“Hiring Now!” Earlier in February, Kering placed a job opening for a Vice President of Communications overseeing Balenciaga. The job description stated that the role required “support in the development and execution of external and internal crisis communications strategy and responses”. Simply put, someone in charge of crisis control. Right before we wrapped up 2022, Balenciaga was embroiled in a heated child-sexualising controversy due to two back-to-back holiday ad campaigns the brand released. One had children posing alongside teddy bears in evocative S&M leather gear. In another, court documents were scattered on the table—on closer inspection, the photos were from a child pornography case.
You don’t have to be attuned to fashion news to read about the scandal plastered everywhere. #CancelBalenciaga was trending; outraged people were seen burning their Balenciaga goods. Christmas was anything but jolly for Balenciaga. People began boycotting the brand entirely—in Gen Z terms, Balenciaga was cancelled. Or was it? The brand sent models strutting the runway anyway, showcasing their Fall/Winter ‘23 collection in March. There was no star-studded front row, no in-your-face logo, and no gimmicky set-ups—just garments. A mere three months after the incident, this rapid recovery is no novelty. We’ve seen this happen once in 2018 to another long-standing fashion house, Dolce & Gabbana (D&G). The development of the incident looks uncannily similar, almost like none of us learned anything from the precedent. This begs the question: how relevant is cancel culture in fashion? Is cancel culture #cancelled in the fashion industry?
THE EXTREMISM OF POLITICAL CORRECTNESS
Cancel culture has become such a ubiquitous response to boycotting those who acted or spoke in a way the majority of society perceives as unacceptable. Free speech, censorship, and the idea of being politically correct spawned the whole idea of cancelling someone. While its origin is vague, the phrase’s popularity burgeoned after movements like #MeToo, and #BlackLivesMatter emerged. Marginalised communities who suffered from oppression were encouraged to call out their abusers and voice out the unfair treatment.
On one end of the spectrum, cancel culture is a tool for social justice that utilises the collective voices and actions on social media to confront an imbalance of power. That is, calling out someone for accountability and eventually cancelling them if nothing else works. Despite the positive intention, cancelling someone is often the eventual move after calling them out—a more intense action to confront this injustice.
Cancel culture IS toxic. There is a difference between a mistake-maker and an evil person. Some may be the latter, but the vast majority are the former. I see divides deepening & understanding disintegrating as people are afraid to ask questions or be wrong. Teach, don’t shame.
— Maya Horgan Famodu (@mayahorgan) September 11, 2021
The other side of the coin is the inescapable possibility of weaponising the spear. Cancelling is an incendiary buzzword. As it snowballed, it gained notoriety, leading to potential online shaming and cyberbullying. Google Trends data reported a steep increase in search interest for “cancel culture” in late 2018 and early 2019.
It can’t be called a movement either, as no leader or standardised framework defines what should or should not be cancelled. It can be as straightforward as being involved in a crime or court trial to a decade-old tweet you once shared. Cancel culture became a mainstream language, overused and misused so much that even public figures like Barack Obama and Pope Francis spoke out against it.
CANCEL CULTURE IN FASHION
The fashion industry is never short of controversy. It represents serious craftsmanship, artistic quality, and the, oh don’t be silly, everyone wants to be us kind of glamour. Fashion houses are often placed in the spotlight, answering not only to their clientele but also to the public. Therefore, any wrong moves could lead to a major setback.
D&G, for instance, released a series of videos aimed at Chinese audiences to tease and promote their shows in Shanghai. The responses were the opposite of the expected, as Chinese netizens were enraged instead. Models in the campaign were seen being “instructed” by the narrator on how to eat Italian dishes with chopsticks, making it a racist and archaic stereotype along with disrespectful narrations. Fashion watchdog Diet Prada quickly picked up the controversy and translated it for their audience, eventually provoking an international public outcry. Adding fuel to the fire, the co-founders made derogatory replies to the people who called them out via their direct messages, and screenshots made their way around the internet. The Chinese Cultural and Tourism Department ordered the brand to cancel their runway shows hours before the scheduled time—a literal cancellation for D&G.
The scandal happened in 2018 at the peak of cancel culture, and D&G fell flat-faced on it. Celebrities and
e-tailers like Net-a-Porter dropped the brand in a show of solidarity on the side of the politically correct. This resulted in a 98% sales decline that year, as reported by L2 inc. It has since become a prime example of cancel culture in the fashion industry.
While it was a stumble for D&G, it definitely wasn’t an insuperable cripple. The fashion house was reprieved barely a year later, dressing celebrities on the red carpets. The brand also finally hired a communication and marketing officer to recover from the communication crisis, a new role created after the furore.
Cancelling can happen not just to a fashion house but also to a designer. American designer Alexander Wang, for example, found himself caught in a turmoil of sexual assault allegations. He was exposed by model Owen Mooney, who experienced the harassment first-hand. Shit Model Management—another watchdog account specifically for models—revealed more anonymous stories submitted by its followers to cement the accusation. #CancelAlexanderWang circulated in the social media sphere for days, but it was short-lived.
julia speaks on her supporting and walking for alexander wang pic.twitter.com/f6yGRwWGCb
— julia fox fan updates (@juliafoxsource) February 9, 2023
Unlike Balenciaga and D&G, Alexander Wang’s boycott is less severe. The inner circle of the industry welcomed the designer back to the scene after a short hiatus. The subject of the cancellation might be the reason to view it as a separate case, as the uproar was directed towards the designer’s personal life, not his eponymous brand. Shunning the brand entirely is absurd. However, if a designer has always been the face of their brand, what would that mean for their misbehaviours? Take Man Repeller, for example. The one- woman fashion blog founded by Leandra Medine Cohen became a brand that moulded the millennial woman’s style and wardrobe.
