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Can Dolce & Gabbana Weather Its Chinese Social Media Storm?

Retailers have responded to the outcry following a marketing campaign that many deemed racist by removing the brand’s products from stores and websites.
D&G's D&G Loves China campaign | Collage by BoF
By
  • Casey Hall,
  • Zoe Suen

SHANGHAI, China — The fallout from Dolce & Gabbana's Chinese racism row has not lessened in the days following the brand's cancellation of its #DGTheGreatShow catwalk in Shanghai, with more than its reputation taking a significant hit.

On November 19, Dolce & Gabbana published a promotional video for its event planned for the 21st, featuring a Chinese model attempting to eat Italian food with chopsticks. Though the video was removed from Weibo after 24 hours, a social media storm ensued and led to the surfacing of derogatory comments about China and its internet users attributed to co-founder Stefano Gabbana on his personal Instagram, as well as the brand's official account, as reported by Diet Prada. It was later announced that the 500-look runway show was cancelled, and the brand and Gabbana claimed that both accounts were hacked.

The noise hasn't gone unheard. On Thursday, major e-commerce platforms across China — including Tmall, JD.com, Suning Tesco, Netease Koala and Vipshop — removed products from the brand, according to Chinese media.

Luxury specialist online retailer Secoo joined the boycott and has taken down all of the brand’s products on its platform, stating that the company would “always regard social responsibility as a foremost goal to serve [their] consumers.” Fashion rental app Y-closet has also stopped loaning pieces from the brand, and Sephora stores in China have pulled the brand’s beauty products from their shelves.

Later the same day, global e-commerce giant Yoox Net-A-Porter also announced its intention to stop selling Dolce & Gabbana products in the Greater China region, and that they would be monitoring the situation closely and keep further decisions under review.

Searching for Dolce & Gabbana on Farfetch’s China site also showed no results on Thursday evening, though Farfetch declined to clarify or confirm their position regarding the further sale of the brand’s products through its platforms.

Offline retailers have also seen immediate impact to their business from the furore, with Lane Crawford, one of Greater China's most influential department stores, saying "we have had customers returning Dolce & Gabbana products to our stores, and we anticipate that there may be further commercial impact to our business. We will continue to monitor the situation and review our future business partnership with the brand," Andrew Keith, president of the Lane Crawford Joyce, said.

We have had customers returning Dolce & Gabbana products to our stores, and anticipate that there may be further commercial impact to our business.

An employee working with SKP, who spoke with BoF on condition of anonymity, said the leading chain of luxury department stores has already cancelled a Dolce & Gabbana window display scheduled for next month in both their Beijing and Xi'an stores. Group-buying platform Meituan Dianping has also removed the Dolce & Gabbana store from its directories.

The backlash is also having an effect on the Italian brand's brick and mortar locations, in China. In the brand's boutique inside Shanghai's Daimaru department store, two salespeople were working alongside six security personnel to serve a single client, close to an Alexander McQueen boutique with over 10 customers.

According to Wenwen, a salesperson from the Dolce & Gabbana sales counter at Parisian department store Galeries Lafayette, no Chinese customers have purchased any of the brand’s bags on Thursday. The brand’s New Bond Street location in London was empty on Thursday morning, and store managers declined to comment on the shopping activity of Chinese shoppers. Despite several attempts to reach a spokesperson for Dolce & Gabbana at the company’s Italian headquarters and the China office, they could not be reached for comment.

Though the speed and intensity of the commercial impact does not bode well for the brand, calls for a boycott among Chinese netizens are commonplace and usually short-lived. Balenciaga endured an online campaign that went viral on social media platforms Weibo and WeChat in April this year following the emergence of a video in which a young Chinese man was shown being roughly handled by shop assistants, reportedly at a Balenciaga store in a high-end Paris shopping mall. The furore soon blew over with little impact on broader consumer sentiment or appetite for the brand among Chinese consumer.

Though four security personnel were on site at Dolce & Gabbana’s Plaza 66 store on Thursday, three shoppers were browsing in-store and salespeople there claim it is business is as usual. “The event didn't really impact sales…there were shoppers today,” the manager of Dolce & Gabbana’s store in Shanghai’s IAPM shopping mall tells BoF, although she declined to give her name.

“I think the brand will survive in the Chinese market, but needs some time to recover,” says Shirley Chen, a 29-year-old Shanghai resident who owns shoes and dresses from the brand. “People will forget what happened, and most of the people [calling for boycotts] online are not the [brand’s] target client group,” she tells BoF.

There's so much noise online, and a lot of it isn't coming from people who would actually buy luxury goods from Dolce & Gabbana.

The same has been the case as occasional political flare ups that have resulted in bans and boycotts of products from Japan and Korea, which have quickly trended online before eventually settling down again. However, Chinese consumers may take things more personally this time around.

“The difference is that this is more organic, it is not linked directly to national politics or an event. It can be seen as Chinese netizens ‘drawing a line in the sand’ in terms of what brands have the 'right' to discuss and pass judgement on. The lessons for this are far clearer and concerning for brands than earlier boycotts,” says Jerry Clode, the head of digital and social insight at the Shanghai-based agency Resonance China.

Numerous celebrities and influencers' published passionate responses in the wake of Dolce & Gabbana's misstep. Actress Zhang Ziyi posted on her Weibo account that she would no longer "buy [nor] use any D&G products," and celebrities and influencers such as Li Bingbing, Huang Xiaoming, Chen Kun, Wang Junkai, Han Huohuo have all made social media posts to express their Chinese pride and withdraw their support for the brand. Models slated to walk the runway such as Victoria's Secret favourite Estelle Chen, as well as ones that have worked with the brand previously, also expressed their disgust through social media.

The issue has also made waves at a government level. On Thursday, journalists asked foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang about the future of Dolce & Gabbana in the China market at a press conference in Beijing.

Though Geng was clear that the issue was not a diplomatic one, he suggested that its seriousness could be gauged by asking ordinary Chinese people their thoughts on the brand. On the evening of November 21, a crowd of Chinese protestors — including a male model who has walked in the brand's fashion shows — stood outside the Dolce & Gabbana flagship in Milan and wielded signs replicating Gabbana's "Not Me" declaration, according to Sina Fashion.

“From what I can see, 80 percent of potential Dolce & Gabbana consumers around me won’t be able to forgive them,” Shanghai-based influencer Wang Yuan, better known as his online name Chrison, tells BoF. “The other 20 percent don’t care or only associate the comments with the designer and not the brand. There’s so much noise online, and a lot of it isn’t coming from people who would actually buy luxury goods from Dolce & Gabbana.”

“Loyal customers will remain loyal. Those who have shopped from the brand occasionally will stop, for now. But will they hold a grudge? Only time will tell.”

Additional reporting in Shanghai by Aijing Wang, Denni Hu, Nino Tang and Yifan Wang.

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