LONDON — Screenshots of a Central Saint Martins course’s Instagram stories — which featured works from London’s Central Saint Martins foundation students expressing pro-Hong Kong protest slogans and calling Made in China worthless as a part of a Damien Poulain project — on Thursday sparked ire among members of the Chinese fashion industry.
The controversial stories from the fashion and textiles course’s Instagram account were quickly taken down and the account apologized on Instagram stories. “All week our students have been working in groups of four or five on a project with Damien Poulien [sic]. They were tasked with writing a manifesto that addressed the issues ranging from global warming, consent, free choice, whaling, connectivity, fast fashion and a multitude of other social responsibilities,” said the course’s statement.
“The students have created banners which visualize their manifesto. It’s come to our attention that two of the banners made have caused offense and for that, we’d like to apologize. The groups of people who made the works weren’t being derogatory but we understand that without seeing the prep work and development, the banner itself can be taken out of context,” the statement continued. “Again, we’re sorry if anyone was offended.”
The damage was done, however. An open letter to Grayson Perry, chancellor of University of Arts London, was published and signed by more than 90 Chinese students and alumni, including Angel Chen, Xuzhi Chen, Percy Lau and Gong Li of 8on8, on Thursday.
The letter described the incident as an “racist” attack on China and Chinese students. “The graphics in the projects: the elements flag of the Qing dynasty, queue hairstyle and ‘Made in China £0 Worth’ slogan is insulting. When the school account reposted them, it added multiple praise emojis. It conveyed a clear message that the school approved the value and message these artworks embody, ” the letter said.
The letter also described the school’s response as insincere and demanded Central Saint Martins openly apologize again, and admit cultural insensitivity from the faculty and social media management team. “These banners’ messages essentially are racist, despite what they are trying to say, the outcomes are derogatory and offensive,” the letter added.
Xuzhi Chen, a Saint Martins alumni who was shortlisted for the LVMH Prize and helped organized the writing and signing of the open letter, said on his WeChat moments: “Do Chinese students have to deal with this kind of racism and offense all the time? Does equality only apply to dark skin people and Asians are excluded from it?”
Angel Chen, who is arguably one of the most successful Saint Martins Chinese alumni in recent years, said on WeChat moments that “Central Saint Martins, please apologize!” Industry leaders and influencers in China also voiced their anger and support on social media.
Fashion schools like Central Saint Martins are no strangers to controversy — one student created a collection based on the Umbrella Movement in 2014, for example. The dilemma is that Chinese students are the biggest source of income for many educational establishments like Central Saint Martins. Another deeper level issue is that the self-censorship the Chinese impose on themselves and ideologies they grew up with are clashing with the Western system, and schools haven’t really found an effective way to deal with that.
“They need to be educated and we need to be educated,” said a faculty member of the school, who requested anonymity. “I must admit sometimes our projects are very British-centric, and not very sensitive toward other cultures.
“But I believe one key purpose of studying outside China is that you learn that there are many ways to look at one thing, and you learn to agree to disagree,” the faculty member added.
Course leaders from the fashion and textiles course at Central Saint Martins could not be reached for comment at press time.