Can Fashion Brands Actually Be Canceled?

While Kourtney Kardashian and Travis Barker's three-part wedding was a love-filled affair, the bridal party's choice of designer was not so well-received. As pictures poured in from the Las Vegas nuptials, followed by a bigger ceremony in Portofino, Italy, it became apparent that the entire Kardashian-Jenner clan were dressed by Dolce & Gabbana. Four months later, Kim Kardashian announced an archival partnership with the brand, stepping out to introduce the collaboration on the spring/summer 2023 runway in Milan.

The fashion house is seemingly enjoying a resurgence among today's biggest stars, but it wasn't too long ago that Dolce & Gabbana was inundated with controversy. The Milan-based brand's history of racism and homophobia runs deep. In less than a decade, the brand came under fire for an ad with a Chinese model eating Italian food with chopsticks; selling "Slave Sandals" and Blackamoor earrings; referring to children born from IVF as "synthetic" (Dolce issued an apology); saying that it opposes gay adoption; calling Selena Gomez "ugly"; and creating #Boycott shirts after receiving backlash for dressing former First Lady Melania Trump.

And yet, Dolce & Gabbana still enjoys public support from high-profile celebrities.

Along with the aforementioned Kardashian-Barker wedding, Miley Cyrus publicly congratulated her younger brother, Braison, for walking in a Dolce & Gabbana show on Instagram. Vice President Kamala Harris wore a gray suit from the brand in late January 2021. Kristen Stewart's shimmering Critics' Choice dress landed on several best-dressed lists.

Dolce & Gabbana is one of many fashion houses in the midst of a desperate rebrand after being embroiled in controversy. Aided by celebrities, influencers, and publicists, these labels somehow sidestep "cancel culture" and force their way back onto red carpets and Instagram feeds — with the ultimate goal of getting back in shoppers' good graces.

It begs the question: can a fashion brand even be canceled?

Getty | Frazer Harrison

Alexander Wang is another designer hoping to return to public favor. On April 19, he invited 800 people to his fall 2022 runway show in Chinatown in Los Angeles. Models, including a pregnant Adriana Lima, paraded down the runway in ruffle minidresses and deconstructed leather at the event, titled Fortune City. The immersive space was reimagined with architectural influence from Chinese banquet halls. And the designer donated funds directly to the Los Angeles Chinatown Corporation; immediately following the show, shoppers could purchase a $50 Fortune City graphic T-shirt with 100 percent of net proceeds going to the organization.

"[Alexander Wang] will continue to effect [sic] positive change," the press release read. But what about the very negative impact of his sexual-assault allegations unearthed just a year prior?

The runway spectacle felt like it was staged to draw attention away from those accusations, which spread like wildfire across the internet in late 2020. Wang was publicly denounced for sexual-assault allegations that detailed scenarios in which he allegedly drugged, groped, or sexually assaulted people at parties. (Wang responded to the reports in March 2021, acknowledging that his behavior was harmful but saying he disagreed on details.)

Meanwhile, like Dolce & Gabbana, Wang maintains his pack of devoted street style stars, including Rihanna, who stepped out in an Alexander Wang miniskirt and thigh-high boots, and Julia Fox, who crafted a DIY outfit from Wang's denim. Behati Prinsloo-Levine, Candice Swanepoel, and Alessandra Ambrosio were among the celebrities in attendance at Wang's recent fashion show.

Celebrity stylist Jared Eng, who works with stars like Joey King and Kodi Smit-McPhee, tells POPSUGAR that he'll avoid brands that are considered problematic: "[If] creative directors of brands are under fire for something they've said or done, we'll steer clear of that brand for a while until an apology has been made and it looks like they've learned from their mistakes."

