Italian luxury retailer Dolce & Gabbana is facing a growing backlash in China after an ad campaign that was meant to promote the brand in arguably its most valuable market has been decried as racist.
Amidst growing calls to boycott the brand on Chinese social media, popular e-commerce sites, including Alibaba’s Tmall and JD.com, have seemingly removed listings for Dolce & Gabbana products. Searches for the brand on those sites at the time of this writing returned no results. NetEase’s Kaola confirmed to Reuters that it had taken down the brand’s listings.
The growing backlash forced the brand to postpone a fashion show in Shanghai just hours before it was set to take place on Wednesday, after models and celebrities reportedly said they would not attend the event. Dolce & Gabbana’s ambassadors in the region, Karry Wang and Dilraba Dilmurat, who is of Uigher ethnicity, have ended their contracts with the company, according to Bloomberg.
The uproar follows the publication of a series of ads on Chinese social media platform Weibo earlier this week, featuring a young Chinese woman attempting and failing to eat traditional Italian food, such as pasta, pizza and a cannoli, with chopsticks. The ads were released as part of the brand’s #DGLovesChina campaign ahead of the scheduled fashion show in Shanghai, but critics decried the videos as playing on racist stereotypes. The ads are still visible on Dolce & Gabbana’s Instagram page.
The controversy was made worse after screenshots of direct messages purportedly from founder Stefano Gabbana’s Instagram account were leaked, showing offensive comments about China and Chinese people. Both Gabbana and the brand have denied that the messages were sent by the Italian designer, saying the accounts were hacked, but many have expressed scepticism, given Gabbana’s track record of getting into verbal spats on social media.
“I love China and the Chinese culture. I’m so sorry for what happened,” Gabbana wrote in an Instagram post that asserted his account was hacked.
The boycott is especially troubling, since China is such a crucial market for luxury retailers. A 2017 McKinsey report found that Chinese consumers account for nearly a third of the global luxury market, spending RMB 500 billion (approximately $99 billion) annually. The consulting firm expects Chinese consumers to account for the majority of the growth in the global luxury goods market in the coming years, and by 2025, the country is forecast to make up 44 per cent of the total global market.
At the same time, McKinsey said that Chinese luxury consumers increasingly rely on word of mouth from friends and family to make purchase decisions, even more than the in-store experience. This creates treacherous terrain for global luxury brands, and Dolce & Gabbana is not the only one to have made a culturally insensitive or simply out-of-touch decision, causing offense in its most valuable market.
Ikea, among many other brands, has faced criticism for listing Taiwan as a separate country on its packaging or website, while Mercedes-Benz ran into problems for quoting the Dalai Lama in an ad campaign. China considers the spiritual leader to be a dangerous voice for separatism in Tibet.
This story first appeared on our sister site Inside Retail Australia.