Fashion needs a lesson in Chinese geopolitics — and it can’t come soon enough.
That issue came into stark relief over recent days as Versace, Coach and Givenchy became the targets of online ire for not adhering to China’s territorial claims in T-shirt designs, putting high-profile celebrity partnerships with Liu Wen, Jackson Yee and Yang Mi in jeopardy.
The controversy began unfurling on Saturday when Yang Mi, China’s top actress with almost 105 million followers on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, terminated her newly minted contract with Versace, as an image of a Versace T-shirt began to circulate on Weibo.
The garment was printed with store locations across the world. It listed Beijing and Shanghai as part of China — not so Macau and Hong Kong. Instead, the brand labeled them as separate entities. China’s online community became infuriated.
All brands apologized profusely across social media. Donatella Versace said on Instagram that she was “deeply sorry for the unfortunate recent error” and “wanted to personally apologize for such inaccuracy and for any distress that it might have caused.”
Coach apologized for the “huge” oversight and promised an internal review for its product designs and web site. “Coach is committed to long-term development in China, respects the feelings of the Chinese people, and sincerely accepts the supervision and correction of the vast number of consumers. We will continue to provide quality products and services to Chinese customers,” the American brand said in a statement issued within two hours after Wen, Coach ambassador and China’s most high-profile model, publicly distanced herself from the brand.
Givenchy also expressed regrets on its official Weibo account saying: “We apologize for the mistake in Givenchy’s printed T-shirts in overseas markets that has aroused discussion among some netizens today. For any human negligence or mistake, we must correct it immediately and take it as a warning. Givenchy always respects China’s sovereignty, firmly upholds the one-China principle and is unswerving.”
This wave of incidents is different than the Dolce & Gabbana debacle last year, when its Shanghai show was abruptly canceled after insults about China were attributed to the Instagram account of designer Stefano Gabbana.
The Chinese government did not escalate Dolce & Gabbana’s fallout to a diplomatic level, as it did not touch the nation’s political bottom line. “Instead of asking a Foreign Ministry spokesperson, you might as well ask any ordinary Chinese people and ask them what they think of it,” the authority responded at the time.
This incident has been different. People’s Daily, the Communist Party of China’s newspaper, on Monday published a harsh commentary, saying Versace and Coach “have made foolish mistakes, which not only ignited the Chinese people’s righteous indignation, but also made their brands’ prospects in the Chinese market bleak. Especially in the ‘sensitive period’ when Hong Kong pro-independence forces are creating chaos. This kind of mistake is even more serious.
“To do business in China, you have to abide the Chinese laws,” the paper added. “This is a matter of principle. To these unruly multinational corporations, in addition to condemning, we should also take some self-defense tools from the ‘toolbox.’ All enterprises that damage China’s sovereignty should be alerted.”
This latest Chinese sovereignty scandal comes amidst the increasingly tense backdrop of protests in Hong Kong, where its international airport was essentially shut down Monday and more than 150 flights canceled as demonstrators clashed with authorities.
The protests began in June over a bill that would have allowed people to be extradited to Mainland China. That bill was suspended, but the demonstrations have continued and the rhetoric has become more heated. A commentary on Xinhua, the official Chinese news service, noted, “With petrol bombs, brick-firing slingshots, bows, and even airguns, black-clad mobsters have created an atmosphere of terror on the Hong Kong streets.”
That climate has magnified the response to any statement that suggests Hong Kong might not be a part of China, which officially took control of the region in 1997 and operates it under the principle of “one country, two systems.”
Alexandra Brodie, partner of law firm Gowling WLG, stressed that “big brands need to put the time into research and work to bring a greater diversity of input into their decision-making as mistakes like this are entirely avoidable, but cause great harm once made.”
Beijing held a comparatively loose attitude toward fashion companies — before the Hong Kong protests erupted and Sino-American trade war escalated. Last year, China asked U.S. flights to China including United Airlines, American Airlines and Delta Air Lines to comply and not list Taiwan as a country on their web sites.
Zara and Coach were called out for the same mistake on drop-down menus on their web sites, which have a “search country” option, as opposed to the more politically neutral phrase “search region.” Both fixed the mistake promptly.
Aside from Hong Kong and Taiwan, politically sensitive areas also include Macau, Tibet and Xinjiang. Even indirect relationships can impact the participation of Chinese celebrities, as they are held up as societal role models and are strictly monitored by the government for patriotic sentiments.
For instance, Chinese stars pulled out of attending an amfAR fundraiser in 2017 because one of the auction lots included spending time with the Dalai Lama.
The controversy comes as China is poised to account for 40 percent of global luxury spending by 2025, according to McKinsey.
And it comes amidst a rise in Chinese celebrities and models, both in editorial channels and as brand ambassadors, raising the risk of geopolitical snafus — and serious backlash.
Besides Wen, Du Juan, Ming Xi, Xiao Wen Ju, Shu Pei, Chu Wong and Lina Zhang appear on countless runways and in many global campaigns. And brands are tapping Chinese celebrities and banking on their popularities. Louis Vuitton has Chuxi Zhong, Kris Wu and Liu Haoran; Prada chose Cai Xukun; while brands like Dior and Chanel assign one big name to each product category to maximize the reach.