THE SKY WAS OVERCAST on November 21, 2018, and a light drizzle fell on the Shanghai World Expo Exhibition and Convention Center as the Italian luxury brand Dolce & Gabbana put the finishing touches on an event space twice the size of the Royal Palace of Milan. There were winding banquettes draped in red, littered with candelabras and flowers for the reception. There was an 80-foot rotating stage, three gold catwalks, and sets decorated with gold Italianate mirrors, Juliet balconies, and red upholstered settees with carved feet. The brand’s founders, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana, had designed a new collection for the occasion, an all-night fashion extravaganza dubbed “the Great Show.” The production aimed to blend Dolce’s signature molto Italiano style with Chinese heritage. There was a pagoda with a gold roof in the lobby, and troops who would perform traditional lion and dragon dances. Festivities would run well into the night. More than 300 models were to walk before an estimated audience of 1,500.
But the show’s carefully laid plans had begun to unravel. To promote the event on social media, Dolce & Gabbana had produced videos of a Chinese model struggling to eat Italian food with chopsticks. Off-camera, a male voice teased her.
“Let’s use these small sticklike things to eat our great pizza margherita,” the narrator said as the model giggled and covered her face.
“It’s still way too big for you, isn’t it?” he said as she battled an oversized cannolo.
When Dolce & Gabbana posted the videos three days before the show, Chinese internet users complained about “outdated views of China” and racism. On November 19, Jing Daily, a luxury consumer trends website, reported that “Boycott Dolce” had been discussed on Weibo more than 18,000 times.
Halfway around the world, in Brooklyn, then 33-year-old Tony Liu saw the videos and posted them to Diet Prada, the Instagram account he runs with fellow fashion industry insider Lindsey Schuyler. “Being Asian, there were certain things that immediately triggered me,” he has since recalled. Diet Prada’s caption characterized the video as “hella offensive” and “a tired and false stereotype of a people lacking refinement.”
Diet Prada had roughly a million followers at the time. One of them, Michaela Tranova, then a 24-year-old Londoner who worked in fashion, shared the post and commented in part, “WHAT IN THE ACTUAL FUCK?!”
That’s when the shit hit the fan. Or more accurately, the shit emojis hit the DMs. Gabbana’s verified personal Instagram account responded. Tranova had never before interacted with the designer on- or offline, but the two fell into a heated exchange. Tranova received messages about Chinese people eating dogs and insulting her intelligence. When Tranova noted that some of Dolce & Gabbana’s social media accounts had deleted the cannolo video, @stefanogabbana said this happened “because my office is stupid as the superiority of the Chinese.” While Dolce & Gabbana initially issued a statement that then 55-year-old Gabbana’s account had been hacked, in subsequent court filings Gabbana’s lawyers identified the messages as “Mr. Stefano Gabbana’s private conversations.”
“And from now on in all the interviews that I will do international I will say that the country of [five poop emojis] is China,” read one @stefanogabbana message.
“China Ignorant Dirty Smelling Mafia,” read another.
Tranova was outraged. She posted screenshots of the exchanges and tagged several media outlets, including Diet Prada. (Gabbana’s lawyers would later say, “Mr. Stefano Gabbana answered a few provocations…using ironic tones, including toward the Chinese people.”) On November 20, the day before the Great Show, Liu posted several of Tranova’s incendiary screenshots to Diet Prada, and the simmering controversy boiled over into scandal. Models and staff fled the convention center, leaving their hand-tailored garments in heaps on the floor. Chinese A-listers issued statements disavowing Dolce & Gabbana. Arriving at Shanghai’s airport, actor Chen Kun reportedly told fans, “I’m going back” and boarded a return flight to Beijing. Brand ambassadors Wang Jungkai, a singer, and Dilraba Dilmurat, a movie star, terminated their contracts. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon star Zhang Ziyi shared a meme of a cartoon panda force-feeding emoji-shaped shit to two other animals. “You dropped your pile of crap, I’m giving it back to you,” says the panda.
Liu was at home on his sofa, vaping and eating gelato, as he posted through it all. He stayed up until 5 or 6 a.m. sharing news, jokes, and commentary about, as he called it, #DGTheShitShow. When Schuyler awoke on Wednesday morning after sleeping through much of the excitement, she saw videos of people setting fire to Dolce & Gabbana’s wares and headlines about Dolce & Gabbana canceling the Great Show. The designers flew back to Italy, where they filmed and released a video apology. Diet Prada archived its posts in an Instagram Story labeled #DGTheShitShow. Just another day in the age of social media meltdowns of the rich and powerful. The world moved on.
