Depp, Smith and Fashion's "Morals Clause" Pause
#MeToo meets meh, as Dior, Dolce & Gabbana shrug over men behaving badly
The notion of Hollywood stars endorsing products stretches all the way back to the ‘'30s and ‘40s when the likes of Gary Cooper, Myrna Loy and, yes, a young Ronald Reagan, were pictured in magazine ads with cigarettes and praising their favorite Camels and Lucky’s. But the real game-changer in celebrity testimonials came in 1957 when Audrey Hepburn became the face of L’Interdit, the debut fragrance from her favorite Paris couturier Hubert de Givenchy.
Incredibly, Hepburn was not paid for the designer’s use of her likeness and said she did it out of friendship. But that innocent moment was the dawning of what today is the completely monetized and highly lucrative intersection of the worlds of fashion and beauty with the entertainment industry.
Beyond lush designer advertising campaigns and awards season red-carpet deals that easily reach seven figures and beyond for the stars involved, it also includes candid magazine shots which might picture a celebrity just running errands or going to the gym flaunting the newest “it” bag, and even beauty product credits in editorial pages that list the potions an actress is contractually bound to say she wears (even if she doesn’t).
But what happens when a star’s behavior goes off the rails? That’s a big question hovering over two unsavory trainwrecks currently rocking Hollywood. First came The Slap in March when Best Actor winner Will Smith, dressed in Dolce & Gabbana per usual, assaulted comedian Chris Rock in front of a global audience watching the Oscars. And this week came the start of the defamation trial pitting onetime Pirates of the Caribbean franchise superstar Johnny Depp, a Dior fragrance spokesmodel,
against his former wife, actress Amber Heard, over claims of domestic abuse she made in a Washington Post op-ed, coming just months after he lost his libel suit in fall 2020 against Britain’s The Sun newspaper which had branded him a “wife beater.”
It might be easier to talk about Depp first, as his one-time flourishing movie career has been decimated over the disgrace (he was quickly dropped at the time by Warner Bros. from the Fantastic Beasts franchise and, though 700,000 fans have signed a Change.org petition that he appear in Pirates of the Caribbean 6, Disney has said it is going in a new direction). So, presumably, he won’t be making red carpet appearances for a long time to come. But he remains the public face of Dior men’s fragrance Sauvage and has partnered with the house since 2015. After the case against him ended in Britain, the Daily Mail quoted domestic abuse lawyer Rachel Horman-Brown as saying: “It’s extremely disappointing and irresponsible of Dior, especially when we are looking at a situation that isn’t just an allegation any more.”
Though I haven’t seen the recent “Sauvage Elixir” commercial lately on television, the ad is still prominently placed on the Dior website and Depp was said to have been paid between $3-$5 million for the campaign, lensed by French filmmaker Jean-Baptiste Mondino. Several reports also have said sales of the scent actually went up last year after the Sun trial ended, in a show of support for the actor. It’s also listed as a top seller in several global rankings. And the Daily Mail also speculated that the prevailing French permissiveness on all matters sexual (including domestic violence one must infer?) has led Dior and corporate owner LVMH to give him the benefit of the doubt and not take sides in the dispute (or you could argue they have).
In fact, the trial this week has brought out a new wave of fan support, as seen on Twitter in posts with comments like, “AH mocked Johnny Depp when he got the job with Dior ‘why would they want to work with you, you have no class or style, you're a fat old man’ …Meanwhile Dior Sauvage is the biggest selling fragrance on the planet!!!” (Not quite true, but you get the point.)
For Smith, in the aftermath of The Slap, the landscape is really whole new territory. According to the trades, his planned Netflix crime drama Fast and Loose has been put on the back burner and work on the projected sequel Bad Boys 4 has also been paused. But Apple TV+’s slave escape drama Emancipation is already in the can and, originally planned for a release this fall, though Apple declined comment recently when asked for an update.
Normally for a marquee project like Emancipation, there would be an extensive press tour and multiple global red carpet outings for the star, with an eye to both selling the movie and positioning it as a future awards contender. That would mean a run of appearances by Smith and a huge opportunity presumably for someone to outfit him.
Consider this year’s string of awards, which saw pre-slap Smith nab nearly every accolade he was nominated for. He swept the Oscar, BAFTA, Critics Choice and National Board of Review awards for Best Actor, the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor–Drama, and the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role. On top of that, there were also a slew of premieres and film festival appearances.
And at every stop on the awards trail, he was outfitted by Italian designers Dolce & Gabbana in a succession of bespoke vested tuxedoes that became his trademark look for the season, dressed by his longtime stylist Fawn Boardley. He had worn a jazzy look by the designers back in 2019 at the Los Angeles premier of Aladdin, but the new uniform of suit-and-vest projected the necessary gravitas befitting a presumptive frontrunner and Hollywood grandee, while still allowing for multiple variations of color and pattern.
