Forgive and forget?

Saying Sorry (Not Sorry) To Fashion’s Hate Couture

Can justice and reparation ever be truly served by the industry’s cancel culture?

Saying Sorry (Not Sorry) To Fashion’s Hate Couture

The world is no rose-tinted paradise. Monsters walk among us. Humanity is real and complex, and in 2019, debate surrounding cancel culture poses increasingly urgent questions: How can (repeat) offenders seek redemption, and do they deserve it at all? At what point does rehabilitation unjustly outweigh punishment or reparations to victims?

The rag trade produces everything from bike shorts to bucket hats and bigots, all of which can be deeply unappealing. Whether guilty of outright hate speech or micro-aggressions, these “deplorables” are especially conspicuous in an industry that tries to brand itself as progressive.

Social media gives the likes of Stefano Gabbana (guilty of vitriolic racism) and Gosha Rubchinskiy (guilty of sexually predatory behaviour) plenty of rope and turns the court of public opinion into their gleeful hangmen. As juicily entertaining as it may be, however, the digital reign of terror rarely serves up true justice.

If anything, it’s made us numb to the forced, insincere backpedalling post-scandal, and led us to give up on holding offenders to account. So we’re not that different from the traumatised French peasants of yore, except for our gluten-free diets and Invisalign, after all.

John Galliano was suspended from Dior in 2011 for his anti-Semitic insults and saying he loved Adolf Hitler.
(Photo credit MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP/Getty Images)

“I love Hitler. People like you would be dead today. Your mothers, your forefathers, would all be f***ing gassed, and f***ing dead”

With those words, videotaped during a drunken confrontation in a Parisian bar, John Galliano’s life imploded spectacularly in 2011. Christian Dior swiftly dismissed him, the French court charged him with hate speech and he ended up ostracised by all but a handful of close friends. He wisely decided to retreat from the public eye to sort out his substance abuse issues.

At the time, a career comeback of any sort was improbable. But rise from the proverbial dead Galliano did. Only three years later, he landed the post of creative director at Maison Margiela, where he remains critically adored.

Galliano’s singular redemption arc stands out in several ways. Firstly, hate speech is a prosecutable offence in France that is frequently, if not always, policed. It’s a rarity, even in the developed world, that everyone’s right to dignity is enshrined in law regardless of one’s opinions on sexism, racism and others.

Dolce & Gabbana learnt just how much a fashion label has to pay for racial insensitivity, with its 2018 ad, which featured a Chinese woman struggling to eat spaghetti with chopsticks. In the absence of legal proceedings, celebrities, retail partners and consumers became moral arbiters.

Meanwhile, the media measured the severity of Stefano Gabbana’s misdeeds against sales figures. With Chinese shoppers accounting for at least a third of luxury sales and two-thirds of the industry’s growth, any controversy or absence can adversely affect revenue. But as decreases in revenue substituted for criminal charges, any hint of a rebound signalled that, just maybe, the offence hadn’t been so bad after all. Business has seemingly returned to normal since the duo issued a video apology. The case of D&G confirms the adage: Hate is not ok in fashion — until the backlash dies down a season or two later. 

“Hate” goes beyond racism, sexism or other discriminatory thought

There’s a common denominator between soliciting nude photos from minors on Instagram under the guise of casting (yes, you, Rubchinskiy) and mocking second-language speakers (Chip Wilson thought it was “funny” watching the Japanese trying to pronounce “Lululemon”).

Such naked contempt for those who are different from us and mockery of the system that kicks up a fuss over such crimes, allows many offenders to get away unscathed. By not pressing for lawful penalties, we’re complicit in the culture of impunity that’s made hate essentially permissible.

Stefano Gabbana and Domenico Dolce apologise after an offensive racist ad and incendiary messages sparked backlash and the sudden cancellation of a major show in Shanghai.

Some argue that harsh legal consequences for hate speech, sexual impropriety and a host of other vices seen as inseparable from genius could stifle creativity. Tough luck, then. It doesn’t matter if you’re Galliano or Picasso: human suffering is never a justifiable price for art; it only corrupts our enjoyment thereof. Legislation against hateful behaviour should be enforced throughout society, and fashion’s deplorables are not exempt.

Legal systems are far from perfect but it cannot be left to social media or private sector players to dispense justice from shopping carts and smartphone keyboards. So unless you are licensed to practise law, save your comments section apologisms for your prejudiced echo chamber. ICYMI, “everyone’s a little bit racist” is not a valid defence either.

Dolce & Gabbana

Despite cancel culture’s corrective intentions, one must admit, hashing out disordered or prejudiced thinking in a public yet anonymous online arena is hardly therapeutic

Nobody enjoys getting called out, especially when it’s deserved. Imagine a friend catches you using a disposable straw after she’s gifted you a reusable one (oops!). And it’s equally unpleasant when you get savaged by thousands of keyboard warriors for dropping the N-bomb on Instagram (double oops!). Confronted with a faceless horde of outraged critics, it’s no surprise many guilty parties stubbornly dig their heels in.

On that note, Galliano found forgiveness by making amends with leaders in the international Jewish community. Unusually, and refreshingly, in this confessional Internet age, most of this emotional process was conducted in private.

In a 2019 profile by The Atlantic, Christian Picciolini, a former white supremacist who now runs anti-hate outreach and counselling programmes, emphasised the importance of privacy in dismantling ugly behaviour. “When people are in a group, they tend to not be as vulnerable or as forthcoming,” he shared.

Galliano is now the designer at Maison Margiela.

Motivations behind problematic attitudes are deeply personal and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach that neatly resolves them. Picciolini elaborated: “People hate other people because they hate something very specifically about themselves, or are very angry about a situation within their own environment, and that is then projected onto other people.”

Hate is institutional, but also individual and irrational. It is like a weed that must be dealt with, painstakingly, one seedling at a time. Think of it as anti-bigotry haute couture.

Does every despicable fashion insider deserve the benefit of psychologically safe, preferably one-on-one counselling? Is all that effort worth it to redeem someone who has consciously harmed others? We can never answer those questions satisfactorily, but perhaps the moral complexity of the issue is simply a fact of life.

The greatest lesson that redemption stories like Galliano’s can teach us is, hate can be learnt just as it can be unlearnt. Where Joan Rivers and company once skewered poorly dressed celebrities on Fashion Police, it may now be time for a fashion police with a more empathetic and nurturing stripe. Bike shorts and bucket bags are still not kosher though.

This story first appeared in the October 2019 issue of A.

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