Dolce & Gabbana’s The Great Show, which was scheduled to take place in Shanghai on Wednesday evening, was cancelled amid accusations of racism.
The event was meant to be staged at the impressive Shanghai Expo Centre on the banks of the River Huangpu, but was called off amid growing backlash to an advertisement that the company posted on its social media accounts, as well as its Weibo account in China, on Monday, which offered instructions on how to eat Italian food with chopsticks.
One video showed a model attempting to eat pizza, another pasta, and another a dessert. In one video, a model dressed in a red sequinned gown attempts to pick up a large cannoli with her chopsticks. “It’s way to big for you, isn’t it?” a voiceover says in Mandarin. “You can also penetrate one of your chopsticks into the cannoli,” it continues, before the model starts picking up the cream bit by bit with her chopstick. Social media users responded with accusations that Dolce & Gabbana was reinforcing cultural stereotypes and had no understanding or appreciation of Chinese culture.
Influencers, celebrities, journalists – including The National's deputy luxury editor – and clients from around the globe had already been flown into Shanghai for the event, which was billed as the largest fashion show to be staged in Asia this year. It was called off mere hours before it was meant to start, amid fears that many celebrities would avoid the event in support of the trending Twitter and Instagram storm #boycottdolce. In China, more than 120 million people have taken to social media to condemn the original advertisement from Monday. Officials from the Chinese government had caught wind of the scandal and became involved, prompting the cancellation.
The cancellation and fallout are a reminder of the need for cultural sensitivity and awareness when doing business in East Asia – or, in fact, anywhere in the world. "Our dream was to bring to Shanghai a tribute event dedicated to China which tells our history and vision. It was not simply a fashion show, but something that we created especially with love and passion for China and all the people around the world who loves Dolce & Gabbana," Dolce and Gabbana said in a statement. "What happened today was very unfortunate not only for us, but also for all the people who worked day and night to bring this event to life. From the bottom of our hearts, we would like to express our gratitude to our friends and guests."
In recent years, the brand has put on a growing number of localised shows – in what they admit is a reaction against an increasingly globalised marketplace where you can walk into a shop in Milan, Tokyo, New York or Dubai, and see and buy exactly the same things. The duo’s clients were asking for something different, something new, something special – and Dolce and Gabbana were happy to oblige.
"We have done shows in Tokyo, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Mexico City and New York, because we love to explain to other people who is Dolce and Gabbana. We love to share our style," Stefano Gabbana told us when in the UAE for the brand's Dubai show in October. "But we don't want to colonise anybody. In every city, we try to mix our DNA with the DNA of the country. And we want to show our respect for the culture of the country.
“We don’t want to replay the same format everywhere,” Gabbana added. “Absolutely not. The show for Milan is for Milan; the show for New York is for New York; and the show for Dubai is just for Dubai. You cannot see in another place, the same clothes, the same mood, the same things. It is special. And the audience feels it.”
Many high-profile Chinese actors and actresses, such as Ziyi Zhang, BingBing Li, Kun Chen and Hailu Qin, were set to be seated front row at The Great Show, while the likes of Guan Hong, Weiguang Gao and even the niece of prime minister, Baobao Wan, were booked to walk the runway.
the niece of prime minister, Baobao Wan, were booked to walk the runway.
Prominent Instagram account, Diet Prada, which is a strong, and often lone, critic of the high fashion world – called the advertisement “pandering”. It went on to write that it paints the brand’s “target demographic as a tired and false stereotype of a people lacking the refinement to understand how to eat foreign foods”. It added that the “cliche ambient music” and “comical pronunciations” of foreign names begged the question: Who is this video actually for?
"Brands that succeed in China do so by accommodating not only legal and normative requirements, but also by way of adaptation to Chinese tastes," says Dr Regina Abrami, director, global programme, Lauder Institute and author of China Lead? Reaching the Limits of Power & Growth. "Key examples here would be Starbucks and many of the leading fast food chains. The Dolce & Gabbana ad, in contrast, does not translate well. It suggests that the Chinese people are ignorant and not well-travelled, which is not likely the case for anyone buying the brand."
The offending advertisement was removed as soon as the complaints began; however, in what the brand claims was a case of hacking, more offensive comments appeared in screen grabs of direct messages from the Instagram accounts of the designers. Although these too have been removed, it seems the damage has already been done.
Dolce & Gabbana is not a label afraid of spending money, but this show, with its 500 specially created looks, 1,500 guests, 360 models and 5,000 square metres of LED screens and projectors, was huge even by their standards. Cancelling it will not have been a choice taken lightly, and will be a significant financial jolt.
The now-removed offending advert may have been tone deaf, but in cancelling the show, the brand is at least showing that it is listening. The irony will not be lost on many that in an age where every brand is courting the all powerful millennials and gen Z via social media, the very audience Dolce and Gabbana was hoping to engage with this show are the ones who have forced its shutdown, via social media.