Medine pioneered the fashion blogger scene in the 2010s, but her open letter intended to express allyship in the Black Lives Matters movement was the turning point. Her former POC (people-of-colour) employees quickly slammed her speech, calling it a performative attempt to cover her racist decisions and Man Repeller’s lack of inclusivity. While Medine “stepped down’’ from her position and the publication was rebranded as Repeller, she remains active in the scene, writing her paid 68,000-subscriber-strong newsletter on Substack.
Yet, these misconducts are commonplace in the fashion industry. Just look at John Galliano’s anti-Semitic remarks in 2011 that got him fired from Dior or Calvin Klein’s racy ads that featured 15-year-old Brooke Shields and 17-year-old Kate Moss. If the public had canceled them back then, would Galliano have been able to return as Maison Margiela’s creative director? Would Calvin Klein become the big household name it is today? The short answer is: yes.
WHO WATCHES THE WATCHER?
Even under public scrutiny and the normalised cancel culture, Balenciaga’s rehabilitation happened quicker than D&G. Granted; the comeback is an eventual outcome. But what is the optimal way of reparation—or is this yet another “greenwashing” game? Cancel culture offers to gatekeep and keep the influential figures grounded in the social and public sphere, but is it effective in providing tangible results? This leads us to a crucial question—who decides who is right and who is wrong?
Simply put: who is the judge?
The fashion guards certainly play a considerable role, monitoring the industry and ensuring that fashion businesses are ethical in every aspect, whether labour practices or environmental responsibility. Ideally, these media watchdogs represent the public in protecting and keeping emerging young talents under their wings. It can be an individual, a group, or even a company like BBC Channel 4, who brought
the fast fashion e-commerce platform Shein and their unethical labour conditions to light with an investigative documentary in 2022.
With social media omnipresence, the once-anonymous Diet Prada is the powerful gatekeeper that shakes the industry in this age, calling out plagiarism and revealing many underlying thorns in the flesh such as racism. After the D&G exposé in 2018, Diet Prada crusaded against the industry’s foul plays by raising the awareness bar high enough for brands to adhere to. The account amassed recognition and following for its capability to hold fashion brands and major designers accountable for their actions. After all, as New York Times puts it, “We’re All Drinking Diet Prada Now’’—no one wants to be in the crosshair.
Cancel culture can be likened to the reverse UNO card because no one is safe from it—not even the cancellers themselves. While its influence shows no signs of slowing down in the realm of social media, many criticise cancel culture’s aggressive approach and point out the lack of transparency on accounts such as Diet Prada. Ultimately, fashion is a business. Neutral police like Diet Prada cannot be entirely unbiased themselves, especially when the scale is heavier on one side when the matter involves brands that the account collaborated with.
Who is watching the watchdogs, and who is cancelling the canceller? When it comes to calling out the copycats, Diet Prada’s straightforward modus operandi—placing two designs side by side—was once regarded as digestible by the public. Now, however, people are raising their eyebrows and asking if cancelling someone else’s hard work should be as simplistic as a “spot the differences” post.
Quoting Pope Francis, mainstreaming the cancel culture is “under the guise of defending diversity, it ends up cancelling all sense of identity.” The public is gradually shifting into the “cancel fatigue” era. Brands, on the other hand, have adopted the “modern art of apology”—publishing a note that spells repentance or releasing more “drops” and “collaborations” to divert the public’s attention.
FACING THE MUSIC
Not only has cancel culture gotten the big guns antsy, but it also demands them to face the consequences of their misconduct, which usually involves more than just one party. Someone has to take the blame, like in the case of the D&G model who was scapegoated for being in the controversial campaign. Model Zuo Ye broke her silence months after the scandal, describing how her guilt has eaten her up, and how the exciting opportunity took an abrupt turn that nearly ruined her career. The responses to her post were split. While some understood that her hands were tied as a budding model working with a big brand, others blamed her for not reacting to the racism immediately while filming.
Setting fire to Balenciaga items 😱
Similarly, should we point fingers at people who bought Balenciaga goods before the incident for not being “woke”? At one point, slicing your Balenciaga bag or burning your trainers was equivalent to anti-Balenciaga solidarity—but is destroying or trashing something you spent your hard-earned money on the only way to take a stance?
Furthermore, why should the customers or the models feel pressured to take on the responsibility of answering for the brand’s wrongdoings? When cancel culture no longer serves on behalf of the “oppressed voice”, are we steering away from the core of the idea?
The million-dollar question is, can we actually cancel brands? We cannot. To a certain degree, the cancel culture reminds businesses and notable personalities in fashion to take precautionary steps before making decisions. They would stumble but are far from falling. Even a newcomer like Shein remains the most-googled brand in 2022 despite being exposed by BBC Channel 4, what more deep-rooted names like Balenciaga or D&G? In fact, D&G was the top ninth brand in the fourth quarter of 2022, according to Lyst.
Cancelling is, at the end of the day, a verb associated with capitalism and consumerism, such as cancelling a newspaper subscription or a business deal. The takeaway we should aim for, beyond holding these people accountable, is what the redemption path looks like. In fact, what actor LeVar Burton suggested: remodelling the entire concept to “consequence culture”. It should encompass every individual—public figure or not—possibly in good faith, to rectify and address the upheavals to give actual results.