Can Dolce & Gab­bana re­cover?

The Globe and Mail Metro (Ontario Edition) - - PURSUITS - NATHALIE ATKIN­SON STYLE

The Ital­ian fash­ion brand planted it­self in the mid­dle of a racism row in China, and is feel­ing the se­ri­ous ef­fects

Oops, they did it again. Fol­low­ing yet an­other highly pub­li­cized blun­der, Dolce & Gab­bana abruptly can­celled a run­way show planned for Nov. 21 in China. The mas­sive show was to have taken place in Shang­hai. You could say it de­volved into a [in­sert poop emoji here] show.

It was a plate of pasta that started it all. Ahead of Dolce & Gab­bana’s planned hour-long, star-stud­ded run­way spec­ta­cle dubbed The Great Show, the brand posted pro­mo­tional clips on Chi­nese mi­croblog­ging site Weibo. The videos de­picted a gig­gling Chi­nese model clum­sily at­tempt­ing to eat enor­mous serv­ings of spaghetti, su­per­sized can­noli and other Ital­ian cui­sine with chop­sticks, while a nar­ra­tor asked “Is it too huge for you?” Some­one at D&G clearly thought the pro­mo­tional videos were tongue-in-chic rather than foot-in­mouth, but the videos drew wide­spread con­dem­na­tion from Chi­nese con­sumers.

Then, when al­legedly re­spond­ing to a pri­vate In­sta­gram mes­sage about the cul­tur­ally in­sen­si­tive videos, de­signer Ste­fano Gab­bana was re­port­edly deroga­tory in his replies, in­clud­ing mak­ing com­ments about Chi­nese peo­ple eat­ing dogs and us­ing the poop emoji to re­fer to the coun­try. (The com­pany claims Gab­bana’s ac­count had been hacked.) Screen­shots of the of­fen­sive In­sta­gram mes­sages sur­faced and The Great Show was called off at the 11th hour by the brand.

In re­sponse to the ad and Gab­bana’s mes­sages, Chi­nese on­line re­tail­ers re­moved D&G prod­ucts from their sites and A-list celebri­ties also took a step back from the brand. Su­per­star ac­tors and en­ter­tain­ers such as Zhang Ziyi, Fan Bing­bing and Chen Kun voiced their dis­may and dis­avowed the de­signer la­bel in protest, while singer Karry Wang promptly can­celled his role as its brand am­bas­sador.

It can’t even claim to be be cul­tural new­bies to China. Dolce & Gab­bana has op­er­ated in the mar­ket for nearly 15 years. In spite of an ab­ject video apol­ogy – “We will re­spect the Chi­nese cul­ture in ev­ery way pos­si­ble. From the bot­tom of our hearts, we ask for for­give­ness” – the in­tense back­lash has only wors­ened. Chi­nese con­sumers have been post­ing videos of them­selves throw­ing out D&G items, and the South China Morn­ing Post ran an ar­ti­cle called “How to make Dolce & Gab­bana re­ally pay for co-founder’s anti-China slur.” Yikes.

The Dolce & Gab­bana aes­thetic is al­ready lib­er­ally sprin­kled with Ro­man Catholic iconog­ra­phy, but lately mea culpa, mea max­ima culpa has also be­come a re­cur­ring re­frain among all those flam­ing hearts, madon­nas and crosses. To err is hu­man, to forgive di­vine, but D&G has a his­tory of be­ing, as the too-po­lite eu­phemism goes, prob­lem­atic.

This isn’t the first time it has blun­dered – or even the sec­ond. Mis­steps range from the nam­ing of prod­ucts (in 2016, it named a model of flat shoes “slave san­dals”) to the prod­ucts them­selves (ear­rings glo­ri­fy­ing car­toon­ish and colo­nial­ist “black­amoor” im­agery). The de­sign­ers came un­der fire in 2015 af­ter pub­licly say­ing they op­posed gay adop­tion (“The only fam­ily is the tra­di­tional one”) and crit­i­ciz­ing chil­dren con­ceived by IVF as “syn­thetic” in an in­ter­view with Panorama mag­a­zine. Af­ter that par­tic­u­lar state­ment, El­ton John called for a boy­cott of the brand. “We make dresses,” was Gab­bana’s ri­poste when Mi­ley Cyrus once called him out over his po­lit­i­cal views, but the de­sign­ers sim­ply can­not claim, as he has tried, that they don’t care about pol­i­tics.

And the mis­steps don’t end there. Gab­bana has pre­vi­ously body-shamed Lady Gaga, and just this sum­mer called blogger Chiara Fer­ragni’s Dior wed­ding gown “cheap.” Then there was the time he posted a harsh opin­ion of Selena Gomez’s phys­i­cal ap­pear­ance in the com­ments of a fash­ion me­dia brand’s In­sta­gram feed.

Al­though the lux­ury la­bel is a pri­vately held com­pany and does not dis­close fi­nan­cials, Gab­bana and busi­ness partner Domenico Dolce have joined var­i­ous bil­lion­aires lists over the years. Stay­ing on them, how­ever, could de­pend on China. A re­cent study from con­sult­ing firm Bain & Co. puts the growth of sales of lux­ury goods in main­land China at more than 20 per cent this year, and sug­gests that by 2025, China will ac­count for nearly half of all lux­ury re­tail sales world­wide. China’s Na­tional Bureau of Statis­tics, for ex­am­ple, re­ported that for the first quar­ter of 2018, to­tal re­tail sales were up 9.8 per cent over last year to US$1.4-tril­lion. It’s also the world’s largest e-com­merce mar­ket, with on­line sales for the same pe­riod reach­ing US$307-bil­lion, up more than 35 per cent over last year. Even a cur­sory read of Price­wa­ter­house­Coop­ers re­port from ear­lier in 2018 about the in­ten­sity and speed at which China’s con­sumer land­scape is evolv­ing is stag­ger­ing.

Ac­cord­ingly, pub­lisher Condé Nast has also just an­nounced it will en­ter the Hong Kong me­dia mar­ket with a sec­ond lo­cal Chi­nese edi­tion of Vogue mag­a­zine (Harper’s Bazaar, Cos­mopoli­tan and Elle al­ready have editions). This joins its ex­ist­ing Vogue China, which, with a read­er­ship of two mil­lion, out­paces U.S. Vogue (just as China has eclipsed the United States as the largest re­tail mar­ket in the world).

It’s not easy to over­state the im­por­tance of the Chi­nese mar­ket to any in­ter­na­tional busi­ness plan. In its apol­ogy, D&G looked stricken and so it should, for many rea­sons, not least of which are the fi­nan­cial im­pli­ca­tions of alien­at­ing the Chi­nese con­sumer (and gov­ern­ment). While the Ital­ian duo fig­ure out how to re­ha­bil­i­tate their rep­u­ta­tion once again, their epic mar­ket­ing fail­ure high­lights the in­creas­ing pres­sure to cater to China. And that pres­sure goes be­yond busi­ness prow­ess to ba­sic com­mon sense.

NG HAN GUAN/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Domenico Dolce, left, and Ste­fano Gab­bana apol­o­gized via video on Nov. 23 on Chi­nese so­cial me­dia for a pro­mo­tional video that was con­sid­ered of­fen­sive to Chi­nese peo­ple. The dam­age, how­ever, was done and the back­lash has only wors­ened since.

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