Just days after Yang Mi severed ties with Versace over slights to Chinese sovereignty, Coach and Givenchy too have run afoul of the same sensitive issue, putting high-profile celebrity partnerships with Liu Wen, Jackson Yee and Guan Xiaotong in jeopardy.
The two brands issued apologies on their official Weibo accounts on Monday just after midday for giving off the impression that Hong Kong and Taiwan are separate countries.
The outcry surrounding the two brands is nearly an exact repeat of the Versace scenario. T-shirt designs from the two brands list a series of cities followed by the country it is located in, for example, “Beijing, China.” But Hong Kong does not follow the same format and is listed stand-alone in the Coach design and for Givenchy as “Hong Kong, Hong Kong.” Meanwhile for both brands, Taipei is listed as “Taipei, Taiwan.”
Additionally, on one of Coach’s drop-down menus on its web site, it has a “search country” option, as opposed to the more politically neutral phrase “search region.”
Similar controversies have ensnared companies previously including Zara and various international airlines and can present serious commercial repercussions. It’s worth noting that the designs were old but likely received renewed scrutiny due to the political unrest in Hong Kong, which is entering 10 weeks of antigovernment protests and seeing an increasing, albeit still fringe, movement in favor of Hong Kong separatism.
Liu Wen, Coach ambassador and China’s most high-profile model, publicly distanced herself from the brand on Monday morning, as did actress Guan Xiaotong. Liu attached a statement from her legal representation, Zhejiang Zeda Law Firm, and wrote the following on her Weibo:
“At all times, China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity must not be violated. Because of the inaccuracy of the brand I chose and the hurt it has brought to everyone, I apologize to everyone here. I passionately love my mother country and safeguard China’s sovereignty.”
Coach quickly put out a statement within two hours apologizing for the “huge” oversight and promised an internal review for its product designs and web site.
“In May 2018, we found that several T-shirt designs had made major mistakes,” it said. “We are deeply aware of the seriousness of the problem and took urgent measures to remove the goods from shelves in all channels worldwide. At the same time, we have also conducted a comprehensive review of the products and strengthened the internal process management to prevent similar mistakes from happening again. We apologize for the hurt feelings of consumers.”
It went on: “At the same time, we have immediately carried out a comprehensive review and revision of the relevant web site content.
“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.”
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.”
Hong Kong was formerly ruled by the British for a century and handed back to China in 1997. Its status is that of a special administrative region under the concept of one country, two systems, similar to Macau, which was formerly under Portuguese rule. Meanwhile, Taiwan’s status has been stuck in a years-long stand-off and the self-administered island is viewed by Beijing as a renegade province.
Aside from Hong Kong and Taiwan, politically sensitive areas also include Macau, Tibet and Xinjiang. Even quite 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 fund-raiser in 2017 not because the Dalai Lama was attending the event, but because one of the auction lots included spending time with the Dalai Lama.