Dolce & Gabbana PR Controversy Draws Chinese Boycott and Show Cancellation
Italian luxury fashion house Dolce and Gabbana’s (D&G) abruptly cancelled its massive 500-look fashion show just hours before it was scheduled to begin on Nov. 21, 2018 in Shanghai amid a brewing public relations controversy over its “Eating with Chopsticks” advertisement series and racially offensive private messages allegedly sent by D&G co-founder Stefano Gabbana on social media platform Instagram.
The D&G 40-second Chinese language video spots, created to promote “The Great Show” alongside hashtags “#DGLovesChina” and “#DGTheGreatShow,” featured a Chinese model struggling to eat pizza, spaghetti, and an oversized cannoli with her chopsticks. All three videos were shot with stereotypical Chinese music playing in the background, with the narrator seemingly mispronouncing “Dolce & Gabbana” with an exaggerated Chinese accent. In the pizza video, after the model prods the pizza with chopsticks, the narrator offers seemingly patronizing advice on how to eat the pizza: "don't attempt to use the chopsticks as knives” and "just use your chopsticks like pliers." In the cannoli video, the narrator is heard asking the awkwardly-smiling woman “Is it too huge for you?”
The advertisements drew immediate criticism across social media, with Chinese-language social media seeing mentions for boycotting D&G’s “The Great Show” being read at least 540 million times and mentioned in 74,000 separate discussions on Chinese microblogging site Weibo. As D&G’s Instagram comment sections for the videos filled with negative responses, models and performers slated to appear at the show quickly announced their withdrawal.
This controversy was further compounded by the online circulation of screenshots of a direct message exchange on Instagram between fashion writer Michaela Phuong Thanh Tranova and D&G co-founder Stefano Gabbana. In the chat, Tranova confronts Gabbana for the promotion campaign, to which Gabbana responds by using smiling poop emoticons to describe China and makes reference to “China Ignorant Dirty Smelling Mafia,” among other racially-charged derogatory messages.
However, the fashion house claims that the co-founder's Instagram account was hacked. Gabbana has also posted screenshots of this conversation with words “Not Me” superimposed on the pictures on his Instagram account. While D&G removed the offending videos from its official Chinese social media accounts and Domenico Dolce joined his fellow co-founder Gabbana in an apology video posted within 24 hours of the first post of the ill-fated advertisement campaign, screenshots and copies of the offending videos and the private Instagram conversation went viral by Nov. 23.
As numerous Chinese big-name celebrities, including TFBoys singer Wang Junkai, actors Li Bingbing and Talu Wang, actress Zhang Ziyi, and supermodel Jin Dachuan, announced their withdrawal from “The Great Show” and boycott of future D&G shows, the Italian fashion house ultimately cancelled the Shanghai fashion show. Fallout, however, continued, with the brand’s Asia-Pacific ambassadors ending contracts with D&G, entire modeling agencies reporting their withdrawal and boycott of D&G shows, and the Communist Youth League declaring that “foreign companies operating in China should respect China and respect Chinese people.”
Furthermore, Chinese retailers dropped D&G products from their physical and online shelves, with NetEase Inc’s online platform Kaola, luxury goods retailer Secoo, Yoox Net-A-Porter, and sites hosted by Alibaba Group Holding Ltd and JD.com Inc reporting that the Italian fashion house’s wares were no longer available on their Chinese language platforms. Anti-D&G social media posts, including videos of people renouncing, destroying, and burning D&G goods, trended virally online.
Though it is too early to say how the controversy, with its trending social media impact, will ultimately affect D&G’s bottom line, the potential consequences of upsetting Chinese consumers portend ill for the Italian fashion house. Chinese consumers are estimated to be responsible for 32 percent of luxury goods sales worldwide at present, with expectations for that number to jump 40 percent by 2024.
With such economic clout, a vast population of “young, social media-influenced shoppers,” and a rapidly expanding luxury goods market, China has become a lucrative and highly competitive market for various luxury brands — albeit with its own particularities (e.g. nationalism) and heavy government influence. It must also be noted that last time a consumer boycott took place in China was in 2017, when consumers shunned South Korean supermarket chain Lotte Mart over Seoul’s decision — infuriating Beijing — to host the US’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile defense system. Lotte Mart ultimately completed its withdrawal from the Chinese market in late October of this year.
It is not the first time that Dolce & Gabbana has found itself entangled in a culturally offensive controversy. The brand and its co-founders have a track record of offending various groups and being unconcerned about it. Notably, they have referred to babies conceived via in vitro fertilization as “synthetic,” called gladiator sandals “slave sandals,” body-shamed celebrities, and characterized sexual harassment as “non-violence.”
While D&G’s co-founders, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana, acknowledged their “cultural misunderstanding” and pledged to “never forget this experience and lesson” to ensure “this sort of thing will never happen again” in their formal apology, Chinese social media sentiment has continued to be very critical. One comment simply stated, “We don’t have to accept your apology. Go and make money in other countries, there’s none for you here in China.”