Dolce & Gabbana’s continuing crisis in China shows there’s a limit for brands that thrive on controversy—or despite it.
It also serves as a reminder to PR and marketing pros that diversity and cultural awareness are paramount, especially when launching global campaigns.
The fashion brand is struggling after a boycott by Chinese retailers, consumers, celebrities and influencers.
In a span of five days, the Milan fashion house swung from preparing a historic Shanghai extravaganza — billed as a no-expense-spared tribute to Chinese culture and the biggest runway event in label history — to pleading for forgiveness, its reputation shredded in a country that accounts for more than a third of luxury spending worldwide.
Outrage mounts after racist video and remarks
The backlash came after Dolce & Gabbana released an ad promoting its upcoming fashion show in Shanghai. Many called the ad racist.
On Saturday, November 18, D&G released a now-deleted post on China social media platform Weibo to promote its upcoming runway show in Shanghai (on November 21), with hashtags #DGLovesChina# and #DGTheGreatShow#. In that and related videos, a young Asian model in a red sequin D&G dress appears to have trouble eating Italian foods such as pizza, pasta, and cannoli with chopsticks but finally figures it out. In a particularly garish error in tone, in the video featuring cannoli, a male narrator asked the model “is it too huge for you?”
Weibo users accused the label of trivialising China’s culture and depicting Chinese women in a racist way. The video was taken down within 24 hours but it had already been shared widely on social media, where the hashtag #BoycottDolce began to circulate.
The outrage didn’t stop after the video was deleted, however.
The controversy continued when leaked messages from [designer Stefano Gabbana’s] Instagram were made public. In the messages, Gabbana appears to say the controversial videos were posted “by my will” and complains about the “China Ignorant Dirty Smelling Mafia.”
Following the online firestorm that erupted after the messages were publicly posted, Dolce & Gabbana said both the brand account and Gabbana’s personal account had been hacked:
View this post on Instagram
Our Instagram account has been hacked. So has the account of Stefano Gabbana. Our legal office is urgently investigating. We are very sorry for any distress caused by these unauthorized posts, comments and direct messages. We have nothing but respect for China and the people of China. Dolce & Gabbana 的官方Intragram 账号和 Stefano Gabbana 的 Instagram 账号被盗，我们已经立即通过法律途径解决。我们为这些不实言论给中国和中国人民造成的影响和伤害道歉。我们对中国和中国文化始终一贯的热爱与尊重。
Celebrities including the actor Zhang Ziyi have criticised the brand, while the singer Wang Junkai said he had terminated an agreement to be its ambassador.
The Communist party’s youth league said on Weibo, the Chinese microblogging platform: “We welcome foreign companies to invest and develop in China … companies working in the country should respect China and Chinese people.”
A number of e-commerce sites in China have removed Dolce & Gabbana products from their pages as consumers across the country called for a boycott of the brand. Those sites dropping the brand include Kaola, Secoo, Yoox Net-a-Porter, Alibaba, and JD.com. CNN further reports that Yangmatou had removed thousands of Dolce & Gabbana products from its pages, and retailer Lane Crawford will no longer offer the brand in store or online.
“Some Dolce & Gabbana stores in Beijing were temporarily shut, and Chinese students in Italy held a small protest in front of the flagship store in Milan, according to Chinese reports,” The Washington Post wrote.
Canceled fashion show and apology
As backlash continued, Dolce & Gabbana canceled its fashion show. It posted the following statement on Instagram:
View this post on Instagram
On Nov. 23, Domencio Dolce and Gabbana apologized in a YouTube video, which the fashion brand then published across its social media accounts.
The apology did little to stem the outrage, however. Many called out the delay of the apology (five days after the controversial online ad), while others said the mea culpa didn’t seem sincere.
Ad Age reported:
Plus, the founders seemed to be stiffly reading prepared remarks. One YouTube commenter described it as looking like a video you’d make “when your mom makes you apologize to your sibling or else she will take away your lunch money.”
Dolce & Gabbana’s path forward
The fashion brand’s crisis highlights the importance of being sensitive to a global audience—and shows how quickly crises can grow through social media platforms.
Dolce & Gabbana have much work to do if they expect to gain Chinese consumers’ trust again, much less their dollars—many of which are spent on luxury goods.
The incident is a terrifying example for executives of what can happen when the furies of social media are released. Greater China accounts for a third of global luxury sales and about a third of Dolce & Gabbana’s €1.3bn in annual revenues. Chinese millennials who shop mostly online are the fastest growing group of luxury consumers in the world and the future driver of growth of the luxury industry, according to consultants Bain & Co.
Kering (KER), the owner of Gucci and Alexander McQueen, said that sales in China soared 30% in the first half of 2018. French fashion house Hermes credited sales in the country for record profits over the same period. D&G is a private company that does not share its sales figures with the public.
Overall, Chinese consumers spend over $7 billion each year on luxury goods, according to the consultancy McKinsey. That’s nearly one-third of the global market.
… [Dolce & Gabbana] isn’t alone in struggling to recognize this shift — the whole industry will need to adapt or risk alienating customers. Luxury and premium fashion brands will have to embrace a more inclusive outlook if they are to continue to tempt customers to spend on their handbags, shoes and watches. That means not just greater diversity and cultural sensitivity in their marketing, but also providing garments for different ages, body shapes and those who want less revealing fashion.
Dolce & Gabbana’s path to rebuilding its broken reputation will take time.
CNN Business reported:
“It’s not going to happen overnight,” said Andrew Gilman, founder of the crisis communications firm CommCore Consulting Group. The brand will have to “find the biggest influencers they can … [and] get back in their good graces,” he said.
The company must also share a consistent message across its social media platforms and any other channels it uses to communicate with customers, he said.
Moving forward, it will have to do a better job of understanding Chinese culture. “You can be a global brand,” Gilman said, “but you have to have local sensitivities.”