European fashion giants took millions from daughter of former Angolan autocrat

Isabel dos Santos and her husband Sindika Dokolo wear Dolce & Gabbana at a gala in Cannes, 2018.
Isabel dos Santos and her husband Sindika Dokolo wear Dolce & Gabbana at a gala in Cannes, 2018.
Image: Dave Benett/WireImage for amfAR
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Heavily pregnant and clad in a gold dress embellished with delicate flowers, Africa’s richest woman leaned on a throne and stared soulfully from a palatial backdrop. 

She was posing for fashion icon Domenico Dolce’s forthcoming book, Queens: Alta Moda di Dolce & Gabbana. The photo speaks to an image that Isabel dos Santos, the former first daughter of Angola, has spent years cultivating—that of an inspirational self-made woman whose glamour and foresight is matched only by her beneficence. 

But the relationship between Dolce & Gabbana and dos Santos, the scandal-plagued daughter of Angola’s autocratic ex-president, runs deeper than her inclusion among Dolce’s “muses.” Between 2015 and 2016, dos Santos bought clothes worth nearly $780,000 from Dolce & Gabbana and more than $2.5 million from other major fashion labels.

Dos Santos wears the gold D&G dress at a Cannes Film Festival in 2017, alongside her husband Sindika Dokolo
Dos Santos, with her husband Sindika Dokolo, wears a gold Dolce & Gabbana dress at the Cannes Film Festival in 2017.
Image: Corbis via Getty Images

It wasn’t illegal for Dolce & Gabbana to take her money, but by doing so it became one of dozens of Western companies to profit from the alleged looting of Angola’s wealth by the dos Santos family, and helped legitimize the family’s position among European elites.

Western companies played a major role in the development of dos Santos’ empire. Some, wittingly or unwittingly, helped enable the corruption. Others, like Dolce & Gabbana, lent her a veneer of respectability with their prestigious names. 

Newly leaked documents reveal the role these companies played, and tell a different story to the up-by-the-bootstraps tale peddled by dos Santos, whose assets were frozen last month by Angolan authorities in a court order that claimed her graft had lost the state more than $1 billion.

Dos Santos denies the accusations, calling them politically motivated.

The Luanda Leaks, a major investigation published today by Quartz and dozens of other news organizations, in association with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), reveal how dos Santos made much of her money through insider deals, preferential loans, and sweetheart contracts, all fueled by public money. The trove of more than 700,000 emails, contracts and other documents, was shared with the ICIJ by the Platform to Protect Whistleblowers in Africa, a Paris-based advocacy and legal group. ICIJ shared the files with more than 120 journalists from 20 countries, who spent more than eight months combing through them and conducting hundreds of related interviews.

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Dos Santos denies any wrongdoing. The leak was part of a “concerted attack” on her by the Angolan government, she said. “[They] have decided to go and hack my offices, leak certain documents to investigative journalists, and then to put these questions forward,” she told the BBC, a Luanda Leaks partner. 

Dos Santos’ company also spent more than $1 million on clothing from Staff International, the parent of brands like Maison Margiela and Marni, and about $170,000 each from Dsquared2, Roberto Cavalli, Moschino, and Vicini, the owner of footwear label Giuseppe Zanotti. Between 2015 and 2016, the clothes were shipped to Luanda, Angola’s capital, to be placed in a flashy new shopping center built by a dos Santos-owned company. 

Asked about the firm’s relationship with dos Santos, a Dolce & Gabbana spokeswoman said only that the firm does not audit its clients. The other fashion brands mentioned in this story didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Fidequity, a company owned by dos Santos, planned to use these purchases to brand itself at an event in Cannes as the “leading company in the fashion and accessories business in Angola” and to claim “exclusive representation” of those brands, according to a draft presentation found in the leaked documents. In an email to dos Santos’ bank, one of her employees said dos Santos personally signed off on some of the payments.

Slide from draft presentation boasts Fidequity's "exclusive representation" of brands like D&G and Moschino
A draft presentation made by Fidequity in 2015 for an international real estate show in Cannes.

Fashion’s failures

The revelation shines new light on the fashion industry’s apparent willingness to take potentially illicit money, and its failure to conduct due diligence on clients. 

“It is not our problem what clients do in their lives,” a Dolce & Gabbana employee who helped arrange the dos Santos sale told Quartz when asked what checks they carry out on potential clients. “We just have clients who buy large amounts of goods and for us it is not strange.”

The firm spent months arranging the payment and shipping to Angola with Fidequity, the financial services firm that played a central role in her empire’s business operations. Had someone at Dolce & Gabbana googled the company’s name, they would have quickly landed upon a Forbes investigation into dos Santos’ alleged corruption.

Dolce & Gabbana’s approach is common in the fashion industry, where most brands simply do credit checks on potential customers to ensure they are good for the money, a New York-based fashion consultant told Quartz. 

“From my experience the due diligence on accounts and where their money is coming from is only skin deep,” said the consultant, who asked not to be named to avoid jeopardizing his relationships in the industry. “Brands are more concerned with the placement and maintaining an ideal distribution strategy. Who or where the money comes from is far less important than the brand alignments.”