What Dolce & Gabbana Stands to Lose From Its China Controversy

Dolce & Gabbana announced on Wednesday that it would cancel its much-publicized runway show in Shanghai — set to walk later the same day — following outcry over alleged racist remarks made by designer Stefano Gabbana and a social media campaign that arguably reinforced outdated stereotypes about the people it purported to celebrate.

The controversy is bound to be expensive for the company, not only because of the exorbitant wasted costs associated with canceling a 500-look international show but also in the reputational damage to the brand in one of the most important regions to luxury fashion today.

It all started with a pair of chopsticks.

The brand released a series of short videos on its social media channels late last week with the aim of promoting its #DGLovesChina runway show. In the clips, a Chinese model struggles to eat various Italian foods — a margherita pizza, an overflowing plate of spaghetti pomodoro and a cartoonishly large cannoli — with chopsticks, seemingly for comedic effect.

On the Chinese messaging app Weibo, backlash from users accusing the brand of racism led D&G to yank the posts within 24 hours, and while Instagram is blocked in China, comments on the still-live videos underscore why people were so upset. “It makes the Chinese woman look like a fool,” wrote one user. “Small sticks? Great pizza?… This is the ‘gift’ and ‘tribute’ you bring to the Chinese people?” asked another.

In response to the outcry, Gabbana, a prolific Instagram user with 1.5 million followers, allegedly responded to several people on the app, calling accusations of racism “fake news” and China “the country of 💩💩💩💩💩,” while on the brand’s official page telling a critic to “eat dogs.” The drama unfolded Tuesday night on the popular Instagram account @diet_prada, which also broke the news of Chinese celebrities set to attend the event and models booked to walk in it rapidly dropping out.

Shortly after, both Gabbana and the brand posted statements claiming that their accounts had been hacked, but the damage was already done.

The designer’s hacking claim is hard for some to believe given his history of inflammatory remarks on the platform and in the press. Past incidents include calling Selena Gomez “ugly,” accusing his followers of being “stupid and ignorant” for criticizing a glowing post about Melania Trump and calling the Kardashian family “the most cheap people in the world.”

This latest incident may be the most damaging yet to the privately owned brand, however. Chinese consumers account for about 33 percent of global luxury spend, according to Bain & Co.’s most recent estimates, and will likely be responsible for 46 percent by 2025. Dolce & Gabbana in particular has made no secret of its aspirations in East Asia, as was clear from its planned high-profile runway show and courting of local celebrities.

Will the designer apologize or will he continue to deny responsibility? Either way, will the Chinese market forgive him?

“I love to be free. Free, free, free, free, free. I love to say what I think,” Gabbana told The Washington Post earlier this year. “I’m not afraid. What I say is not wrong, but it’s out of the system. But it’s really what I think.”

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