A deep analysis of the latest blunder of a major fashion brand in China.
“Self-inflicted humiliation/自取其辱” is how people in China describe the Italian brand Dolce & Gabbana's egregious incident in China in the past few days. The brand has orchestrated its own game-over in China. As I write, it is taking its blows of catastrophe after it humiliated the whole nation in China with its racist remarks and ill-driven campaigns. Intentionally or not, the incident, which continues to escalate, has very much signalised the end of D & G's future in China. The self-blinding arrogance and zero amount of willingness to even try to respect Chinese culture is decapitating its entire operation in China. Let me recap the story for you and explain why it has gone so wrong.
From 18th November, as part of a campaign to promote its big show in Shanghai, Dolce & Gabbana published its three-episode ads. The ads showed an Asian woman struggled with chopsticks to eat a pizza, a cannoli and spaghetti, clumsily and awkwardly. In the video, the narration called Chinese chopsticks, “stick shaped cutlery”, whilst the pizza “GREAT traditional Pizza Margherita”. The setting showed a room with out-dated décor and red lighting with traditional Chinese music in the background.
When the videos were taken down in China by the brand’s office within 24 hours, the co-founder and designer Stefano Gabbana called China “the country of shit” and “China Ignorant Dirty Smelling Mafia” with the fashion writer Michaela Phuong during their conversation on Instagram. The screenshots of the conversation have been shared to the public later.
Reaction from China
Since the video was published, numerous complaints and protesting messages had been made from Chinese public and the hashtag # BoycottDolce started to gain huge attention on Chinese social media. Many people have called the three-episode videos stereotyping, racist, patronising and disrespectful to Chinese culture. When the remarks of China from Gabbana were exposed on 21st, Chinese celebrities including Chen Kun, Zhang Ziyi, Li Bingbing, Wang Junkai, Huang Xiaoming, etc., and all Chinese models boycotted the show, making the multil-million-pound show impossible to go ahead on 21st November. Chinese brand ambassadors for Dolce & Gabbana such as Dilraba Dilmurat and Wang Junkai all declared their requests to cease the contract with the brand immediately. “Our mother country is more important than anything, we appreciate the vigour and beauty of our cultural heritage,” said the management of Wang Junkai.
The incident has also drawn attention form the Ministry of Foreign Affair and many E-commerce platforms. On 22nd, at the regular press meetings at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a reporter asked the spokesman to comment on the incident, to which the spokesman replied, “This is in essence not a diplomatic incident. We don’t want it to escalate to one. Instead of asking us, you should ask the Chinese public and see how they think upon this.” At midday on 22nd, E-commerce platforms including JD.com, T-mall, VIP, Secoo, etc. all removed all products of Dolce & Gabbana.
Protests are found outside the flagship store of Dolce & Gabbana in Milan. People in China have taken it to social media and condemned the brand in numerous different ways. One popular comment online shows a picture of the logo of Dolce & Gabbana and an emoji of shit, with words “1985-2018” beneath.
How did Dolce & Gabbana respond?
The first was published on 21st, in which the official account of Dolce & Gabbana on Weibo said that both the official account of Dolce & Gabbana and Stefano Gabbana have been hacked.
To this reply, the model Estelle Chen who withdrew from the show commented, “Saying your accounts (both personal and official) were hacked show how much a coward you are. Could you please at least take responsibility for your behaviour? Because I can tell you no one buys that shit.” The second reply was made soon after the first one, in which the announcement read, “What happened today was very unfortunate not only for us, but also for all the people who worked day and night to bring this event to life.”
On 23rd, under pressure, both founders of D & G made official apologies to China on the brand’s Chinese social media platforms. At the end of the 85-second video, the founders said, “From the bottom of our hearts, we seek your forgiveness. Sorry”. The word “Sorry” was said in Mandarin. Later after the apology, web users found that the apology video was only uploaded to the Chinese platforms.
How did people in China make of the apology? See video below.
Why did it go so wrong?
In essence, two things have pushed Dolce & Gabbana into the vortex of criticism and boycotting: lack of understanding of Chinese culture and impudent attitude.
