Dolce & Gabbana's spring/summer 2013 runway show had barely finished parading on the catwalk in Milan on Sept. 24 when the luxury fashion brand found itself generating buzz ... less for the clothes than for the accessories — specifically, the earrings dangling from the models' lobes. Depicting an African American woman's fruit-carrying head as earrings smacked of colonialism to some, and just plain offensive to others, and not just women and people of color.
D&G, accused of "romanticising slavery" and worse, turned to Vogue to publish the brand's explanation in an online article titled "Dolce & Gabbana Explains Controversial Jewellery." That's fairly ironic, considering Vogue has been behind both the NBA star LeBron James "King Kong" cover controversy and raked for a reference to "a pair of large, gold hoops as 'slave earrings'."
But did D&G's own show add the ultimate irony of its excuse? And what did they think would be the response?
D&G's in-house magazine carries a story about how the designs for the S/S 2013 women's ready to wear line were "inspired by Moorish features," adding as a disclaimer that "it has to be said that the term 'Moorish' has no real ethnological value."
Essentially, D&G's argument is that its use of "Moorish" designs is an homage to the (not ethnological!) Moors, and an artistic reference to Blackamoor decorative arts and Italy's artistic depictions of "Muslim invaders" from Africa, one small part of the collection's overall "Sicilian folk" theme.
Despite being wrapped in the five-figure parchment of luxury, this argument is essentially the same as the one used by defenders of sports teams using Native American mascots. The University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux recently lost its decades-long fight to keep its Sioux fighting, but the Washington Redskins play every Sunday in the autumn.
While D&G's mis-step on the catwalk is a fashion industry racism misdemeanor compared to the racist, anti-Semitic (and criminal!) rant by Dior designer John Galliano, it is still a rather bleak moment for the brand. Even if D&G's explanation is taken at face value, it still had to give an explanation.
Why is it that brands and their representatives just fail to think sometimes? Sure, Papa John's has little control over an ignorant employee preparing a "lady chinky eyes" receipt for an Asian customer. But Popchips should have known better than to put Ashton Kutcher in "brownface."
Yes, Hollister certainly would not have advised its models to make "chink eyes" while on a promotional trip to Korea. But what about Abercrombie & Fitch's 2002 offering of t-shirts featuring Chinese dry-cleaner caricatures with the message "Two Wongs can Make it White." Funny? A little. Racist? A little. (Shanghai Tang, by the way, used to bear the slogan "Made by Chinese" as a Chinglish play to expats seeking Orient chic to carry home from Hong Kong.)
And what of Jeremy Scott's controversial Adidas shackled "slavery shoe?" In a vacuum, is the shackle shoe racist? No. Does Adidas sell its products in a vacuum? No.
Maybe most similar to D&G's infraction is a recent poorly thought out release from China's Li-Ning. The athletic brand thought it was serving a market when it designed a limited edition Cinco de Mayo shoe. And maybe it was. But by naming it "El Boom Loco" it more of less forfeited much of the high ground, just as the fashion industry's poor record on race.
The truth is that, like Adidas, D&G's earrings are not racist in a vacuum. But when Americans, and many others from one-colonized nations, see those "Moor" inspired designs they immediately think of brand caricatures like Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben from the not too distant past. Indeed, Jezebel said the earrings and the colorful fabric designs smacked of "Mammy"-like stereotypes of American slaves.
While the syrup's history of itself glosses over its now politically-corrected brand, many Americans remember the brand's pedigree. Jemima and Ben are now a featured exhibit at the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia.
And then there are the brands that have not even done that much to reform. Darlie toothpaste had to do more than just soften the racism inherent in its mascot. Once called Darkie and featuring a pitchman in blackface, the brand is now marketed across Asia as "Darlie" featuring a mascot with blackface removed. Yet, in Chinese, Darlie goes by the name "黑人牙膏," quite literally, "Black People Toothpaste."
In the end, Dolce & Gabbana's show damned itself in the debate. Over the course of the spring/summer 2013 runway show, the one dedicated to "Moorish" things, despite the dozens and dozens of models, there appeared not a single African American model. As one New York Magazine commentator put it: "They think it's okay to feature Blacks as jewelry, but NOT as runway models?"