Take a look in the mirror. What does the outfit you’re wearing say about your ideology? Nothing, you may think – except perhaps that you woke up before a lecture with 10 minutes to spare. In fact, the fashion world is having a crisis of conscience. No longer is it enough for brands to simply produce appealing clothes; their ethics have become the focus of rigorous scrutiny, and the wearers of their pieces cannot help but be associated with the transgressions of the company. So take a closer look. Your shirt might say you support child labour, your shoes whisper that you condone racism, and your scarf mutter that you aren’t that fussed about animal cruelty.
Morality has become a part of how we interact with fashion. How are we to react when our moral compass conflicts with our artistic appreciation of a brand? The latest crisis results from the conviction of Domenico Dolce, Stefano Gabbana, and several of their associates for tax evasion. As the case is being appealed, the fashion world has come out in force to support the designers. Meanwhile, the duo themselves have responded with a S/S14 collection saturated with coin motifs and gold in almost every look. For a company already forced to pay a fine of €343.4 million and facing time behind bars, making wealth the crux of their collection is rather brazen to say the least. Interestingly, unlike other big tax evaders – Amazon and Starbucks to name but a couple – the fashion house has attracted relatively little public scrutiny, and continues to be lauded with praise for its designs and commercial success.
Contrast this to the downfall of John Galliano, former head designer of Dior, when he was filmed making anti-Semitic comments in 2011. Dior was quick to suspend and later dismiss the designer, presumably in an attempt to salvage the house’s reputation amid widespread criticism. Yet still, amongst the voices of dissent lurked tentative statements expressing a hope that the industry would not be starved of his talent forever.
This raises an interesting question: can we as consumers still appreciate the artistic merit of a designer’s work without condoning that individual’s actions?
Most people would accept that what you respond to on an aesthetic level is not a result of reasoned choice, but rather a sensory reaction. The difference with fashion is that we don’t consume its substance in private; what we wear makes an ostensible statement about ourselves – whether we like it or not. Even if we’re able to separate the visual appeal of clothing from the behaviour of a designer or retailer, the same is not necessarily true of those around us. By financing that brand we are – intentionally or not – associating ourselves with its values.
In addition to the behaviour of individuals at the helm of a fashion house, the way in which a brand markets itself can also come under scrutiny. A recent promotional video made by Love Magazine promoting Louis Vuitton’s A/W13 collection attracted criticism for its exploitation of ‘prostitution-chic’ and glamorisation of the sex trade. Similar uproar occurs whenever a brand uses very young models in their advertising or runway shows: from Dakota Fanning’s provocative Marc Jacobs ad to the then 13-year-old Maddison Gabriel walking in Gold Coast Fashion Week, the exploitation of youth is one of fashion’s continuing foibles. Increasingly, this is scrutinised and acted against, most recently by the City of New York, which passed legislation in mid-October to ensure designers cannot overwork child models. When a brand exploits the imagery of sex workers, the young or another vulnerable group, consumers are faced with an even greater problem as they are when individuals like Galliano act reprehensibly, because this is how a brand has chosen to represent itself. At that point it’s very difficult to justify wearing the clothes if you don’t agree with the ethics woven into them.
When the litigation is settled, the Dolce and Gabbana case will prove an interesting study in this conflict between the ethical and aesthetic value of fashion. Should the house receive the threatened fine, the founders have said it would force them to close. For those opposed to tax evasion in a country which lost an estimated €285 billion to it last year, this would be a victory. But to the friends and fans of the designers, the word ‘tragedy’ is more likely to be on their lips. And perhaps this is why critics see fashion as a business which continually fails to keep in touch with the ‘real’ world. It is, after all, a community which continues to idolise Coco Chanel and her brand, even in the light of our knowledge of the extent of her collaboration with the Nazis. When an artist’s output is valued more than his or her awareness of the impact of their actions, it merely reaffirms the fashion industry as insular and selfish.
But in reality, the fashion world is so much more that this cocktail of conceit and collagen injections. Several brands are striving now to present an image of awareness, whether on a personal level, or in production. Dior have replaced Galliano with the rather more tame Raf Simmons, while Galliano himself is attempting to atone for his crimes with a temporary position at Oscar de la Renta and the rumoured possibility of a teaching post. Even the fashion press is making changes, such as Vogue’s Health Initiative, which pledges not to use models under the age of 16. So what can fashion fans do in this growing age of conscientiousness? The answer is to keep informed, know who you’re buying from, and consider whether you want to be associated with them.