For the past few years, we’ve been seeing an ascent of Chinese brands playing on retro themes and nostalgia. Whilst many of these brands were relatively unsophisticated in their heyday, they are increasingly striking a chord in today’s cosmopolitan China. State media and brands like Alibaba have been all over the trend launching festivals such as “Tmall China Day” and bringing Chinese fashion brands to New York Fashion week.
The trend is part of the much wider rise of pride in China – where they have come from and what they’ve become – which is seeing Mainlanders become more comfortable in themselves, and in their brands. The theme doesn’t mean the end of foreign brands in the market, but it points to a consumer who no longer blindly assumes international brands are better. They are scrutinising their branding, messaging and products more than ever before, and expect them to align with Chinese culture and expectations.
There are plenty of examples of foreign brands making cultural gaffes – every Chinese New Year there are misguided attempts to use zodiac animals, and a personal favourite, Nike’s Fa Fu “getting fat” imprints on their shoes; yet most of these mistakes have been fairly light hearted and consumers moved on soon afterwards. Last week’s clanger by Dolce & Gabbana set a new standard for cultural misappropriation from a foreign brand in China.
The Italian luxury fashion brand was just seeing the dust settle from its last blunder in 2017, after being widely accused of backward and racist associations with China. As a result, Chinese consumers were going to view them more critically, so you would expect the brand to err on the side of caution with China-related communications. Instead they went the other way, promoting their multi-million dollar Shanghai fashion show with three videos entitled “eating with chopsticks” starring an Asian female model in an outdated stall being told how to eat pizza, spaghetti and cannoli by a male voice-over in Mandarin. China’s social media ignited into a fury, with D&G taking all of the top-10 trending terms on Weibo, being accused of sexist and racist undertones, and continuing to portray a backward view of the People’s Republic.
Just when things didn’t look like they could get any worse, Stefano Gabbana stood by the ads, and when his local China team took them down his verified Instagram account was thrust into a rant against China. “From now on in all the interview [sp] that I will do international I will say that the country of (poop emojis) is China” and “China Ignorant Dirty Smelling Mafia,” among other abuse. The brand subsequently claimed their accounts had been hacked, but the damage was done.
China’s biggest names in fashion and entertainment and the 24 models scheduled to be on the runway announced they would boycott the fashion show planned that evening – the show that was eventually cancelled. Every major Chinese ecommerce platform and Lane Crawford stopped selling D&G products. There were even reports of guards hired to protect D&G stores.
Where does D&G go from here? Given the volume of satires and memes about the brand flooding Chinese social media since the videos were launched, its biggest challenge will be to be taken seriously by Chinese consumers. It will be a long road. To claw back some credibility in the world’s largest luxury market, they will need to do a lot more than the grovelling apology video from founders and a few slick ads (which are hopefully culturally sensitive). They will have to work harder at the grassroots level with some on-the-ground initiatives to show consumers they respect and understand China’s culture a lot better than they have to date. It might even be worth Stefano spending a sabbatical in China to learn more about how it really is today. We’d happily host him at the Skinny HQ to get the journey started. Go to Page 2 to see this week’s China news and highlights.