Letter for the latest issue of The Cut. Peoples-Wagner explores some of the complex issues faced by Black designers and creators as they attempt to navigate a racist industry landscape. Considering the “long-overdue attention that has suddenly fallen on Black and brown designers,” she argues that the rush in pledges to “appear supportive” has, in actuality, “done a disservice to the very designers they’re meant to help” by pushing them beyond capacity and without the proper support systems to bolster sustainable growth. As a consequence, “many of those designers are being set up to fail.” Peoples-Wagner poses the question, “Can we create a better pathway forward for fashion? For ourselves?”
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Design & Imagemaking
Last week, Tiffany released the first images from its new ‘About Love’ campaign, featuring Jay-Z and Beyonce posing in front of a Jean-Michael Basquiat painting. Almost immediately, the internet erupted in discussion, with many people on Twitter debating whether the ad was an appropriate use of Basquiat’s legacy.
Diet Prada responded to the controversy by pointing out that, although “the Internet seems divided on the new Beyoncè and Jay-Z campaign,” a quick survey clearly shows that “Basquiat’s estate has already sold him out plenty of times for everything from t-shirts to an Alice and Olivia collection, Urban Decay cosmetics… and a Barbie.”
But while the many examples gathered by Diet Prada exhibit how Basquiat’s work was commodified in various ways, they all approach the work purely for its graphic qualities, divorcing aesthetics from sociohistorical context. Although this is still problematic in other ways, it is a different issue than what we observe in the new Tiffany campaign: a clear and purposeful attempt at connecting with – and capitalizing upon – Black culture. In the current climate, as brands across all industries scramble to prove their allegiance to Black communities, it is understandable why this campaign may come across as performative.
Robin Givhan interrogates this by decoding the image in a critical piece for The Washington Post, “Slathering Culture on Top of Capitalism.” She describes the campaign as “choked with references,” almost dripping with desperation in its attempt to sell “the glories of wealth, specifically to Black and Brown people.” Givhan recognizes that Tiffany is clearly trying to connect with younger customers and revamp its image: “It’s looking to attract an admiring gaze from an increasingly diverse population. It aims to highlight creativity. It’s attempting to elevate its merchandise to more than just stuff, but rather stuff with meaning. It wants to be aware and sensitive and enlightened.” But, she argues, while “Tiffany wants a lot,” the reality is, “The Carters are giving them very little. The rich narrative belongs to Beyoncé and Jay-Z. They’re not sharing their cultural wealth.” In essence, Givhan judges the campaign as unsuccessful – too forced, too formulaic, and inevitably inauthentic.
It can be difficult to articulate why the campaign feels inevitably inauthentic. Ostensibly, Tiffany did everything ‘correctly,’ so why does it still fail to translate as intended? Clues can be found by delving even deeper beneath the surface: in his digitual humanities project, Fashioing the Self in Slavery and Freedom, Dr. Jonathan Michael Square examines the history of Tiffany & Co. to illustrate how the company’s origins are inextricably linked to enslavement. In an Instagram post caption, he traces how the startup capital, crucial to launching the brand in 1837, was accrued via cotton production that depended heavily on the labor of enslaved people. Square concludes, “The partnership of Beyonce and Jay-Z, both descendants of enslaved people, with [Tiffany] brings to light African Americans’ complicated relationship with the fashion system.” This historical background helps contextualize the vague sense of discomfort expressed by many Black users on Twitter — a carefully crafted picture and thoughtful donation cannot repair this relationship.
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After numerous postponements and tense conversations, brands and trade unions agreed to a two year extension of the Bangladesh Accord mere days before its expiration. The Accord was a landmark contract drawn in the aftermath of the Rana Plaza factory disaster of 2013, and has helped significantly in efforts to ensure safe and healthy working conditions for garment workers in Bangladesh.
Rachel Deeley reports for Business of Fashion that the renewed, legally binding agreement is titled “International Accord for Health And Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry,” and will extend beyond Bangladesh to protect workers in other regions. The Accord went into effect on September 1, 2021.