Fashion brands have only had six months since the election of Donald Trump to understand how politics — and if politics — has an effect on their businesses. To test the space, they’ve donated funds, dedicated collections to supporting women’s rights, and created many (too many?) hundred-dollar T-shirts emblazoned with phrases of empowerment. While the strategy is still unclear for most, the messages they’re promoting are all still aligned with the longstanding tenets of the fashion industry: Progressivism, pluralism, tolerance, liberalism. Trolling though? Only Dolce & Gabbana has been dipping into that territory when it comes to politically charged messaging.
On Monday, Dolce & Gabbana released a series of video and images on its social media account of what looks like protest at first glance — a swarm of people chanting “boycott!” while pumping their fists, holding handmade signs and waving Italian flags. There is a news crew interviewing subjects, and protesters sporting armbands, bandanas, and the same “#Boycott Dolce & Gabbana” T-shirt (retailing for $245 on the website). But upon closer inspection, something is off: Everyone is smiling, there is confetti and the smoke bombs are rainbow-colored. The pieces of cloth covering faces and wrapped around sleeves seem to be made from the same bolt of white fabric. This “protest” more resembled a spontaneous office birthday celebration than a cry for revolution. In fact, the boycott was not against the brand, but rather against those boycotting the brand for enthusiastically promoting that Melania Trump is a Dolce & Gabbana customer. The posts are tagged #fakenews and #realtshirt.
While every other fashion brand has avoided talking about Melania Trump, Dolce & Gabanna has doubled-down on it. It is so far the only major designer label that has engaged in PR around FLOTUS. Its social media account has recently boasted every instance that Trump has worn the brand, and Stefano Gabbana himself has gone after online naysayers who’ve criticized the brand for its infatuation with the first lady. Consumers pushed for a boycott after Gabbana thanked Trump for wearing Dolce & Gabanna in her official White House portrait. A spokesperson for Dolce & Gabbana told Refinery29 that the video was created in response to the comments on social media to boycott the brand and that the video is not meant to be taken seriously or literally, but ironically. In essence, it involved politics, but was not about politics at all.
That Dolce & Gabanna seems to be embroiled in politics, but defend these acts as a-political is surreal. The factors are undeniable: The video depicts a protest, and it was Melania Trump who spurred the entire controversy, and who is the subject of protests. But, the brand’s reason for dressing Melania is because she is "beautiful,” no matter that she is complicit in policies and perspectives that may be damaging to the livelihoods of its customers. Dolce & Gabbana calls boycotters "haters" in order to reframe activism as an emotional tantrum. It seems like a particularly confusing tactic to take, especially when the stakes are so high — at least high enough that Dolce & Gabbana has been the only brand to come out in support of Melania (but only for her beauty, not her politics). Its defiant belief in its a-politicality has thrust them into the political spotlight.
Beyond that, this is a bizarre marketing decision in many ways. Considering the widespread flak that recently befell Pepsi when it released its own faux protest commercial, it seems like a shoot-yourself-in-the-foot move to attempt to co-opt protest iconography to sell a product. It’s also strange that the true intention of #BoycottDolceGabanna isn’t immediately clear to the casual viewer — you’d have to scroll through hundreds of posts with the hashtag to understand that Dolce & Gabbana is taking a tool formerly used to criticize the brand, and turning it into a tool to promote the brand.
"Part of their message is telling everyone to calm down. They are playfully striking back at what they perceive is as an attempt at censorship,” says fashion journalist Christina Binkley, who wrote about Dolce & Gabanna’s fall ’17 show for The New Yorker. First-amendment rights conversations are rife these days in America, with many on the right accusing those on the left of muzzling their ability to speak — and many engaging in these discussions are doing it for the first times in their lives. The freedom of speech is also guaranteed in other nations, and Italians are fiercely protective of theirs after recent administrations have tried to curtail them. “Many Italians are more accustomed to political chaos — remember Berlusconi?" says Binkley. "Dolce & Gabbana fail to grasp how shocking and polarizing all this is in the US.”
