China’s Purse Snaps Shut for Dolce & Gabbana
Politics and fashion are touchy subjects in a Communist state that loves luxury.
Dolce & Gabbana is in trouble. After its three-part video campaign teasing an upcoming fashion show in Shanghai was accused of racism, vile messages denigrating China appeared from Stefano Gabbana’s Instagram account. The Italian designers are no stranger to controversy, from blackamoor earrings and insulting gay parents to “slave sandals” and calling Selena Gomez ugly, and seemingly have thrived on it, selling a T-shirt with the print “Boycott Dolce & Gabbana” and a price tag of $295.
However, this time the repercussions were swift and severe. Dolce & Gabbana’s show in Shanghai was cancelled. Protest posters covered the brand’s storefronts in China. Their products disappeared from Chinese e-commerce sites including Alibaba and JD, as well as the Chinese-language site of the Swiss-owned online retailer Net-a-Porter.
The pair issued apologies including a video bearing a striking resemblance to political confessions on Chinese state TV, but the damage appears irreversible without forgiveness from Chinese consumers, who make up a third of the world’s luxury goods sales. Dolce & Gabbana’s self-inflicted wound shows the power of the Chinese purse and the political complexity of Chinese identity, in a time of both increased consumerism and the all-pervasive weight of politics.
The ad that started the firestorm featured a Chinese model in heavy golden jewelry and a red sequined dress, making clumsy attempts to eat pizza, pasta, and a giant cannoli with a pair of chopsticks. Lanterns and calligraphy crowded the background. The Chinese narration pronounced the words “Dolce & Gabbana” with an exaggerated accent. As a Chinese woman, I found the videos to be intellectually lazy and in poor taste. The ill-conceived concept exoticizes Chinese culture and infantilizes its people.
Chinese netizens were rightfully outraged—in part because the campaign hit upon one of the country’s sorest spots, a deep sense of inferiority ingrained by a long history of foreign dominance and perceived superiority. Even as the Communist Party beats the drums on “a hundred years of humiliation,” sartorial and linguistic choices reinforce these notions. The epitome of style in China is called yang qi, or “the air of foreignness.” Chinese clothing labels often deploy European-sounding names and hire white models to front ad campaigns. Dolce & Gabbana’s ad inflamed a deeply held fear that however rich they get, the Chinese are still an uncultivated people, and their cultural heritage is partly to blame.
Before their latest controversy, Dolce & Gabbana released a series of ad campaigns in the spring of 2017, shot on location with real-life scenery from Tokyo, Hong Kong, Beijing, and Sao Paulo. While the rest were well received, the images from Beijing caused a huge backlash from the Chinese public, who criticized the brand’s choice of historic landmarks instead of modern architecture as intentionally portraying China as a backwards place. Photos of local tuk-tuk drivers and an elderly Chinese woman in plain clothing were called “low-quality” and “peasant-like” online. The campaign was oddly reminiscent of the fuss about Michelangelo Antonioni’s film Chung Kuo—China, denounced during the Cultural Revolution for showing China as the poor country it was.
Yet in part, the dominance of the Western gaze stems from the failure of the Chinese fashion industry to produce its own vision. In 2015, the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art put on an exhibit called “China: Through the Looking Glass.” Described as “an image of China in the Western imagination,” the show featured China-inspired outfits by mostly European designers. The chinoiserie concept received its share of criticism, including from the Hong Kong textile mogul Silas Chou, whose company had owned majority stakes in iconic American fashion brands including Tommy Hilfiger and Michael Kors.
In a memorable scene from the documentary First Monday in May, which recorded the making of the exhibit, Chou pointed out the overemphasis on traditional symbols like dragons and porcelain, and the lack of references to modern China. However, when asked by the curator Andrew Bolton to define “the contemporary Chinese aesthetic,” there was a long pause before Chou answered, “it’s in the making.” The film director Wong Kar-wai, who served as the exhibit’s artistic director, was more direct: “There is none.”
