How Celebrities Bring "Canceled" Brands Back from the Brink (And What They Get in Return)

There's no bond stronger than the one between an embattled brand on image-cleanup and a celebrity who's a magnet for the limelight.

Controversy Be Damned, Celebrities and Luxury Fashion Need Each Other
Photo: Instagram @kyliejenner, @kourtneykardash, Getty Images, Amanda Lauro

When Kourtney Kardashian and Travis Barker got married (for the third time), it wasn't the actual nuptials everyone was talking about — it was the outfits. The entire Kardashian-Jenner family, including Kris, Kim, Khloé, Kendall, and Kylie, attended, each decked out in Dolce & Gabbana. The bride and groom also spent their lavish Portofino wedding weekend dressed exclusively in — you guessed it — Dolce & Gabbana. And it didn't stop there.

Even the decor, down to the decorative plates filled with the tiniest portion of spaghetti, was designed by the controversial Italian fashion house. An initial report from The Daily Mail claimed that the wedding was sponsored, but Dolce & Gabbana denied the story, saying they "hosted" the weekend for the family. Regardless of how the celebrity couple and historically problematic fashion brand teamed up, it's the why that's much more interesting.

Dolce & Gabbana has been the subject of significant controversies over the past decade, including a party in 2013 where both designers wore blackface, a public denouncement of gay parents being able to adopt, and a 2018 boycott from customers in China who were responding to a racist ad. There was even some Kardashian hate thrown in the mix: Stefano Gabbana once called the family "the most cheap people in the world." Despite all of it, though, the Kardashians and their empire opted for a very visible, very Dolce and Gabbana-filled wedding weekend. Why? Well, actual looks aside, this partnership points to a larger force within the industry: the way luxury brands and celebrities exchange online attention for high-fashion clout.

High fashion brands are no strangers to controversy. Still, history proves that many will make it to the other side, often aided by at least one famous face. In April 2022, Alexander Wang made a runway comeback just one year after meeting with and apologizing to several people who accused him of sexual misconduct. The show featured supermodels like Adriana Lima and front-row attendees like Candice Swanepoel. Julia Fox wore the brand while getting paparazzied at the grocery store, resulting in widespread media coverage. After Gucci apologized for selling a balaclava that was criticized for looking like blackface in 2019, several of the brand's celebrity ambassadors stuck by them, allowing for a separate narrative to garner attention while the backlash fizzled out. Miley Cyrus recently started wearing vintage Dior by John Galliano, a designer who was found guilty of racist and anti-Semitic abuse in 2011. She posted the outfits writing in the caption, "Photo me pronto. I'm in Galliano," sparking a renewed interest in the designer whose firing just 10 years ago marked a considerable setback in his career.

The relationship exists to exchange the currency of legitimacy.

The relationship is mutual, and fashion brands and the celebrities who wear them need each other for legitimacy. On the brand side, proximity to a person who is trusted for whatever reason — be it their sense of style, fanbase, or general cool factor — signals legitimacy to the public. In the case of Kourtney Kardashian's wedding, the lift in global reach, interest, and relevancy for D&G heavily outweigh any controversy the brand might incur from partnering with pop culture's most talked about family. According to research conducted by Wealth of Geeks, searches for Dolce & Gabbana wedding dresses rose 917%, and worldwide searches for just the brand name rose about 90% in the week following the Kardashian-Barker wedding. So, for every eye roll about the family's oversaturation, there are thousands of people buying (and Googling) the products they endorse (and the ones they own, like Skims and Kylie Cosmetics).

In short, celebrity influence can be a powerful enough force to bring brands back from the discard pile. "The brands want this blessing because it's an important part of fashion. Being worn on a celebrity or in a magazine is a huge part of what makes them what they are," Matthew Cancel, a fashion publicist and the founder of his eponymous communications firm, explains. "After something happens, that big celebrity approval is the push they need to come back into the mainstream." According to Cancel, it's not even about who is wearing the clothes — as evidenced by just how random this partnership feels only a few years after D&G publicly denounced the Kardashians — it's more about where someone famous is wearing the brand (i.e. the caliber of the event). A long-standing relationship between celebrity and brand isn't required when the goal is really just attention.

On the other side, celebrities gain entry to an exclusive (and potentially lucrative) club: the world of high fashion. "At the end of the day, they will be seen as fashionable, and for certain people like the Kardashians, controversy is just part of the game," Cancel continues. See also: Kim swearing she'd eat poop if it kept her young. For celebrities who are looking to build cachet in the industry, working with a high-end designer can be a win-win, even or perhaps especially if said designer is mired in controversy. A visible front-row seat at Milan Fashion week (and the photos that come along with it) might be more valuable for an up-and-comer than a squeaky-clean reputation. Some may even seek out an embattled brand, because it all but guarantees a media moment.

When you dig in, this strategy seems relatively risk-free for both parties. Not everyone consumes fashion with an eye for controversy. Many don't have time to research a designer's personal history, and outside of industry insiders, most people only encounter luxury brands when they have a moment in the pop culture zeitgeist. And that's precisely why companies do it. "Obviously, the celebrities are strategically employed to harness this feeling called the Mere Exposure Effect, AKA the familiarity principle," says Dr. Dawnn Karen, founder of the Fashion Psychology Institute. "It has no logic; the more you see it, the more it's [validated] for you." Brands strategically use highly visible moments — like a wedding — to change the conversation, explains Karen. "Psychologically, [the celebrities] are signifying to their followers that the brands have made a mistake, but they have forgiven them so much that they are utilizing them on the most important days of their lives. So, you should too."

Notably, Dolce & Gabbana was doing just fine from a profits perspective and, in some recent years, has actually grown its revenue. Celebrities at the Kardashian level aren't necessarily hurting for cash, either. The relationship exists to exchange the currency of legitimacy, to regain trust and acceptance. And all either party needs is an audience with a short memory, so that formerly verboten thing can become the hot, new thing once again with the swipe of a few photos. Often, it's as easy as that.

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