Likewise, celebrity-stylist team Zadrian Smith and Sarah Edmiston, who dress Ariana DeBose and Naomi Scott, are discerning about the brands they work with. "We're not going to allow our clients to be put forward for somebody else's agenda, especially if we question in any way the authenticity of their agenda, or if we are concerned that back of house they are not doing the work, and they want to use our client for a gesture," says Edmiston. "Our people are too intelligent for that, we value them too highly for that, and we work in full transparency. We would just have a very transparent chat with the client about our research and thoughts and feelings, and then ultimately the decision is theirs, of course."

"There definitely needs to be an apology [from a brand] to show they've learned from their past."

That said, Smith points out that stylists who do dress their clients in Dolce & Gabbana, let's say, aren't necessarily supporting the founders' actions or ignoring the controversy. They could be focused on rehabilitation instead. "We're not privy to the conversations that are being had behind closed doors," he says.

Even when the fashion industry does step away from a brand, it's less of a permanent cancellation and more of an extended pause. While Eng believes a fashion house can be "canceled" through recklessness, he acknowledges that redemption is still possible after a time. "Brands that consistently have a bad rap with multiple infractions over the course of a number of years I would say could be canceled. That just goes to show that the brand hasn't learned from their mistakes at all," he says.

At the same time, he's willing to continue working with a label after an apology and avoidance period. "There definitely needs to be an apology [from a brand] to show they've learned from their past. I think only after a certain amount of time has lapsed that I would be open to dressing a client in a brand I might have avoided in the past because of their ethics or history," he says. "I've come to forgive but not forget. There are always polite and professional ways to turn down opportunities from a brand. And it's not to say 'no' forever, it's only 'no' for now."

Getty | Rachpoot/Bauer-Griffin

Fashionista editor in chief Tyler McCall, who reported on Dolce & Gabbana's problematic past on her site last year, says the media outlet decides how to handle controversial brands on a case-to-case basis. While both reprehensible, Wang's sexual-assault allegations may be handled differently than Dolce & Gabbana's offensive comments. "It's definitely a different calculation that varies from incident to incident," she says, "because every situation has its own circumstances to consider."

Generally, editors will reassess how they approach coverage. "Whenever an individual or a brand is involved with some kind of controversy, we try to be significantly more thoughtful in how or if we cover them. We take into consideration what happened, who was harmed, and who might continue to be harmed by any sort of 'fluffy' coverage of that person or brand," she says, defining fluffy coverage as market stories or articles about celebrity outfits. Like Eng, she leaves the door open for redemption. "We also take into consideration what steps have been taken, if any, to make amends," she says.

"It's important to continue to take stakeholders in the industry to task."

Smith and Edmiston are adamantly against cancellation and choose instead to educate designers and brand reps. "We don't believe in the group mass canceling of anyone or anything," Edmiston says. "We do take the time where we will not support your business if you are not in a good place, but we also take the time to sit with you and your PR director and outline the issues and concerns. We like to think of ourselves as willing to have that conversation in a constructive way, and we invite everyone: clients, publicists, brands, and whoever wants to have that conversation with us."

Smith references Gucci as proof that open dialogue, rather than cancellation, can aid in a brand's rehabilitation. "I found a lot of the things that were happening at Gucci problematic," he says, referencing the brand's turban that appropriated culture of the Sikh religion on the runway and its fall/winter 2018 sweater that resembled blackface.

"Gucci listened to us and they heard us, putting programs and initiatives in place to support young talent, academics, and designers. If you do your research on Gucci, they're silently doing the work."

Smith cites the inclusive red carpet at the brand's Love Parade runway show as an example. "[The house invited] Serena Williams, Billie Eilish, Paul Mescal, and then you had the whole crew from Harlem with Dapper Dan. This is what fashion should be."

While Gucci was never successfully "canceled" per se, they were held responsible for their actions. And with open conversation and a genuine commitment to inclusivity, the brand was able to forge a new path.

Cancellation may not be the answer — or even a successful strategy — but accountability is critical if we want the fashion industry to foster a safer, more ethical business culture. "It's important to continue to take stakeholders in the industry to task," McCall says. "That's the only way the industry can improve."