But Dolce & Gabbana didn’t. Four months later, Liu and Schuyler received notice that the brand planned to sue them both for defamation. The lawsuit, eventually filed in a civil court in Milan, claims upwards of $665 million in damages, owing to major setbacks the company has faced in the Chinese market, which in 2018 accounted for one third of the international luxury industry’s revenue. It is the first defamation suit the company has ever filed, according to a brand representative. Liu and Schuyler are the only people Dolce & Gabbana is suing over fallout from the fiasco in Shanghai.
With litigation pending for more than two years in Italy’s COVID-delayed legal system, Liu and Schuyler have lived “under this Dolce & Gabbana-designed sword of Damocles,” according to Fordham University law professor and Fashion Law Institute director Susan Scafidi, who represents the pair pro bono. It’s the kind of David and Goliath legal battle that usually stirs sympathy: The wealthy owners of a famously decadent billion-dollar company are suing two self-employed bloggers for more money than a court ordered Samsung to pay Apple, in 2018, for copying the iPhone.
CALLOUTS HAVE BEGUN TO DRAW META-CALLOUTS—ACCUSATIONS OF HYPOCRISY, BIAS, IGNORANCE, BULLYING, AND FAILURES IN “DOING THE WORK.”
But in the years since its #DGTheShitShowposts, Diet Prada has expanded—and become so divisive that obvious allies sometimes hesitate to defend Liu and Schuyler. Diet Prada, once a niche phenomenon for and by fashion’s chattering class, now has 2.8 million followers and is fairly mainstream; Liu calls it “a hub for fashion, pop culture, politics, and social justice.” Meanwhile, the Great Show’s fate—cancellation—has become a mainstream fear, fixation, and flash point. Call-and-response rituals have developed around Diet Prada’s signature genre of discourse, the social media callout: apologies, denunciations, backlash, clapbacks, defiant right-wing media tours, explanations of “nuance,” and promises to “do better.” Schuyler described holding herself accountable as “a never-ending process. It’s like anti-racism—it’s not an act with an end goal, it’s an ongoing practice.”
The process has placed a target on Diet Prada’s back too. As the internet outrage cycle matures, callouts increasingly draw meta-callouts: accusations of hypocrisy, bias, ignorance, bullying, and failures in “doing the work.” News outlets alternately scrutinize and take cues from players on social media, as do readers, who sound off on their own platforms. As Diet Prada grows, Liu and Schuyler have found themselves in a vise. On one side are popular pressures similar to those they harnessed to throw rocks at giants (and to gain nearly 3 million followers fluent in the language of internet backlash) . On the other side are power players with deep pockets who squeeze with the customary methods of crushing their enemies, including expensive lawsuits. Like the one in Milan, where a judge is now considering a simple but potentially crippling question: What’s Diet Prada got to do with the price of D&G in China?
WHEN I BEGAN corresponding with Liu and Schuyler in March, they had been facing Dolce & Gabbana’s lawsuit for two years but had only been talking about it publicly for a couple of weeks. They were polite, circumspect, generous with their time, and extremely careful. In recent years, Diet Prada has granted interviews only in writing. Though they wrote conversationally and with candor, including about their personal lives, I got the feeling that they insisted on email for control or self-protection. I don’t entirely know, though, because every time I asked, Liu declined to explain beyond the fact that emails were a policy “based on some advice given to us by friends in the industry” that, when asked, he also declined to explain.
The pair launched Diet Prada anonymously in late 2014 to call out purportedly copycat fashion designs by posting side-by-side runway photos on Instagram. “Diet Prada” refers to watered-down imitations of the work of Miuccia Prada; the first post juxtaposed a Raf Simons-designed Dior coat with an earlier, similar one from Prada. (Five years later, Simons became the co-creative director of Prada.) At the time, Liu and Schuyler were in their 20s and working as accessories designers for New York milliner Eugenia Kim. Liu interviewed Schuyler when she applied for a position, which became her first full-time job. Schuyler, who is now 33, had moved to New York from north Florida, where she was born and raised, to pursue fashion. Liu, who is now 36, was born in New York City and raised upstate. He returned to the city after studying art and fashion in Chicago.
