SHANGHAI–It is mere days before the annual Victoria’s Secret show takes place on Nov. 20 in Shanghai, but things are not going according to plan for the global lingerie giant.
First, reports emerged earlier this week that four models – Irina Sharipova, Kate Grigorieva, Julia Belyakova and Dasha Khlystun – were denied visas for entry into the country.
On Thursday, Gigi Hadid confirmed her last minute drop-out on Twitter. The situation appears to be snowballing fast with Page Six reporting that Katy Perry has been denied entry as well, alongside multiple influencers canceling their trips to cover the show.
Victoria’s Secret has not yet responded to WWD’s request for comment. As recently as Wednesday – five days before the show kick-off – a Victoria’s Secret representative said they were not able to confirm the performers.
This confusion underscores how event planning in China can get ensnared in a complicated web of bureaucracy, confounding even multimillion-dollar brands like Victoria’s Secret, though it is not impossible to pull off.
Indeed, Alibaba staged a four-hour Singles’ Day countdown gala on Nov. 11 which featured huge international stars: Pharrell Williams, Jessie J, Nicole Kidman, Maria Sharapova, Riverdance, Blue Man Group, and even Victoria’s Secret models Lais Ribeiro and Sui He, appearing alongside China’s biggest pop culture phenomenons like Kris Wu and Fan Bingbing.
Many reasons have been offered up for the Victoria’s Secret show last-minute scramble, ranging from political censorship, the recent death of a foreign child model, and accusations of racism in the case of Gigi Hadid.
But as one fashion event organizer who wished to remain anonymous told WWD, in China, companies should be aware that there’s a lack of flexibility and described the key to success as “being able to follow the rules”, stringent as they may be.
“In China, your event let’s say has a hard stop at 10 p.m. At 10 p.m., someone will push the button and turn it off, even though, let’s say, you hired a huge celebrity to sing, and they start late. They will still be singing but it gets turned off and it’s done,” the source said.
While acknowledging that most companies do not attempt such a high-profile event and Victoria’s Secret is subject to an unusual level of government checks and approvals, the organizer said, “I don’t think Victoria’s Secret should have done a big one first off the bat. Don’t forget, Alibaba took the time to establish those relationships and explain what they do. Government officials had seen older versions of Alibaba’s Singles’ Day show.”
“Even music festivals [in China],” the events organizer continued. “Strawberry Music Festival, Modern Sky, they have to do it all local talent the first year, and then bringing in the international guys eventually. It’s a slow build.”
Archie Hamilton, managing director of Shanghai festivals Split Works and Concrete & Grass, said, “It seems that Victoria’s Secret always work with the same international team for all their events. There is a belief, from experience, that they know best how to operate their own hugely complicated events. After all, in most places in the world–an arena is an arena is an arena, with largely homogenized processes, ways of working, and plugged into an ‘international’ standardized events industry.”
“In China, none of these rules apply. Here, you have a ton of varying, shifting conditions and idiosyncrasies. You need the right local people in the team right from the beginning, so you reduce the chances of the wrong roads being taken. Whether you like it or not, China is different, and requires a different approach,” Hamilton said.
Things can still go askew at an esteemed Chinese company like Alibaba. Katy Perry dropped out of Alibaba’s Singles’ Day show gala last year at the last minute. Her no-show was rumored to be connected to the 2016 U.S. presidential election result on Nov. 8.
Just days before Perry’s scheduled appearance, she had been campaigning heavily with Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. In general, politics is a sensitive spot for China and celebrities such as Lady Gaga and Richard Gere have been declared persona non-grata for their pro-Tibetan independence beliefs. Perry raised eyebrows in 2015 for a sunflower dress outfit worn at her Taipei concert, which some interpreted as sign of support for Taiwanese independence.
Chinese conservative cultural codes can be a tricky point as well, such as with broadcasting rules. For instance, when Victoria’s Secret took part in Alibaba’s see-now, buy-now fashion show, which aired on major Chinese television channels on Oct. 31, the looks were closely scrutinized.
“I had to submit the looks six days in advance for the censors,” said one of the show stylists, who requested to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to speak about the event.
Victoria’s Secret is best known for its sexy, barely-there outfits, however the stylist had to prepare three different versions of each look, ranging from what can be described as a standard western outfit to a modest version, which she described as frustrating for the team, as the underwear product was essentially not visible.
When Lais Ribeiro and Sui He came on stage at another televised event, the Alibaba Singles’ Day countdown gala, both models were relatively covered up. The only hint that they were the ambassadors of an underwear brand was a bra showing through He’s transparent top.
The U.S. broadcast of the Victoria’s Secret show is scheduled to air for Nov. 28. The brand has not yet clarified how Chinese audiences will be able to view the show other than pirated livestreams, as in years past.
The final Victoria’s Secret model line-up is scheduled to be revealed on the morning of Nov. 18, when all the women who will walk in the show will be assembled in Shanghai for a press photo op.