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Is Fashion Ready for a Multicultural Minefield?

Social media, Chinese nationalism and a culture war in the US have ratcheted up the risk of costly cultural missteps like those made by Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci, Prada and others. Luca Solca examines what fashion brands should — and should not — do.
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By
  • Luca Solca
BoF PROFESSIONAL

In recent years, the luxury fashion industry has transformed the way it communicates to consumers. In the past, things were much slower and simpler: brands selected a photographer to shoot a seasonal advertising campaign that would end up in the usual glossy magazines. In the era of social media, consumers crave newness at the speed of Instagram and brands must produce far more content (and product), far more frequently. What’s more, while print media was a monologue, digital media is inherently conversational, meaning consumers can respond — both positively and negatively.

Now, consider some of the socio-political currents shaping the world's two largest consumer markets: in China, nationalism is rising; meanwhile, in the United States, a culture war is raging. Both create highly charged environments in which culturally insensitive corporate missteps can easily explode online. In this context, brands like Dolce & Gabbana, Prada, Gucci, Givenchy, Burberry, Coach and others have seen culturally insensitive products and communications blow up in their faces, sometimes with lasting damage to sales.

Multiculturalism and Creativity

Here, fashion faces some unique challenges. For one, the industry was built on the notion that creative decisions are not to be debated — only revered. The same way as believers would approach the head of the Church: the Pope is infallible; you don’t question the Pope. If things worked, it was because the creative director was a genius; if things didn’t work, it was because the trade or consumers were too ignorant to appreciate the genius of the creative director.

The problem is: dogma no longer works. Best-in-class companies in managing creative talent (like Kering, for example) long ago addressed the commercial side of this challenge: coupling powerful chief merchandising officers with chief creative officers on equal footing. The teaming of Jacopo Venturini and Alessandro Michele was the epitome of this configuration.

But it is less obvious how to filter creative content that could be perceived as culturally offensive by a consumer group somewhere in the world. Prada's "Pradamalia" tchotchkes and Gucci's balaclava sweater — which both resembled racist blackface imagery — are but two examples.

It remains to be seen if mandatory cultural training and chief inclusivity officers (like Gucci's Renée E. Tirado) will help matters. And introducing further gatekeepers and screening could slow down the process of creating content for a market that's speeding up, leading to nasty internal confrontations. Of course, anything is better than a crisis, but the challenge is setting up internal processes that work without slowing things down.

The China Challenge

When it comes to China, there are specific issues for the fashion industry to face, rooted in a vast imbalance: the Chinese account for the bulk of consumer demand for luxury fashion, yet key decisions are taken by Western executives in Europe or the USA who may lack important cultural context. These days, managers who oversee the Chinese region have more power to push back on the headquarters, but how much should they be involved in decision-making on creative content? Beyond operational marketing issues such as choosing the right local influencers, these questions are, for the most part, unresolved. What’s more, most companies lack processes for how to deal with complaints from their own Chinese organisations.

Most companies lack processes for how to deal with complaints from their own Chinese organisations.

The other big question when it comes to China is how much brands should proactively adapt their creative content to cater to Chinese consumers. Brands have taken a divergent path in this respect: Gucci has taken overt steps to adapt creative content to local markets while Hermès and Louis Vuitton have taken a more discreet approach. The challenge is finding the right balance, and that will probably be different by brand. The risk, here, is alienating both Chinese, as they could feel patronised, and non-Chinese, as they could feel “their” brand is going overboard to please Chinese consumers and is therefore no longer theirs. This is further complicated by the fact that many luxury fashion brands are, at some level, also selling links to their specific cultural histories, often rooted in France or Italy.

Inclusivity versus Exclusivity

Obviously, as luxury megabrands have grown into global business, they have needed to welcome all consumers, irrespective of race, nationality, social background, religious beliefs, body shape, disability, etcetera. Not doing this is not only wrong ethically (and criminal, in some cases), but also damaging commercially. Yet, as fashion’s posture becomes more inclusive, it’s critical to remember that exclusivity remains the cornerstone of the industry.

People still buy luxury fashion because it provides them with the promise of higher distinction in the social hierarchy. Otherwise, why spend $1,000 for a T-shirt? For the craftsmanship? The underlying psychology is still about getting closer to your idealised self through projective identification with brands. Indeed, balancing the exclusivity dynamic at the core of fashion with a more culturally aware and inclusive approach to creative content is the root of the challenge.

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