By Luisa Zargani and Tiffany Ap
with contributions from Sharon Edelson
 on January 3, 2019
Stefano Gabbana and Domenico Dolce apologize in a video recording.

Judging from tourists taking selfies in front of the Rinascente department store windows around Christmas — taken over by Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana puppets doing fittings, DJ-ing and dressed as magicians— the designers’ social media storm over comments made by Gabbana about China may have somewhat died down.

Late last month, Dolce & Gabbana held a two-day fashion show extravaganza in Milan for a group of couture clients and the few Italian reporters allowed to attend the event gave ample space — and positive reviews — on their media outlets (next to significant advertising from the brand). All appeared to be business as usual — although Vogue’s international editor Suzy Menkes was ensnared in social media wrath, accused of being too indulgent toward the two designers. Also in December, the designers opened a sprawling new boutique in Rome near the Spanish Steps.

However, something has changed. At press time, comments on Gabbana’s personal Instagram account have been disabled even as poop emojis continue to pour in from China on Dolce & Gabbana’s institutional account— an obvious reference to Gabbana’s own offensive messages, which triggered the social media backlash and the cancellation of the Shanghai fashion show in November.

“People in the West witnessed the controversy from a third-person point of view and did not feel directly targeted or attacked, unlike Chinese consumers,” explained Pablo Mauron, partner and managing director of Digital Luxury Group. “This makes a crucial difference in terms of damage. Viewed from the lens of a foreigner, this episode could be seen as just ‘one of the many missteps’ brands often make in terms of consumer marketing — the latest being Prada’s ‘Pradamalia’ line of bag charms, which reportedly comprises a figurine that resembles racist caricatures historically used to dehumanize black people. The West is perhaps, more used to controversy. The Chinese, however, aren’t. So I think that the damage in China is going to last.”

Mauron believes consumers will move on at a different pace, but that “the damage [will be] in the long-term, in terms of both brand equity and retail activities.” He also expects that consumers will have a “zero-degree tolerance” in the future in the case of another controversy.

Mauron also doesn’t think the brand “will ever be completely rehabilitated, it will have to learn to live with it and to keep in mind for everything it does in China in the future. The key will be to be consistent, and it will have to be for a long time as the main demographic touched by that scandal is the young generation.”

In the meantime, Rati Levesque, chief merchant at The RealReal, the luxury fashion site that specializes in the sale of secondhand clothing, said, “We’ve seen a general softening with the Dolce & Gabbana brand lately, even pre-dating the recent incident. Over the past month in particular, we’ve seen demand for Dolce soften with search down 3 percent and resale value down 8 percent, while consignment is increasing, outpacing similar designers by 7 percent.”

Jennifer Mak, designer and brand consultant, said “Overall, I’m sure it is bad for them. I think some people would forget about it and some won’t but I think partly because Dolce & Gabbana is not an easy style for Chinese consumers.”

The “Sicilian girl,” “very heavily printed” and with “very dramatic accessories” is not a good fit, she contended. “Have you ever seen anyone do it in China? Even a celebrity at an event? No one can really pull that whole look off. Obviously they have T-shirts. The Dolce & Gabbana T-shirts are popular and the bags, but I don’t think it’s a big, big brand for the Chinese consumer. I don’t think they will really miss it. I think for people who don’t care about it too much from before [the incident], they will just stop buying.”

At the same time, she believes that, as the brand is now selling at a 40 percent discount because of the holiday sales period, some customers “will take advantage and buy it.”

One brand that could benefit from the Dolce & Gabbana fallout is Gucci, contended Mak. “Gucci is doing very well at the moment in China because they have successfully made their brands younger and attractive to the Chinese consumer so I think they will benefit.”

Conversely, Homer Chou with Shanghai consultancy Translatio does not think this boycott will be a long-lasting issue. “It’s just for the moment. As those patriotic people are not actually buying Dolce & Gabbana at all.” Chou contended that the brand’s real customers “don’t care about it,” and that the Key Opinion Leaders and celebrities who dropped out of the show did it “just for public image and once things get over they will still be their ambassadors. It won’t have too much impact to the Chinese market in reality, and I still saw a lot of Chinese customers go shopping at the Dolce & Gabbana shop in Milano.”

Louis Houdart, ceo of branding consultancy Creative Capital China, was still reeling from the “incredibly offensive message if written by [Gabbana],” and by the ad campaign, but also believes things will improve. “”It will hurt Dolce & Gabbana, and they deserve to be hurt. On a more business point of view, things should calm down and consumers will be back. If they are cash-rich and well-managed they should be able to go through it. Regarding consumers coming back — consumers in general tend to have a short-term memory.”

Paraphrasing Andy Warhol’s “15-minutes of fame” phrase, Houdart said, “We could now say that from now on every brand in today’s world, everyone, can be a public enemy for 15 minutes — or more.”

Addressing the KOLs issue, Houdart said they and celebrities are required by the government to act as role models, citing as an example how Fan Bingbing was reprimanded for her tax issues and required to post some nationalistic content on her social channels after she came out of hiding. For this reason, “for KOL and celebrities, it will take longer, I would think. KOL are really public figures in many different ways, and in China, they are also requested to be role models.”

Grace Chen, designer of her own brand, said she did not think the Chinese will forget about what happened but contended that they “are also very forgiving and open-minded. Anything can happen here.”

Alessandro Maria Ferreri, ceo and owner of The Style Gate consulting firm, also believes “fashion has a short memory” and, remarking on how most retailers and competing brands remained silent on the issue, he expects that, “once the storm has passed, people will be thinking about the new season.”

Ferrari noted that the group employs more than 3,000 people, and it is one of the first 10 largest Italian luxury groups in terms of sales, which at the end of March 2018 totaled 1.29 billion euros, with 25 percent coming from the Asia Pacific region. Showing “some support” to help Italian craftsmanship and value would be fair now, he said. To this end, he appreciated how Rinascente “did not cave in to sensationalism, despite the fact that Chinese tourists are important” for the retailer.

“They slipped, but they apologized and I am sure that they are picking up quickly, also in China, which is an important market for them.” He also noted that on Dolce & Gabbana’s web site, of the brand’s six foreign branches, two are in Asia, one in Shanghai and one in Beijing. Additionally, he observed that the group, according to its balance sheet, in the last fiscal year invested 12.8 million euros in the Asia-Pacific area, opening stores in Ningbo, Shenzhen, Chongqing and Guangzhou — all Chinese cities. “I think that relations with China will go back to normal because of the good job they are doing,” Ferrari concluded.