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Dolce & Gabbana’s traditional-values gambit

The glitzy fashion label Dolce & Gabbana is trending on Twitter for the wrong reason: Celebrities and gay activists are calling for a boycott of the brand because of something Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana have said. In the end, however, it may do the designers a world of good.

In an interview with the Italian magazine Panorama, the two designers, who are gay and were once a couple, said they opposed gay adoption and in-vitro fertilization (“children of chemistry, synthetic children,” Dolce scoffed). “The family is not a fad,” Gabbana said. “It has a supernatural sense of belonging.” “You are born to a mother and a father — or at least that’s how it should be,” Dolce remarked.

This angered the singer Elton John, who used IVF to have two children with his husband, David Furnish. He wrote on Instagram:

“How dare you refer to my beautiful children as ‘synthetic.’ And shame on you for wagging your judgmental little fingers at IVF — a miracle that has allowed legions of loving people, both straight and gay, to fulfill their dream of having children. Your archaic thinking is out of step with the times, just like your fashions. I shall never wear Dolce and Gabbana ever again.”

Other celebrities, including Victoria Beckham, Ricky Martin and Courtney Love, joined in. TV screenwriter, director and producer Ryan Murphy even tweeted that Dolce & Gabbana’s “clothes are as ugly as their hate.”

By this stage, it no longer mattered that Dolce & Gabbana did not express hatred for anyone or even profess to give advice: As they said in a later statement, they merely aired their personal views. That’s a weak defense, of course. First, public figures are role models, and that’s why their views are interesting to people who don’t know them personally. Second, these views can be highly objectionable. An anti-Semitic rant in a bar almost killed the career of John Galliano, a designer who had created fashions for Christian Dior for 15 years. Only last year, after three years of highly public penance, did Galliano manage to return to fashion as artistic director of Maison Martin Margiela.

On the other hand, not many people care what their tailor thinks of IVF babies, or even Jews, as long as their clothes fit. Perhaps Dolce & Gabbana’s problem was that buyers — not the celebrity ones, just those who can afford pricy Italian designer clothes — were beginning to tire of their flashy creations. Maybe they thought a bit of scandal could give the brand a boost.

The Italian fashion house’s revenue for the financial year that ended in March 2014 was down for the second year in a row, declining to 759 million euros ($804 million) from a record 910.9 million euros in 2012. Operating income was down to 51.2 million euros from 114.5 million for the same period.

Until recently, the designers fought an exhausting court battle with Italian fiscal authorities, who accused them of tax evasion. Italy’s top court cleared them last October, but before that they had received a 20-month suspended sentence. As is usually the case, news of the designers’ acquittal did not spread as widely as news of their conviction had. That was a nasty image problem, too; at least as far as I’m concerned, tax delinquency is a better reason for a boycott than personal views on childbirth and families.

The marketing idea that Dolce & Gabbana hit on to revive their fortunes had to do with traditional motherhood: It went well with Italian traditions, a major selling point for Dolce & Gabbana, and it was novel enough to stir the jaded fashion world. British Vogue lapped it up at the brand’s latest show:

“To an audience of mostly women, many of whom are missing their own families at the end of the third leg of fashion month, the Italian duo had us from the get go. The curtains opened to reveal a stage set with mothers, dressed in black silk and lace slips each with their own children; from babies to toddlers, sat on laps, gripped in arms. As Spice Girls’ Mama blasted out, Bianca Balti emerged, heavily pregnant in a blush-coloured shift. She received a round of applause.”

That was only two weeks ago. Now, the gay community is in an uproar about the two designers’ insensitive remarks about IVF and paeans to traditional family values — but at the same time, #BoycottEltonJohn is also trending. Not too many supporters of both boycotts can afford Dolce & Gabbana clothes, but the buzz generated by a pitched Twitter battle against gays and ultraliberals, on the one hand, and conservatives (and bigots) on the other is unlike anything the brand has seen in years — except, perhaps, during the tax battle.

When the smoke clears, Dolce & Gabbana’s image as a gay- friendly brand may suffer a bit — though not as much as one might think, because nobody in their right mind could accuse the two designers of homophobia. Yet the label is likely to get a boost from a strengthened association with mothering and families: Its clientele is, after all, predominantly straight women.

I suspect there’s nothing personal about Sicilian-born Dolce’s sudden outburst of traditionalist rhetoric: It’s just business.

Leonid Bershidsky, a Bloomberg View contributor, is a Berlin-based writer.

© 2015, Bloomberg News

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