The looks ranged from a chocolate brown vested tuxedo at the Critics Choice to a custom midnight blue suit with a double-breasted waistcoat at SAG to his three-piece burgundy-trimmed suit and turtleneck at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. And, as with all stars today, it’s pretty much a given that the arrangement probably brought seven-figure payout for the actor. As online critic Red Carpet Fashion Awards put it pre-Oscars, “Will Smith and Dolce & Gabbana are becoming as synonymous as Will Smith and winner of Best Actor for King Richard.”
If the arrangement likely enriched Smith, it also was a highly visible return to the center of the awards action for Dolce & Gabbana, which has been nosed out of the winner’s circle in recent years by labels like Zegna, Brioni, Valentino and Givenchy. Though Dolce continued to dress many stars, the Italian brand was teetering on cancelation due to its own set of well-publicized improprieties.
Starting with the hubbub before a planned 500-look 2018 show in Shanghai, when a video beforehand from the house showing a Chinese model struggling to eat a large pizza with chopsticks was branded racist and eventually led to the whole event being called off, the brand has been under a cloud, even with Stefano Gabbana’s dubious-sounding claim of being hacked after reports he had called the Chinese people “Ignorant Dirty Smelling Mafia.”
The designer duo had been dogged by racism claims earlier, for sending white models down the runway in earrings reminiscent of colonial "Blackamoor" statues and attending an Italian fashion industry party in Blackface in 2013. At the very least they continued to be tone-deaf, releasing a $2,000 "Slave Sandal” in 2016.
Design partner Domenico Dolce also has stepped in it, homophobically slamming children conceived via IVF for gay parents as “synthetic” in 2015. More blowback dogged the duo over tax-fraud charges in Italy and the designers’ postings of then-First Lady Melania Trump in a succession of their getups. But Hollywood image-makers really got their back up when Gabbana slammed Selena Gomez in a comment that roughly translated as “ugly” on a 2028 Instagram post, leading top stylists like Karla Welch and Jason Bolden to declare in a 2018 Business of Fashion podcast at the time that they would never work with the house again.
But both the fashion world and the entertainment community have short memories. Vogue (itself accused of racism in recent years) cooed, “Venice was founded 1,600 years ago, (and) it seems safe to say this city has never seen a sight like that which unfolded here tonight,” after the designers’ haute couture Alta Moda show in September, which drew an audience that included Jennifer Lopez, Sean Combs, Doja Cat, Megan Thee Stallion, Kris Jenner, Kourtney Kardashian, Ciara and Dame Helen Mirren among others to St Mark’s Square amid 400 one-percenters And Jennifer Hudson warmed up the crowd with an aria from Turandot, clad in gold D&G finery.
Celebrity endorsement deals often have provisions where, after an incident like The Slap, that allow for repercussions for the celebrity transgressor. Attorney Douglas Hand, who specializes in fashion partnerships at New York’s Hand Baldachin & Associates LLP and is a professor at NYU School of Law, says he has worked on many such fashion endorsement deals and that the contracts generally include punitive measures if the reputation of the star goes south.
“They always contain a morals clause permitting the brand to terminate the contract in the event of behavior unbecoming of the brand,” he says. “Often these clauses permit the brand to not pay under the contract in the event of a termination for breach and can even contain provisions to claw back payments that may have already been paid.”
(Past instances of such “unbecoming” behavior presumably led to the cancellation of Sharon Stone’s Dior cosmetics contract in 2008 when she remarked that a major earthquake in China that killed nearly 70,000 was “karma” for its treatment of Tibet; Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte’s exaggerated claim of being robbed at gunpoint in Rio ended his deals with Ralph Lauren and Speedo.)
Even in cases where penalties are not part of an agreement, a brand could theoretically still sue the endorsing celebrity if they feel their reputation has been damaged. But, as Hand points out, that’s unlikely to happen in backscratching Hollywood circles.
“Some celebrities and brands have longstanding relationships and there's the notion of loyalty, not only potentially to that celebrity but to all celebrities,” Hand explains. “If a brand has a reputation for dumping celebrities and terminating contracts, which puts some sting on top of what's already usually a PR nightmare for the celebrity, it makes it easier when you’re negotiating with a potential new endorsement partner to say, ‘We stand by our talent. We have to have the morals clause, but we don't invoke it very often.’”
And if the talent isn’t as aware, then the commercial agents who represent them certainly are.
“A good agent sees across multiple clients and can say, without naming names, ‘Listen, do business with Brand XYZ, because they're good people. They know who you are, they know what you’re about and they’ll give you a little rope as long as it’s not something that is killing sales,’” Hand adds. “That can be a real selling point in the market for talent services.”
There’s the rub, as Shakespeare knowingly put it.
So maybe it’s no surprise that Dolce & Gabbana, having defied cancelation themselves, is apparently unfazed by The Slap just as Dior has looked the other way with Depp. A source at Dolce & Gabbana confirmed as much to me in an off-the-record email this week regarding Smith, saying: “We are thrilled to have dressed him for his awards season and press appearances and are happy to collaborate in the future.”
So there you go. I also asked a stylist I know if there was any chatter along the Rodeo Drive fashion corridor these days about the blowback from The Slap and they said everything was pretty much business as usual at the Dolce & Gabbana boutique. “It was busy. I don’t think anyone really cares.”
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