April 21, 2024

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Crafting Fashion Trends

Has Fashion Canceled Canceling? Balenciaga, Ye and John Galliano Suggest It Has

8 min read

“John Galliano, High & Low,” the feature-length documentary about the former Dior designer’s fall from grace after a drunken antisemitic rant in a Paris bar in 2011, and his long climb back, is interesting for a number of reasons. It is a chance to hear from Mr. Galliano himself about his struggles, for one, and to look back at the fashion world of the 1990s. But just as striking is the number of think pieces it has spawned meditating on Mr. Galliano’s transgressions, repentance and, it seems, current state of forgiveness.

Indeed, the film’s greatest significance may have less to do with the story it tells than with what it seems to represent: the official end of Mr. Galliano’s time in the wilderness. It serves as a coda to a period that began with his firing from Dior and subsequent conviction for hate crimes and that lasted through a prolonged period of atonement and a new job at Maison Margiela, where Mr. Galliano’s work is once again being celebrated.

As such, it also reflects a shift away from the era of outrage, particularly in fashion. “It does seem like, in the end, everyone is allowed back in,” said Achim Berg, a former lead of McKinsey & Company’s global apparel, fashion and luxury group.

Though individuals in other industries have been canceled and have returned to public life — Aziz Ansari and Louis C.K. spring to mind — fashion is unique in the way it uses people to humanize brands, meaning their actions are intrinsically connected to the fortunes of a much larger company, as are their creations.

Perhaps the only equivalent is the restaurant world, though designers and celebrities generally have higher name recognition than even the most famous chefs, and the financial implications are significantly greater. As a result, it is possible that in this case, as with many trends, whither fashion, whither the culture. Or vice versa.

After all, beyond Mr. Galliano, a brief list of the once-disgraced-now-re-emerging includes:

Ye, the artist formerly known as Kanye West, who was broadly excoriated and lost his corporate deals after his own racist and antisemitic statements in 2022. Last month, however, Ye appeared in the front row at the Marni show, and he is currently featured in Y/Project’s 10th-anniversary lookbook, along with Charli XCX and Tyga. Adidas, despite ending its official relationship with him, continues to promote and sell its Yeezy stock.

Balenciaga, which was inundated by a social media mob in 2022 after a poorly judged holiday ad campaign caused some people to allege that the brand was promoting child pornography. Now it not only has the stamp of approval of brand ambassadors Kim Kardashian (formerly a fan of the brand who distanced herself after the controversy but has very publicly returned to the fold), Nicole Kidman and Michelle Yeoh, but has found new momentum after a highly praised recent show, which shrugged off the hair shirt of atonement for high-octane statement-making.

Dolce & Gabbana, which suffered a fall from grace in 2018, when it appeared to offend all of China with an ad campaign that trafficked in racial stereotype, and which was preceded by numerous slurs about size and sexual orientation. In 2022, the brand not only appeared to sponsor an entire Kardashian wedding but also collaborated with Kim, and recently has been ubiquitous on the red carpet. Both Usher and Alicia Keys wore the brand for their performance at the Super Bowl, watched by 123.7 million viewers.

Marchesa, founded by Georgina Chapman, the former wife of Harvey Weinstein, which went quiet in the immediate aftermath of the exposure of Mr. Weinstein’s criminal actions, but has once more become an awards show go-to for the likes of Hannah Waddingham and Padma Lakshmi.

Alexander Wang, who was accused of sexual misconduct in 2021, then settled a lawsuit and held a show last year attended by the great and good of New York and Los Angeles.

It’s easy to dismiss fashion’s fickleness as a product of its superficiality — this is, after all, an industry predicated on pushing change almost every four months — but something more complicated and meaningful may be going on.

“I think it’s directly correlated with the industry’s current obsession with discretion and propriety — its nonconfrontational nature and risk aversion,” said Gabriella Karefa-Johnson, the stylist and activist, nodding to the tendency in fashion to play it safe in the face of an uncertain economic and political climate — to revert to the known (white male designers with the same facial hair, for example), even if the known has some skeletons in its closet.

Mr. Berg said that perhaps it was simply a question of proportion. There are so many tensions in the world at the moment, with so many enormous implications, that everything else seems less serious in comparison. Also, he said, “After the last American election, all parameters about what is and what is not acceptable have changed” — and not just in fashion. In his view, cancel culture itself may have been a phenomenon of the Covid era.

