This has not been a good year for the Milanese, who may be counting on the veracity of that old proverb that bad things come in threes. First the city’s beloved sons, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana, were handed 18-month sentences for tax evasion, then prosecutors announced a probe into a massive bribery scandal involving Milan’s Expo 2015. And now the city’s preeminent hotel, the 87-year-old Principe di Savoia — associated with a string of legendary guests from Josephine Baker and Eva Peron to Madonna and George Clooney — is facing a mass boycott in protest of the hotel’s owner, the sultan of Brunei.
For a hotel that has long been the epicenter of the city’s fashion weeks, this is no small thing—losses from major fashion clients are likely to be in the tens of millions.
The boycott stems from the sultan’s decision to introduce Sharia law, which includes the death penalty for sodomy. Brunei has not carried out any executions since 1957, and the specter of public flogging and stoning has prompted international revulsion, as well as fierce rebukes from the U.N.’s high commissioner for human rights and Amnesty International, which said the new law would “take the country back to the dark ages.”
Although the all-powerful sultan, with his $20 billion, can afford to weather almost anything, the boycott comes at a moment when gay rights have created a clear fault line between the west and Russia, Africa, and much of the Middle East. While the Dorchester Group, which owns the Principe, as well as the Beverly Hills Hotel and Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles, claims that it is being unfairly singled out from other brands that depend on foreign investment, the boycott reflects a growing consciousness among American and European consumers of the role they can play in a globalized world.
But it’s not just individual consumers choosing to stay away. The Virgin Group was among the first to announce a boycott, quickly followed by Kering, which owns Gucci, Alexander McQueen, Bottega Veneta, Puma, and Saint Laurent, among many others. That decision has electrified others in the fashion world, including Anna Wintour, Love magazine editor Katie Grand, and designers like Tomas Meier, creative director of Bottega Veneta, who told The Advocate that he would be staying somewhere “more human rights-friendly” on his next trip to Milan.
As the ultimate party magnet for models, editors, and designers alike, this kind of fallout has got to sting. Whether the sultan will feel it is another matter.