Diet Prada started as office chitchat. “We would look at runway shows, just kind of shooting the shit, and we would do these live roasts back and forth sitting in opposite corners,” Liu said when he and Schuyler revealed their identities in The Business of Fashion in 2018. “When I look back at our early posts,” Schuyler told me by email in March, “I remember how frustrated I was at the industry, and the way it felt like originality wasn’t just being ignored, it was being stifled by the people that held all the cards at the top. All the attention and reward was being heaped on a handful of people.” She felt a sense of injustice when already successful people profited from ideas seemingly plucked from smaller creators and unacknowledged movements.
“They stirred up the industry,” said veteran fashion journalist Christina Binkley, who worked at The Wall Street Journal during Diet Prada’s rise. Liu and Schuyler skewered legends and documented phenomena usually discussed in whispers, such as cultural appropriation and sexual harassment. By May 2018, Diet Prada had nearly 400,000 followers and was “the most feared Instagram account in fashion,” according to The Business of Fashion, which now lists the pair in its index of the industry’s 500 most influential people.
Diet Prada’s fans have sometimes included those they criticize: In 2017, the account called out Gucci for seeming to rip off Harlem tailor Dapper Dan, himself a fashion underdog routinely accused of violating luxury trademarks. The company responded by collaborating with the tailor and helping to rebuild his atelier. Soon after, Gucci invited Liu and Schuyler to take over its Instagram account during Milan Fashion Week. “They invited us to analyze the collection and spot their references, and we are finding their transparency refreshing,” Diet Prada wrote in a #Sponsored post. Later that year, Financial Times writer Lou Stoppard theorized, “Gucci appeared to be calling a truce, but some might interpret the sponsorship (they will not disclose the fee) as an awkward compromise” after Diet Prada arguably “savaged” the brand and designer Alessandro Michele about Dapper Dan and others. Still, Stoppard wrote, “in an industry where advertisers still have a hold over what a fashion writer might publish, Diet Prada throws its accusations around like hand grenades.”
LIU AND SCHUYLER DO NOT SEE THEMSELVES AS JOURNALISTS. THEY BELONG TO A NEW ARENA OF PUBLIC DISCOURSE WITH NORMS, ETHICS, ALLIANCES THAT HAVE NOT YET BEEN DEFINED.
Today, Liu and Schuyler both consider Diet Prada their primary occupation. They have a manager, Estate Five cofounder and Bag Snob blogger Tina Chen Craig, and have worked with brands such as Ferragamo and Tommy Hilfiger. They also sell merchandise and premium subscriptions. Liu says that Diet Prada’s ethics prevent some collaborations by rejecting “fast fashion with its exploitative labor practices” and brands that lack diversity: “It’s tough, though, because it feels like every day a new scandal is coming out about how shitty a company is. There’s really not many we can work with, and we’re okay with that.”
BY THE TIME Liu’s and Schuyler’s names became known to the public in 2017 (at the hands of a rival fashion blogger who subsequently received a takedown notice for infringing Liu’s copyright on a selfie), they had already achieved a level of clout that some spend their lifetime chasing. When Diet Prada stormed the gates, fashion’s gatekeepers paid attention. “Stefano trolled our account fairly hard in the early days,” said Schuyler. The earliest Diet Prada citation in the Dolce & Gabbana lawsuit dates to 2017, soon after Diet Prada’s @Gucci takeover. The post, on @Diet_Prada, showed a Dolce & Gabbana window display that “takes a stab” at an aesthetic attributed to Gucci. In the comments, @stefanogabbana defended himself: “Gucci copy us in many different way!!! This is one of…please say sorry to me!!” The episode went meta after Diet Prada released #PleaseSaySorryToMe T-shirts. Dolce & Gabbana then sold its own (significantly more expensive) version. From the outside, those interactions could be seen as playfully adversarial, but the brand’s lawsuit describes them as part of a Diet Prada “smear campaign” that spanned five years and “reached peak pervasiveness and aggressiveness on the occasion of an important Dolce & Gabbana event and show planned in Shanghai.”