The fashion industry in China has no shortage of talent. Its albatross, like that of many other creative sectors, is the authoritarian state. Unlike their Western peers, contemporary Chinese designers have been consciously distancing themselves and their work from politics. In an interview with The Guardian in 2015 where she’s hailed as “poised to become the country’s first international design superstar,” Masha Ma expressed the disinterest in politics of her generation of Chinese, who grew up post-Tiananmen. Instead of obvious cultural symbols, Ma draws on her visions of Chinese philosophy as part of her inspiration, creating work that’s perceived as very Chinese by Europeans—but very European by the Chinese.
Born in Beijing, Ma spent seven years studying design at Central Saint Martins in the U.K. before returning to China in 2013, the year Xi Jinping became president. Like the scientific community, many of China’s fashion elite boast an overseas education. Ma Ke, a favorite of Chinese first lady Peng Liyuan, also trained at Central Saint Martins.
Nevertheless, the most renowned Chinese designer today is thoroughly a creation of her home country, by both its culture and politics. The Beijing-born and -bred Guo Pei saw her custom-made eveningwear business balloon over the past few years. As Xi’s anti-corruption campaign made many wealthy Chinese hesitant to splurge on Western luxury brands, Guo’s designs quickly became a darling among the Chinese oligarchy, despite their six- to eight-figure price tags.
Stating emphatically that she is not a feminist, Guo expresses her mission as “making a wedding dress for the Chinese nation and people.” Her use of Chinese cultural elements is deliberately careful. In the documentary Yellow is Forbidden featuring Guo and her work, the first Chinese designer invited to the exclusive Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture recounted her desire for a yellow dress as an eight-year-old in China amid the Cultural Revolution. Guo’s grandmother quickly denounced the idea, telling her that “yellow is forbidden,” because the color was reserved for the emperor. China today is no longer bound by the color code of its imperial era, and Guo’s most famous design was an extravagant yellow gown worn by the American singer Rihanna in 2015.
However, an outfit with sunflower prints was enough of an error for the American singer Katy Perry to be banned from China, as the golden blossom was a symbol of the 2014 pro-sovereignty protests in Taiwan. For millions of Uighur Muslim minorities living in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, traditional clothing or religious accessories gets you sent to the concentration camps. Guo’s opulent designs are careful not to trip over the wrong symbols. As with most businesses in China, Guo has bent her language to suit the rhetoric of the state.
With Chinese designers politically shackled, free use of Chinese cultural elements is more common among Westerners. Numerous European designers, from Vivienne Westwood in the U.K. to John Galliano for the French house of Dior, have reimagined the Mao suit. The Chinese-American designer Vivienne Tam printed the artist Zhang Hongtu’s humorous rendition of the Great Helmsman’s face on her 1995 collection, a move that was controversial but aesthetically striking.
Blunders have been plenty. Some are funny but harmless, such as the famous 1951 Christian Dior dress printed with Chinese characters, where the stunning calligraphy was a description of stomach ache. Others can be more problematic.
When the late French couturier Yves Saint Laurent, whose work often referenced other cultures from Asia to Africa, released a perfume in 1977, he named it Opium. The name reflected a colonial fantasy of the Far East being a dangerous and mysterious place, and little consideration of the damage done to China and its people by the drug and the British invasion it once caused. A group of Chinese-Americans formed the American Coalition Against “Opium” and Drug Abuse in protest, expressing outrage over “the insensitivity to Chinese history.” Instead of the desired name change and public apology from Saint Laurent, however, the controversy created free publicity for the fragrance, which remains one of the brand’s most iconic and best-selling creations.
In 1977, China was just emerging, dirt-poor and closed off to the rest of the world. Few in China were likely aware of the perfume, let alone able to purchase anything from the expensive French label. Today Saint Laurent’s beauty products are smashing sale records in China, and it is one of the first European luxury fashion houses to open an online boutique in the country. What would happen to the brand if the perfume Opium was released today? Would it face a similar fate as Dolce & Gabbana?
The Shanghai-based writer Xiang Kai set over $20,000 worth of Dolce & Gabbana products from his collection on fire to protest the brand. As a caption to the flaming photos he posted online, Xiang wrote, “Some people say you’ve wasted a lot of money. I’m willing to waste this money for the nation’s dignity.” Many people in China today have money to spend on luxury, and to burn if necessary in acts of patriotism, performative or not. But there’s less money—or will—to produce the genuinely creative works that could draw upon China’s heritage without cheapening it.