For an unfiltered look into this politics-but-not perspective, take a look at the fascinating Instagram account of Stefano Gabbana — the more outward facing half of the design duo. While most designers choose to present a sanitized social media presence, filled with platitudes, peonies, and professional photography, Gabbana relishes in irreverently dipping into highly-charged topics. But for those attempting to suss out what policies Gabbana supports or if he’s a fan of President Trump, good luck; His focuses seem to come from both ends of the typical social-political spectrum, ranging from sympathizing with Syrian refugees and recognizing those protesting Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro with heart emojis to doubling down on fat-shaming and complimenting Melania Trump for her resemblance to Sofia Loren. He routinely trolls his haters, suggesting where people might stick their opinions about him, and filling the comments of his online critics with strings of poop emojis. He is allergic to political correctness, but above all, is most triggered by people who criticizes Dolce & Gabbana, no matter what their reasons.
“Brands who don’t take a political side are being drawn into political discussion because they’ve done something which one group of people don’t like,” explains Neil Saunders, managing director of research firm GlobalData Retail, about the ire that Dolce & Gabbana drew regarding Melania. “But in consumer culture, there’s a bit of a backlash against overly corporatized brands; they like brands that have personality. They like a sense of individualism and difference. The problem is that if you don’t like the message, you won’t be so keen on the brand that’s conveying it.” The tactic most brands have taken is to engage in lite-activism, which can feel inauthentic in its own right. But to insist on commenting that your moves are a-political when commenting on political subjects is a unique tactic.
“Ultimately, the message that they’re spreading isn’t a negative one, and there is a degree which it should have resonance even with those who protest the Trump presidency,” Saunders believes. “It is a message of humanity — you shouldn’t just hate someone as an individual, even if you hate their politics. If someone wanting to buy something from a brand, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. There’s a big difference from saying ‘We’re very happy to serve someone’ and ‘We’re supporting the building of a wall.’”
Both Binkley and Saunders believe that those shades of differences is what might protect Dolce & Gabbana from the level of criticism leveled against Pepsi. “Dolce & Gabbana have always been deliberately provocative and they make fun of everything, including themselves.” says Binkley. “I think Dolce's message is a little tone deaf, given the feelings in the U.S.. But Pepsi was far worse than tone deaf — they weren't trying to be provocative.” Saunders notes that the main problem with Pepsi’s commercial was how they handled police brutality, a subject he believe is too sensitive to appear in marketing: “ No one would agree that anyone would being killed by a police officer under the circumstances in which people are protesting is a good thing. But with Trump, whether you think a wall should be built or not is a matter of political opinion. It is not a matter of life or death.”
Many who have felt the effects of Trump’s policies and rhetoric against immigrants, Muslims, and women would disagree — the decisions and laws coming out of the Trump administration can be devastating, dangerous, and fatal. But the overlap between those people — oftentimes poor and at risk — and Dolce & Gabbana’s customer base seem slim. To Stefano Gabbana’s credit, his personal, unfiltered Instagram contains the kind of racial, regional, and age diversity that many brands pay professional outreach teams to help them recreate, showing women in abayas, bikinis, locs, and wrinkles. But despite the ethnic diversity, these women are part of an elite financial bracket; the most striking thing that connects them is the money to afford the exotic, expensive environments these photos are taken in, and the ability to distance themselves from Trump’s policies that may endanger them. If you consider the privileged world of Dolce & Gabanna executive team and its consumers who are able to afford a $245 shirt, it makes sense that Trump’s policies might have little negative impact on their lives. In other words, engaging with Trump has little to to do with their ability to comfortably and safely live their lives. For them, actual politics can be a-political. The only thing worth boycotting are those who harsh on your ability to have fun.
A scroll through the hashtag reveals dozens of recent pro-Dolce & Gabbana Instagrams, which have drowned out posts criticizing Dolce & Gabbana for homophobic comments about gay adoption, and dressing Melania Trump. In these, smiling, rich, mostly Milanese women wear their new #BoycottDolceGabanna shirts.
What they write is not nearly as interesting as what they aren’t writing about their new boycott shirts: “Bellissima,” “Have a good day
“This is me trying to be an Italian bombshell,” one woman based in NYC writes. “#Ladolcevita.”