The massive 500-sided fashion show that Dolce & Gabbana had planned to present in Shanghai today (November 21) has been abruptly canceled.
The Italian luxury house has faced an explosive reaction in China in recent days, beginning with a series of ads they posted on their social media accounts that promote the show. Users accused the traffic announcements of Chinese stereotypes, and the furor only grew with an Instagram argument apparently between Stefano Gabbana and another user that led to disparaging comments about China's Gabbana account. (Both Dolce & Gabbana, the company, and Gabbana, the designer, claim that his account was hacked and he was not responsible for the comments).
In China, several celebrities scheduled to attend the show suddenly withdrew, issuing similar public statements in support of China and turning the situation into one of the biggest discussion topics on the Chinese social networking platform Weibo, where the controversial Dolce & Gabbana Ads were also published. Diet Prada, a watch account of the fashion industry on Instagram, then published the news that a Chinese agency had closed the program, while several sources reported that Chinese state media said the program was canceled.
Dolce & Gabbana had been promoting the multi-billion dollar (paywall) parade in China, a very important market for luxury brands, which accounts for approximately one third of all luxury spending worldwide. The cancellation is clearly a big blow. What is less clear is whether the Chinese government played any role in fueling outrage online, by celebrities or others.
Dolce & Gabbana posted a post on Weibo saying the program would be rescheduled, according to Business of Fashion (paywall). Asked if it was Dolce & Gabbana or the Chinese authorities who decided to cancel today's program, the company did not address the issue directly, but said in a statement signed by Gabbana and Domenico Dolce that the program was a tribute to China, to show his "love and passion" for the country.
"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," he added. "From the bottom of our hearts, we would like to express our gratitude to our friends and guests."
It all started with Italian food and a couple of chopsticks.
The ads that caused all the controversy represent a Chinese woman who uses chopsticks to eat pizza, spaghetti and a large cannolo, a sweet filled with ricotta. Sometimes he struggles awkwardly, and in Cannolo's video, the narrator asks the laughing actress in Chinese: "Is it too big for you?" Dolce & Gabbana labeled the series "Eating with chopsticks" and tagged each of the ads with # DGLovesChina and #DGTheGreatShow.
The reaction came quickly. On Instagram and on Weibo, people accused the ads of being obsolete, insensitive or, in some cases, simply racist, as well as disrespectful to women. Dolce and Gabbana eliminated ads on Weibo, although they are still on Instagram right now.
After that, the situation worsened. On Instagram, a discussion started between the verified Instagram account of Stefano Gabbana, @stefanogabbana, and the user @michaelatranova about the perceived racism of the ads. At first, @stefanogabbana defends the ads, arguing that if people have a problem with them, it is their problem. From there, @stefanogabbana begins to say that the Chinese eat dogs, that it was not his idea to take out the Weibo ads, and he uses the smiling poop emoji to describe how he will refer to China in a future interview. "China Ignorant Dirty Smelling Mafia", says a publication of @stefanogabbana.
Gabbana posted a screenshot of the conversation with the words "NOT ME" on it, and said in the legend that his account had been hacked. "I love China and Chinese culture," he wrote. "I'm very sorry for what happened."
Gabbana has a history of attacks against social networks, and some in the fashion world expressed skepticism about claims that his Instagram account had been hacked. The official account of Dolce & Gabbana said that it had also been hacked, and that it was investigating.
Diet Prada published screenshots of the plot, and the story was circulated on platforms such as WeChat and Weibo. "My own timeline was flooded with this news at noon in Shanghai," Jing Zhang wrote in NowFashion. (@michaelatranova uploaded a post with screenshots of the plot, but was eventually removed by Instagram for violating the guidelines, according to a new post on the @michaelatranova account.) Screenshots are still available in Diet Prada's account at the moment I write this).
The challenges of doing business in China.
The Chinese stars scheduled to attend the extravagant show of Dolce & Gabbana quickly began to withdraw. Many issued statements in favor of China on platforms such as Weibo, which seem to amplify the controversy. At one point, according to WWD (paywall), the top 10 search terms on Weibo were related to the scandal.
"Our homeland is more important than anything else," said Wang Junkai, a singer for the hit group TFBoys, as reported in The Guardian. "I love my mother country," read the statement of actor Li Bingbing. "Respect is more important than anything else," said another actor, Talu Wang.
Chinese celebrities are under close government scrutiny and have often been among the first to speak in support of China and the government's point of view. They are not necessarily directed to do so, but they are likely to understand what is best for them if they want to continue working in the country. Earlier this year, movie star Fan Bingbing disappeared for three months, only to reappear with an abject apology to the government and an admission to evade taxes.
Lately, the Chinese government seems to be stoking nationalist sentiment, and it is possible that this new failure is another opportunity to do so. It has been shown that it is capable of causing an uproar in social networks, although there is no clear evidence that it has done so in this case. Certainly, the comments posted on Gabbana's Instagram account (hacked or not) were enough by themselves to provoke genuine outrage.
In any case, the fiasco is not the first time that Dolce & Gabbana has caused controversy in China. Following this new controversy, there have been calls to boycott Dolce & Gabbana in China.
The situation highlights some of the challenges faced by international brands when trying to promote Chinese buyers and do more business in the country. "Western brands seeking to enter and expand in China must be aware of China's cultural sensitivities," Angélica Cheung, editor-in-chief of Vogue China, told Wall Street. "Instead of dictating everything from the central office, they would gain a lot by listening to the opinions and opinions of their Chinese teams."