Invented at least 3,000 years ago in China, Chopsticks are the embodiment of Chinese culture. They contain strong emotional substance to people in China and are a symbol of Chinese civilisation, national solidarity and pride. The saying, “People regard eating as heaven/民以食为天”, gives a hint on the status of chopsticks. The three videos posted by Dolce & Gabbana had one thing in common – they all showed an Asian woman struggling with chopsticks to eat Italian food. This is easily perceived as a message of mockery to the Chinese eating habit of using chopsticks and a patronising image that western food is superior to Chinese food. What the videos delivered was not amusing to Chinese people, but rather uncomfortable attacks on our dignity. To refer to them as “stick shaped cutlery”, read with a tone of contempt, whilst calling the pizza the “GREAT traditional Pizza Margherita” with excitement, is like a blunt slap in the face to many Chinese people. Chopsticks are not simply a form of cutlery, but a form of cultural identity to all Chinese people. Dolce & Gabbana’s failure to understand the chopsticks and the culture behind has brought them onto an ill-driven campaign. Remember, it is OK if you don’t understand; but it is not OK, if you laugh at it with ignorance.
If that isn’t enough, the red lighting, poor setting in the back and traditional Chinese music has just made the offense even worse because it is clearly stereotyping and taking advantage of the poorer faces of China. The whole setting has been carefully designed to look aesthetically inferior so that the ‘glamour’ of the products of Dolce & Gabbana can be presented to the audience, in clear comparison.
This is not the first time Dolce & Gabbana use such strategy in their campaigns. A group of posters published in 2017 (see below) under the slogan “D & G love China” created an image where the models wearing Dolce & Gabbana products look beautiful and superb whereas the non-model Chinese people in the posters being mediocre and mundane. Many Chinese people commented that the brand was deliberately uglifying China and its people to assert the superiority of their brand and what they were trying to project, whatever that may be.
Such intention was magnified when people compared similar posters taken in other countries with those of China. Posters from South Korea, for example, showed the country being modern and advanced. The comparison made people in China feel upset, not because the brand took pictures of normal Chinese people, but because the angle that the brand had chosen portrayed a China in its 1980s. The sense of not being understood, not being accepted as what it is, but constantly reminded of what it was when it was poor, flushed out from those posters in 2017. The same feeling was also inflicted through the videos posted a few days ago. The brand wants to project an image that it loves China, but everything that the campaign presents raise the level of resentment towards the brand. The pitfall lies in comprehending the Chinese culture and society. Oh, there is another thing: the character “Shanghai/上海” is questionably not even in Chinese fonts. It is in a Japanese font. I will leave this to you to ponder.
The videos, although highly inappropriate, are not the most inflammatory part. The most unacceptable behaviour is the co-founder’s racist remarks on China, calling it the “country of shit”. One the one hand, the brand promotes their campaign with a title called “D & G love China; on the other hand, the co-founder, someone who highly represents the brand, calls China in the most unacceptable terms. This is utterly disgusting to many people in China and unforgivable!
Behind the impudent remarks is the blinding arrogance of the brand. Dolce & Gabbana probably never thought they would end up in today’s situation and they were so confident in themselves that the co-founder claimed he would refer to China as a country of shit at all international interviews. When the incidents quickly backfired, the brand used the most implausible excuse, saying both accounts had been hacked. Really? Do you really expect people to believe that? When no one bought the story, the brand went on to call the incident “very unfortunate”. Again, no signs of sincerity and sense of regret at all. This really brings the whole incident to the next level where people are completely furious. On social media in China, such as Tik Tok, videos of people burning shoes and other products of Dolce & Gabbana are springing up. Many customers who had deposit in their accounts with D & G are reported to have been demanding the refund of their money, saying that wearing the products of D & G has become a shame.
What to take away?
1. Accept China’s difference and don’t patronise;
China is a different country, a different market and most of all, a different civilisation. When any brands make decisions to enter the Chinese market, make sure that you are ready to accept the differences of Chinese market in the first place. Too many brands assume that people would think and act in a way that their ideology expects. This is very dangerous.
Never patronise, period.
2. Respect and understand Chinese culture;
Without the communication of culture, there will not be any form of communication of business. When buyers don’t feel the respect they deserve, do you expect them to love your brand and buy your products? Certainly not. However, respect is not enough. Brands must work hard on understanding the Chinese culture, if they want a success out of the market. Currently, western understanding of modern China is still very much in 20 years ago. Without sufficient efforts on learning and appreciating the Chinese culture, stereotyping would slip in very easily, which will lead the brands to a one-way, dangerous path.