By the time of the Great Show, exposing racially insensitive moments in fashion had become part of Diet Prada’s stock-in-trade, but Liu acknowledges that covering the episode was a turning point. “I think it was the first time I got to speak out for my own community,” he said of his first post about the cannolo video. Liu’s parents, who are Chinese immigrants, lived in New York City’s Chinatown when he was born. His mother’s first U.S. job was in a garment factory. His father washed dishes at a restaurant. The family later moved upstate to own and operate a Chinese restaurant. As a teenager and during summers home from college, Liu worked as a cashier and delivery person. “Growing up as a queer person of color in a predominantly white town, I’ve often found myself intimidated and at a loss for words when confronted with racism and bigotry,” he wrote in March in a statement about the lawsuit. When Diet Prada called out #DGLovesChina, he said by email, “seeing that people understood why this was problematic made me feel seen and heard.”
“To be honest, it was surprising how fast it reached China and the action that the people took,” said Liu. “I had never seen anything like it.”
The screenshots of Gabbana’s alleged DMs, in particular, hit a nerve. Terence Chu, CEO of Apax Group, the production company that staged the event, said he thought they were a joke when he first saw them backstage as they circulated on Weibo. (Instagram is blocked in China.) Then models began to field calls from their agents. “People were rushing out of there,” said Melvin Chua, CEO of the Shanghai-based PR firm that managed the show’s guest list. (Chua is also my cousin.) “The backstage looked like somebody ransacked it, because people were in the middle of hair and makeup, and changing.”
After the Great Show’s cancellation, some argued that the fiasco should be a wake-up call for international brands. “As I have voiced time and again publicly and privately, western brands seeking to enter and expand in China should be aware of Chinese cultural sensibilities. Instead of dictating everything from head office, they would gain a lot from listening to the opinions and insights of their Chinese teams,” said Angelica Cheung, then the editor in chief of Chinese Vogue.
“If you want a bigger slice of the profit pie, then listen to the people,” wrote British Chinese fashion blogger Susie Lau on Instagram.
China Market Research Group CEO Shaun Rein conducted focus groups about the #DGLovesChina videos. Reactions were overwhelmingly negative, he said, due to “the sexual overtones and the denigration of Chinese culture.” Rein’s company studies Chinese consumers, in part, to advise American financiers on international investments. “Chinese are very sensitive to imperialism,” explained Rein, invoking China’s “century of humiliation” under Western rule. Focus groups saw Dolce & Gabbana’s interest in China as exploitative: Westerners denigrating China while taking advantage of its wealth, a phenomenon Rein linked to the legacy of the Opium Wars. Or, in Diet Prada’s words: “#DGLovesChina? More like #DGdesperateforthatChineseRMB lol.”
Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana were in Italy when they apologized on video. Seated at a table with folded hands, the designers spoke directly into the camera with little affect: ” We love your culture and we certainly have much to learn. That is why we are sorry,” said Dolce. Gabbana apologized “to all of the many Chinese people throughout the world.” Diet Prada shared the video, then roasted it in a post that played Britney Spears’s “From the Bottom of My Broken Heart.”
“THEY’RE MILLENNIALS AND THEREFORE, I THINK, THEY BOTH ASPIRE TO LIVE THEIR IDEALS RATHER THAN SIMPLY PLOTTING A CAREER PATH.”
For all the corporate panic about cancellation, Dolce & Gabbana’s lawsuit against Diet Prada is the rare document that ostensibly quantifies such damage. The lawsuit estimates that the brand spent 20 million euros on the Great Show (about $23 million), an event that could have generated “hundreds of millions” in revenues; instead the company lost “dozens of millions” when several shopping websites dropped it. For Stefano Gabbana’s personal suffering, the lawsuit seeks 1 million euros. For the brand’s noneconomic suffering, 3 million euros.
The lawsuit’s most significant financial claim is about reputation. Citing celebrities’ disavowals and business deals gone awry, it asserts Dolce & Gabbana has since 2018 spent 150 million euros annually to counteract Diet Prada and will continue until the court orders Diet Prada to remove dozens of posts and admit wrongdoing. All told, as of press time, Dolce & Gabbana’s claims against Diet Prada were upwards of 562 million euros, or $665 million, if not “hundreds of millions” more.
“I don’t even know how many lifetimes we’d have to work to be able to make up the damages they’re requesting,” said Schuyler.
AS DIET PRADA GREW, Liu says, he and Schuyler “started to approach our fashion coverage from a more intersectional angle.” Diet Prada’s fashion coverage includes posts about fat phobia, toxic workplaces, #MeToo allegations, racism in retail, influencer ethics, celebrations of under-recognized designers, features on fashion history, red-carpet photos, and analysis of runway shows. Despite their reputation for criticism, the pair offer significant praise for public figures they admire. Still, whistleblowing remains Diet Prada’s signature and, perhaps, competitive advantage: Who other than Diet Prada, with its millions of fashion-literate and hyperdigital followers, could crowdsource stories about fashion icons sliding into strangers’ DMs?
