A tone-deaf Dolce & Gabbana ad caused a multimillion-dollar PR disaster in China

In damage-control mode.
In damage-control mode.
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The massive, 500-look fashion show Dolce & Gabbana had planned to stage in Shanghai today (Nov. 21) has been abruptly called off.

The Italian luxury house has faced explosive backlash in China over the last few days, starting with a series of ads it posted to its social media accounts promoting the show. Users accused the ads of trafficking in Chinese stereotypes, and the furor only grew with an Instagram argument apparently between Stefano Gabbana and another user that led to derogatory comments about China from Gabbana’s account. (Both Dolce & Gabbana the company and Gabbana the designer claim his account was hacked and he wasn’t responsible for the comments.)

In China, a number of celebrities scheduled to attend the show suddenly backed out, issuing similar public statements in support of China, and making the situation one of the biggest topics of discussion on the Chinese social media platform Weibo, where the controversial Dolce & Gabbana ads were also posted. Diet Prada, a fashion industry watchdog account on Instagram, then posted the news that a Chinese agency had shut down the show, while various sources have reported that Chinese state media said the show was canceled.

Dolce & Gabbana had been heavily promoting the multimillion-dollar (paywall) runway show in China, a hugely important market for luxury brands, accounting for about a third of all luxury spending globally. The cancellation is clearly a big blow. What’s less clear is whether the Chinese government had any a role in stoking the online outrage, from celebrities or others.

Dolce & Gabbana published a post on Weibo saying the show would be rescheduled, according to Business of Fashion (paywall). Reached for comment on whether it was Dolce & Gabbana or the Chinese authorities that decided to cancel today’s show, the company did not address the point directly, instead saying in a statement signed by Gabbana and Domenico Dolce that the show was meant as a tribute to China, to show their “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,” it 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 pair of chopsticks

The ads that sparked the whole controversy depict a Chinese woman using chopsticks to eat pizza, spaghetti, and an oversized cannolo, a sweet ricotta-stuffed pastry. She awkwardly struggles at times, and in the cannolo video, the narrator asks the giggling actress in Chinese, “Is it too huge for you?” Dolce & Gabbana labeled the series “Eating with Chopsticks,” and tagged each of the ads with #DGLovesChina and #DGTheGreatShow.

The backlash came quickly. On Instagram and on Weibo, people accused the ads of being outdated, insensitive, or in some cases, plain racist, as well as disrespectful to women. Dolce & Gabbana deleted the ads on Weibo, though they’re still up on Instagram as of this writing.

After that, the situation escalated. On Instagram, an argument started between Stefano Gabbana’s verified Instagram account, @stefanogabbana, and the user @michaelatranova about the perceived racism of the ads. At first, @stefanogabbana defends the ads, arguing that if people have an issue with them, it’s their problem. From there, @stefanogabbana begins saying that Chinese people eat dogs, that it wasn’t his idea to pull the ads from Weibo, and uses the smiling poop emoji to describe how he’ll refer to China in future interviews. “China Ignorant Dirty Smelling Mafia,” one @stefanogabbana post says.

Gabbana posted a screenshot of the conversation with the words “NOT ME” emblazoned across it, and said in the caption that his account had been hacked. “I love China and the Chinese Culture,” he wrote. “I’m so sorry for what happened.”

Gabbana has a history of lashing out on social media, and some in the fashion world expressed skepticism about the claims that his Instagram account had been hacked. The official Dolce & Gabbana account said it had been hacked too, and that it was investigating.

Diet Prada posted screenshots of the argument, and the story circulated on platforms such as WeChat and Weibo. “My own timeline was awash with this news by midday in Shanghai,” Jing Zhang wrote on NowFashion. (@michaelatranova uploaded a post with screenshots of the argument, but it was eventually deleted by Instagram for violating guidelines, according to a new post on @michaelatranova’s account. The screenshots are still available on Diet Prada’s account as of this writing.)

The challenges of doing business in China

Chinese stars slated to attend Dolce & Gabbana’s extravagant show quickly started backing out. Many issued pro-China statements on platforms such as Weibo, appearing to amplify the controversy. At one point, according to WWD (paywall), all 10 of the top search terms on Weibo related to the scandal.

“Our mother country is more important than anything,” said Wang Junkai, a singer in the hit group TFBoys, as reported in the Guardian. “I love my mother country,” read the statement by actor Li Bingbing. “Respect is more important than anything,” said another by actor, Talu Wang.

Chinese celebrities are under close watch by the government, and have often been among the first to speak out in support of China and the government’s point of view. They aren’t necessarily directed to do so, but likely understand that it’s in their best interests if they want to keep working in the country. Earlier this year, the movie star Fan Bingbing disappeared for three months, only to resurface with an abject apology to the government and an admission of dodging taxes.

Lately China’s government appears to be stoking nationalist sentiment, and it’s possible this newest fiasco was another opportunity to do so. It’s proved capable of stoking an uproar on social media, though there’s no clear evidence it did so in this case. Certainly the comments posted on Gabbana’s Instagram account (hacked or not) were enough on their own to prompt genuine outrage.

Whatever the case, the fiasco isn’t the first time Dolce & Gabbana has provoked controversy in China. In the wake of this newest controversy, there have been calls to boycott Dolce & Gabbana in China.

The situation highlights some of the challenges international brands face as they try to market to Chinese shoppers and do more business in the country. “Western brands seeking to enter and expand in China should be aware of Chinese cultural sensibilities,” Angelica Cheung, the editor-in-chief of Vogue China, told WWD (paywall). “Instead of dictating everything from head office, they would gain a lot from listening to the opinions and insights of their Chinese teams.”