As the 80th Golden Globe Awards got underway at the Beverly Hilton in California on Jan. 10, Hollywood types, including Chinese American actress Li Jun Li, made their way down the red carpet.
Li, who has a part in the Margot Robbie-headlined film Babylon, donned a silver dress from Dolce & Gabbana. The dress was pretty enough, but mostly it highlighted how rare it’s become to see the Italian luxury house’s clothing on public Chinese figures.
Since 2018, Dolce & Gabbana has been fashion kryptonite in China. Celebrities there won’t touch the brand. But Dolce & Gabbana has taken to dressing Chinese Americans lately, ostensibly as a way to signal a more rehabilitated image with Asians.
It’s not likely going to do much there for the brand though.
Known for its ornately patterned clothing with heavy Sicilian references, Dolce & Gabbana combusted in China after it released a tone-deaf ad campaign which seemed to condescend Chinese culture.
One of the founding designers, Stefano Gabbana, then doubled down on the blunder, lashing out with racist insults at social media commenters who criticized the brand’s advertising. As the scandal built, the fashion show Dolce & Gabbana planned to host in Shanghai fell apart at the last minute.
Years later, the brand has not been forgiven.
Although the label still has its own retail business in China and says it has grown sales some, its partners dropped them. Department stores and major boutiques stopped carrying the brand, as did resale platforms. In 2021, the sustained backlash in China led Japanese cosmetics conglomerate Shiseido to end its global licensing deal (save for one market, France) to produce fragrance and beauty products for Dolce & Gabbana, citing underperforming sales in China.
Although the outfits celebrities wear at awards shows and other public events cost thousands of dollars, brands typically provide the clothing for free. Celebrities work with stylists who borrow samples from the brands in exchange for promoting the label in the public eye.
Sometimes, if it’s a big star, the brand may produce a unique piece just for that event. On the opposite end, if the talent is not big enough, they can have trouble finding designers to loan them clothing. The first time that comedian Tiffany Haddish did the awards circuit, for instance, she resorted to buying her own $4,000 Alexander McQueen gown. Though usually a big fashion no-no, she proudly rewore the dress at events at least eight times. In 2014, also at the Golden Globes, there was a snobby fuss over actress Hayden Panettiere’s decision to buy a Tom Ford dress at retail because she loved the brand so much. (Tom Ford, who was known for dressing just one woman per event, had selected the higher-profile actress Naomi Watts for the Globes that year.)
Li’s acting resume is relatively light. Presumably there wouldn’t be a lot of brands lining up to dress a relative unknown, so it’s not entirely surprising she would have been open to wearing Dolce & Gabbana. Quartz reached out to Li and her team but she declined to comment through her publicist.
We might similarly interpret the fashion decisions by the cast of Bling Empire, a Netflix reality TV show about purportedly rich Asian Americans. Paper Magazine took the cast’s frequent appearances in Dolce & Gabbana to mean the brand actually had been rehabilitated with Asians. But arguably, it’s more likely an indication that the show needed wardrobe on a limited budget (there’s debate about the level of wealth of these reality TV figures), and Dolce & Gabbana saw an opportunity. (We have reached out to Dolce & Gabbana for a comment.)
Dolce & Gabbana could be aware there’s a difference between the sentiments of Chinese and Chinese American shoppers, and may see the value in circling the race issue while it’s still too sensitive in China, in the hopes that one day it can again appeal more broadly to Chinese in China. In the meantime, it can convince Westerners to believe it’s already rehabilitated its image there, by pointing to people of Chinese descent wearing their clothes, even if the degree to which those people are in touch with their Chinese heritage varies wildly.
Li is Shanghai-born but grew up in Bogota, Colombia, and in New York. Interestingly, in Babylon, Li plays the role of a performer inspired by Anna May Wong, the first ever Chinese actress in Hollywood. Wong’s life was marked by feelings of alienation—both in the US, where she grew up, and in China when she finally visited, only to bump up against language and cultural barriers.
Meanwhile, Michelle Yeoh, who took home best actress in a comedy/musical at the Golden Globes and gave a memorable winner’s speech, opted for Armani Prive that night. Yeoh is Malaysian Chinese and speaks Mandarin and Cantonese.
Dolce & Gabbana has been taking other steps to signal deference toward Chinese customers. It recently posted a Lunar New Year campaign for the year of the rabbit, which falls on Jan. 21 this year. The campaign features Asian models—but none of them are big names.
It would no doubt pay off for the founders of Dolce & Gabbana to rehabilitate their image in China, a market that’s high priority for every global luxury brand. Despite the country’s troubles this year emerging from a zero-covid strategy, China is still expected account for half of global luxury spending in 2025.
As designers who also are the owners of their company, Dolce & Gabbana’s founders have more leeway than many peers when it comes to public relations missteps. They can’t, for example, get sacked as John Galliano did at Dior after an antisemitic rant.
That may explain why the designers have felt free over the years to unleash mean-spirited comments about celebrities including Selena Gomez, or about babies born through IVF. (Domenico Dolce did eventually apologize for the latter.)
And then there’s the brand’s history with the Kardashians, labeled by Stefano Gabbana in 2018 as “the most cheap people in the world.” Remarkably, Dolce & Gabbana has since become close to reality TV’s first family. The brand featured heavily in Kourtney Kardashian’s wedding to Travis Barker in 2022, and dedicated its entire Spring 2023 show to Kim Kardashian.
Perhaps the design duo is hoping the Chinese market eventually will be as forgiving.