But Dolce & Gabbana is not alone in its distaste for Diet Prada. When Liu and Schuyler solicited donations to cover their legal bills, an anonymous user set up a rival GoFundMe called “Help D&G Sue Diet Prada to Oblivion.” “While we do find Dolce & Gabbana’s marketing ideas offensive, there’s nothing more offensive than Diet Prada’s preening, self-serving ‘takedowns,’ ” wrote the user. The account does not appear to be serious. (As of March, it had raised $60 from eight people. Diet Prada had raised $55,091 from more than a thousand.) But it speaks to a certain type of criticism Diet Prada has received.
“I thought that they would evolve into something more responsible, and they in some ways became more irresponsible,” said Business of Fashion reporter Lauren Sherman, who believes the size of the account’s following calls for journalistic rigor. She compared the account’s trajectory with that of the website Fashionista, where she once worked, which started as a one-woman blog in 2007 and now, with a reported monthly readership of 2.5 million, hews to conventional newsroom standards for fairness. Dolce & Gabbana’s lawsuit argues that Diet Prada’s appetite for the salacious may come at the expense of facts, such as posting a rumor that “Stefano was high off his head when he sent all the racist stuff” labeled “If this is true…….[upside down smiley face emoji].” Gabbana’s lawyers say it wasn’t.
Liu and Schuyler do not consider themselves journalists, which could be a reason why so many journalists find them maddening. Sherman described Diet Prada as a mix of industry-shaking news that she cannot afford to ignore and aggressive negativity seemingly designed to “create havoc and upset people in a nonconstructive way.”
“In Fashion, Who Will Cancel the Cancelers?” asked GQ last year, when staff writer Rachel Tashjian argued that fashion’s ideological avant-garde has progressed past Diet Prada and “towards a more nuanced court of public opinion.” The piece came after a Diet Prada post criticizing the Gap’s partnership with Kanye West’s brand Yeezy that, in pursuit of LOLs and outrage, failed to acknowledge the Nigerian British designer in charge of the collaboration, Mowalola Ogunlesi. “Fight me @diet_prada,” Ogunlesi tweeted next to a video of herself swinging a purse of her own design.
In spite of these peer reviews, Diet Prada has continued to broaden its mandate. Recent coverage has included videos from couture fashion shows in Paris and Venice, Sports Illustrated‘s first trans cover model, two slideshows about blackface on TV in Europe, a celebration of queer fashion pioneer Rudi Gernreich, a critique from the left of Juneteenth as a national holiday, photos from the set of the new Sex and the City, discourse on violence against women in Pakistan, and split-screen images of two Dior dresses and a pair of loafers that could be considered copying. There were news clips about Israeli airstrikes on Gaza and an explainer in which two cartoon women discuss the matter: “Israel isn’t a country ?” “No, they are a settler colony. Settler colonialism is a form of colonialism that seeks to replace the native population,” reads one portion.
Discussing Diet Prada’s growth, Liu said, “With the resurgence of the BLM movement, we also made a conscious decision to break outside of just fashion news and dedicate space to amplifying important issues and elevating marginalized voices.” Liu also noted, “I haven’t really seen many BIPOC figures speaking of ‘cancel culture’ the way I see conservatives or right-wing media.”
“They’re millennials,” Scafidi said of her clients’ dispositions, “and therefore, I think, they both aspire to live their ideals rather than simply plotting a career path.”
Jilleen Liao, a shoe designer who operates the social justice-minded Instagram account @heavydiscussion (42,800 followers), argued that discomfort with Diet Prada’s ideals drives the backlash against them. She described critics using Diet Prada as “some kind of adversarial scapegoat, or cancel-culture boogeyman, to institutional denial and lack of structural change.” Liao criticized Diet Prada’s detractors for caring more about “canceling” Diet Prada than fixing the problems it calls out—the same criticism I often heard lobbed at Diet Prada from the other direction. Which criticism counts as constructive and which does not is apparently as debatable as everything else Diet Prada does. Even Diet Prada’s most ardent defenders tend to add caveats. “You can think what you want about Diet Prada and cancel culture,” Susie Lau prefaced an Instagram post condemning Dolce & Gabbana, whom she notes once made news by seating fashion bloggers in the front row.