“We may be experiencing a degree of outrage fatigue,” said Susan Scafidi, the founder of the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham University. “With waves of scandal, the first is the worst, but every apology that we collectively accept lessens the drama of the next incident.”

This is especially true when the actions being apologized for vary so widely, from sexual assault to hate crimes to racial slurs to guilt by association — and from actual crimes that can, and sometimes are, prosecuted in a court of law to crimes in the court of public opinion.

And yet, as Julie Zerbo, the founder of The Fashion Law website, pointed out, the details and severity of the offense may differ, but the story lines are broadly the same. They start with an online outcry, followed by an apology, a retreat to “focus on the work” (or some such), a fallow period and then a re-emergence, chastened but accepted. That pattern has become so predictable, it is almost rote. And it encourages a tendency to see all of the cases as the same, to conflate the most serious with the least.

Especially because transgressions look less shocking the further they recede in the rearview mirror, or the more they are replaced by new ones. In a world of shortened attention spans, people can pay attention to only so much wrongdoing at once.

It is perhaps not an accident that the founders of Diet Prada, the Instagram fashion watchdog account that rose to prominence on its willingness to call out wrongdoing, declined to comment for this article and have pivoted toward broader reporting on fashion.

Is there anything that is not forgivable? “For those who don’t regain their former status — Anand Jon and Harvey Weinstein come to mind — a key reason is that their transgressions are so serious that the justice system intervenes,” Ms. Scafidi said.

It’s also worth noting that, as Ms. Zerbo said, what happens in the echo chamber of, say, fashion X and what the global consumer knows can be different. Balenciaga never experienced the same blowback in Asia that it did in the West. And while celebrities were chary of Dolce & Gabbana for a few months after the China blowup, they soon came around when red carpets (and free trips to Italy for the couture extravaganza) beckoned.

“None of these people were ever actually canceled,” Ms. Karefa-Johnson said. They were simply moved out of the spotlight. “Eventually enough time passes that the canceled can uncancel themselves — through their work, or their lingering ‘genius,’ or their moneymaking potential or their social capital that never fully depreciated,” she said.

For Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue, who was instrumental in the return of at least three of the canceled designers — Mr. Galliano, whose return to fashion she helped orchestrate; Ms. Chapman, whom she featured in Vogue in 2018; and Demna of Balenciaga, whose mea culpa she published early last year — this is more of a course correction after a reversion to mob mentality.

“To me the issue isn’t only forgiveness, but also the severity with which we judge people in the first place,” she wrote in an email. “I feel quite strongly that our culture has begun to move too quickly toward condemnation — toward a feeling of certainty that particular offenses or mistakes are unforgivable. The truth is we rarely know the full story, and all of us are fallible.”

Though Ms. Wintour acknowledged that there was behavior that was unforgivable, she declined to specify what might qualify as such, but presumably cases like those Ms. Scafidi cited, which involve a crime. Generally, she said, “we need to show more compassion, understanding and forgiveness, not less.”

The problem is, how does one measure repentance? No one can look into someone else’s soul. Is it in money earmarked for the injured party in perpetuity? In the work itself? Public shaming requires public agreement as to what constitutes atonement and how that can or should be assessed, and that’s a far harder subject to address. Easier, really, to shrug and move on.

“Speaking for myself, I have not forgiven Dolce & Gabbana,” Ms. Karefa-Johnson said. She has refused to shoot that brand’s clothing for the last five years, in part because she found the public apology unconvincing. “For me, there is a very clear route to redemption. It looks a lot like financial reparations”

The issue, Ms. Scafidi said, is this: “At the end of the day, consumers make fashion choices while looking in the mirror, not at the designer behind it. It can be hard to turn away from a flattering look to uphold an invisible principle.” And where consumers and their wallets go, companies follow. To a certain extent, it has been ever thus.

“The ur-text for the public pardoning of a designer may be Chanel after World War II,” Ms. Scafidi went on, referring to the continued global embrace of the brand as a paragon of chic despite Coco Chanel’s role as a Nazi collaborator, now being told onscreen in the Apple TV+ fictionalized series “The New Look.”

“With every biography or dramatization that reminds us of her Nazi associations,” Ms. Scafidi said, “the price of the 2.55 bag seems to rise a bit higher.” She wasn’t talking about money.

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