When I started researching this story, I expected to see more statements like Lau’s. I thought about 2016, when venture capitalist Peter Thiel financed Hulk Hogan’s invasion of privacy lawsuit against Gawker Media, which ultimately bankrupted the company. (I have worked at Gawker.) At the time, a vocal contingent of free-speech advocates and media professionals seemed to take up the case as a cause celebre: “Gawker Smeared Me, and Yet I Stand With It,” read one New York Times opinion column headline. So where’s the outrage for Diet Prada? Yes, there are good reasons why a civil trial in a camera-friendly American courtroom grabbed more headlines than an overseas lawsuit filed in a foreign language during COVID. And though Diet Prada is no longer a niche fashion product, woke pop-culture Instagram accounts, as a genre, may be a leap too far for mainstream op-ed authors—but too close to home for a smaller population of fashion-industry prognosticators. (Diet Prada has criticized Conde Nast, the company that owns Vanity Fair.)
But I suspect that the mixed response to Diet Prada’s plight is also about how the fault lines of free speech, the media, and righteousness have shifted. Diet Prada is Liu and Schuyler’s profession, but it occupies an arena of public discourse where professional norms and alliances are still being defined. Online defamation law is an evolving and hotly contested subject. Similar debates are roiling in Italy, which has civil and criminal laws against defamation. For those who publicly enrage the rich, Italy can be a tough place.
“I KNOW NOT EVERYBODY likes them,” said lawyer Marco Amorese, the Bergamo-based lawyer who leads the Italian half of Diet Prada’s legal team. But when Scafidi told him about the case, he realized that the issues tapped into a subject of heated debate in Italy and across Europe: strategic lawsuits against public participation, known as SLAPPs. Or as Scafidi said of the lawsuit: “The goal, above all, is to silence them.”
“Dolce & Gabbana is pursuing this claim against the Diet Prada Instagram account because the account has defamed our company on several occasions in a manner that consequently significantly and directly impacted our commercial performance,” said a Dolce & Gabbana spokesperson. “‘We intend to present compelling evidence to this effect, and trust the court to rule accordingly. We are defending the livelihoods of our many employees across the world as well as our self-respect and reputation.”
Truth is an absolute defense against defamation in the United States, but not in Italy. Truthfulness is one of three criteria that define non-defamatory speech; the other two are social utility and restraint, or continenza. Paola Rosa, the coordinator of OBC Transeuropa’s Media Freedom Resource Centre, explained that continenza is about tone. Insulting language, exaggeration, and even the position of a story on a newspaper’s page can affect judgments of restraint. Dolce & Gabbana’s lawsuit lists a number of insufficiently restrained insults—some of which Diet Prada shared but did not write—including calling Gabbana racist, bigoted, misogynistic, homophobic, and a “butthurt three-year-old girl.”
Washington Post fashion critic Robin Givhan drew a parallel between continenza and fashion: “it’s not just what was said, but it’s how it was said. And to me that seems like a fashion sensibility would grasp on to that. Because so often, designs are not the reinvention of the wheel. It’s the same thing that someone else has done, or essentially the same thing that someone else has said, it’s just the manner in which you say it, the spin that you put on it.”
Diet Prada’s lawyers argue its tone fits “the communications culture of fashion [which] has always been characterized by excesses, by provocative combinations, by mischievous insinuations, so much so that the Dolce & Gabbana brand itself has largely exploited this semantic level over the years.” To prove this, they list the meanest things Gabbana’s Instagram account has posted, including comments calling the Kardashians “the most cheap people in the world,” taunting body-positivity advocates for preferring to be “fat and full of cholesterol???,” and retorting, in 2017, to critics of his brand’s #DGLovesNaples campaign: “I will no longer come to Naples to advertise to you, ugly people, you are the disgust of Italy.”
The defense also argues that Italy is the wrong jurisdiction for the case, since Liu and Schuyler posted from New York.
“It’s a beautiful defense, but it’s simply not suitable for an Italian court,” said Professor Annalisa Ciampi, who teaches international law at the University of Verona and is an attorney at law and ambassador for the European Network for Women Excellence. Italian law does not have forum non conveniens, meaning that Italian judges have less latitude on issues of jurisdiction. Dolce & Gabbana’s bank accounts are in Italy, which means most of the alleged damages took place in Italy, and Ciampi thinks that’s enough for the case to proceed. Ciampi also believes that the defense invoking Gabbana’s worst speech acts could backfire by suggesting that both Diet Prada and its subject lacked restraint.
But even if the judge rules in Dolce & Gabbana’s favor, “the claim for damages is beyond me,” said Ciampi. Proving a causal link between Liu and Schuyler’s actions and Dolce & Gabbana’s bottom line will be extremely difficult. But Ciampi pointed out that Dolce & Gabbana’s lawyers at the white-shoe law firm Cleary Gottlieb must know that. They must also know that Liu and Schuyler don’t have this kind of money. “They might just want to make the point,” Ciampi speculated, noting that Italian civil judgments are public, which may itself be a form of redress.
“You get the publication of the judgment, which recognizes that your reputation was offended, so that is going to be some form of reparation,” Ciampi explained. “The moment they get this judgment, they can translate it in all the languages of the world, and they can post it.”
NEARLY THREE YEARS LATER, Diet Prada’s #DGTheShitShow posts remain on Instagram, and Liu and Schuyler continue apace with callouts, LOLs, gossip, and Miuccia Prada worship. Describing the last two years, Liu said, “The lawsuit was absurd then as it is now, but we work so much that there was always enough going on to distract us from the reality of it.” The duo’s stubborn righteousness also seems to power them. Said Schuyler: “‘We were doing what we saw as the right thing and speaking out against racism, so for our business to be threatened, in a very real way, for that feels like a direct effect of the supremacist system we are ultimately speaking out against.”
Or maybe they know what several lawyers told me: Even if an Italian judge rules against Liu and Schuyler, any financial penalties will likely be unenforceable. If Liu and Schuyler’s assets are in the United States, said Ciampi, then enforcing a civil ruling against them would require cooperation from an American judge. Their lawyers could then trot out the same jurisdiction arguments that Ciampi described as too American—and it could work. Professor Linda Silberman, who teaches at NYU School of Law and is the codirector of the Center for Transnational Litigation, Arbitration, and Commercial Law, agreed. If a foreign judgment violates American public policy, an American judge will not enforce it. That includes policies on jurisdiction as well as free speech, including a 2010 law against so-called libel tourism.
Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana denied Vanity Fair’s requests for interviews, which was not surprising. Though outspoken, the pair tend to be selective about where they demonstrate that trait. After an Italian magazine “inadvertently outed” them as a couple in the ’80s, writes Professor Derek Duncan in Reading and Writing Italian Homosexuality, Dolce and Gabbana came out willingly in interviews with two Italian newspapers in 2000. They said they’d granted one specifically to promote tolerance for homosexuality, but came away with some of their earliest accusations of homophobia for statements rejecting gay marriage and criticizing gay pride celebrations. Thus began a tradition of provocative candor that modern audiences might call problematic. The lawsuit against Diet Prada argues that characterizing Gabbana as “homophobic” is inaccurate.
After two decades as romantic partners, Dolce and Gabbana broke up in 2001. “There was a lot of pain when we split,” Gabbana later told the U.K. Times. “We broke our romantic relationship, but we continued to work together. Even now we can’t explain how we did it.” “I don’t think marriages get any closer than what they have,” said Christina Binkley. Just as Dolce did not distance himself from Gabbana during #DGTheShitShow, Binkley observed, when Dolce once drew public outrage for negative comments about gay parenting, Stefano Gabbana “just went down in flames with Domenico because that’s what you do, right? You support your business partner, your friend.”
That sense of loyalty reminded me of, well, Diet Prada. To state the obvious: Liu and Schuyler have never been a romantic couple, and their names do not appear in a logo that is in millions of closets. But Schuyler was asleep when #DGTheShitShow went down. Her first statement about the lawsuit, posted on the Fashion Law Institute’s website, identified Schuyler as “an ally to my Asian friends” and decried attacks on free speech as “a slippery slope toward extremism.” Diet Prada posts do not have bylines, but Liu wrote about how personal the Great Show’s demise felt to him. Yet Diet Prada remains a shared project, and its founders’ fates remain united. Throughout our correspondence, Liu and Schuyler marked each statement “Tony” or “Lindsey” to denote who said what. But when I asked what they would do if the lawsuit was dismissed, they replied as one: “Post about it on Instagram.”