Established in 1985, Dolce & Gabbana, also known as D&G, is a high-end fashion house established by Italian designers Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana. They produce luxury items such as ready-to-wear, handbags, accessories, and cosmetics, among others. Inspired by the stylistic sense of Sicilian women, their works usually capture and portray women’s strength, confidence, and identity. Their iconic designs that shaped the Italian, and even international fashion industry include elaborate animal prints, pinstripes, detailed embroidery, back lace, florals, and other Italian staples. However, the fashion brand is not strutting in the industry without controversies over the years, and one of the most recent, and probably the biggest, was the racism scandal involving Chinese market in 2018.
The brand’s long history of controversies
In 2007, the label published an ad campaign that was perceived as potentially romanticizing rape culture. It depicted a woman being pinned-down by a half-naked man with three other male models staring at them. The images were later taken down from Italian and Spanish publications after receiving a lot of criticisms. This was followed by being lambasted for letting white models wear earrings and dresses with “Blackamoor” images that are usually associated with slavery and racism for their Spring 2013 runway show. Moreover, in 2016 they released a footwear and called it “Slave Sandal” and designed a sneaker that promoted body dysmorphia by putting a phrase on the shoes: “I’m Thin & Gorgeous”.
The fashion house had also shown homophobic tendencies in a number of incidents. In 2015, in an interview with Panorama, an Italian fashion magazine, the couple mentioned: “We oppose gay adoptions… The only family is the traditional one.” Elton John, followed by other celebrities sparked the #BoycottDolceGabbana outrage on social media. A few months after, Dolce recanted and said: “I’ve realized that my words were inappropriate.” in an interview with Vogue. Furthermore, in 2017, Gabbana replied to one online user: “Don’t call me gay please!! I’m a man!!! Who I love is my private life!”.
Gabbana had also been caught dropping offensive comments about various celebrities such as Selena Gomez, Miley Cyrus, Chiara Ferragni, the Kardashians, Victoria Beckham, and Kate Moss, among others. On the other hand, the label had full-heartedly supported the former First Lady Melania Trump, igniting more outcry from the public. As the backlash against the brand continued, the label released a t-shirt with #BoycottDolceGabbana design to mock the critics. Having to go through these crises over the years and still be able to go back to business as usual showed how the brand has had a solid position in the market. Reasonably, many critics believed that it was the brand’s playbook to be involved in controversies and build a questionable reputation to remain relevant in the market. It seemed to work for them for several years, until the most recent one.
China has been a significant market for luxury brands. In 2017, Chinese consumers represented almost one-third (32%) of the global luxury market, grew by 20% from the previous year. In fact, it was reported that 25% of Dolce & Gabbana’s revenue in the fiscal year ending in March 2018. The brand’s undeniable popularity in China was proven by its flagship stores covering most cities and large e-commerce sites such as Tmall of the Alibaba Group carrying their products. With this, it is only strategic for the brand to plan their biggest fashion show on their 33rd year in Shanghai to honor and strengthen their relationship with Chinese consumers.
Dubbed as “The Great Show”, the one hour-long runway was supposedly joined by 140 performers and 1,400 audience, including celebrities and influencers, to celebrate more than 300 looks prepared by D&G showcasing the fusion of Italian style with Chinese heritage. It was scheduled on November 21, 2018, in Shanghai World Expo Exhibition and Convention Center. Vanity Fair described the venue as twice the size of Royal Palace of Milan, “with winding banquettes draped in red, littered with candelabras and flowers for the reception”.
The chopsticks ad that did not stick well
As their pre-launch campaign, Dolce & Gabbana released a series of videos called “Eating with Chopsticks”, four days before the big event. The videos featured a Chinese woman being instructed by a male voiceover on how to eat Italian food – pizza, spaghetti, and cannoli, using chopsticks. The video began with a Chinese folk instrumental music, then a Mandarin-speaking voiceover said: “Welcome to the first episode of ‘Eating with Chopsticks’ by Dolce & Gabbana” – mispronounced as “Dols and Gab’na” that appeared to be mocking Chinese speech. The narrator continued: “We are going to present to you how to use this ‘small-stick shaped’ utensil to eat our great traditional Margherita Pizza”. When instructed to eat a massive cannoli, the woman was asked by the narrator: “Is this still too big for you?”.
Video 1: D&G’s Eating with Chopsticks teaser.
Perceiving the campaign videos as stereotypical, racist, and disrespectful for Chinese women, social media users in China got offended and expressed their displeased on the internet. The anger spread rapidly that “Boycott Dolce” appeared more than 18,000 times on Weibo, a popular Chinese microblogging site. In less than 24 hours since the campaign’s release, the brand took down the videos from the platform. In no time, the scandal was picked up outside China. Diet Prada, a fashion industry watchdog, reshared the video on Instagram with English translation, extending the outrage to international audience (Photo 1).
Photo 1: The campaign video on Diet Prada’s Instagram feed posted on November 19th, 2018.
The issue has become a full-blown crisis when the screenshots of private exchanges between Stefano Gabbana and Michaela Tranova, an online user from London who called out D&G’s offensive ad on November 20th, 2018 circulated online, a day before the big catwalk event. In their exchange, Stefano dismissed the racism accusation as fake news, and called Chinese citizens as dog-eating “ignorant dirty smelling mafia” (Photo 2).
Photo 2: Private exchanges between Gabbana and Tranova.
The great show, no more
Diet Prada posted that the exchange between Gabbana and Tranova were trending on Weibo and that guests, celebrities, and models started to announce that they were not going to the event anymore. Among those were Chinese model and actress Zhang Ziyi, actor Chen Kun, brand ambassadors Wang Junkai and Dilraba Dilmurat, and Vogue China editor-in-chief Angelica Cheung. Most of them had taken to social media to share that they would never be using or buying from Dolce & Gabbana anymore, while others announced they had terminated their contracts with them. Making the situation even more uncontrollable, these high-profile celebrities had high number of followers on the net. For example, Ziyi Zhang had almost 10 million Weibo followers, while Chen Kun had more than 81 million followers at that time.
Stefano Gabbana claimed that his account was hacked by posting the screenshot of the conversation with text — “Not me” (Photo 3). His claim was backed by Dolce & Gabbana, revealing that Gabbana’s personal account and the brand’s official account were compromised. They added: “We have nothing but respect for China and the people of China” (Photo 4). Having been called out a lot of times for their politically incorrect comments and actions, the hacking claim was taken with a grain of salt. Barely four hours before it started, the Chinese Cultural and Tourism Department ordered to cancel the ill-fated show. In response, Dolce & Gabbana posted on Instagram describing the disaster as “very unfortunate” and expressed their gratitude to the people who worked hard for the event (Photo 5).
Photo 3: A screenshot from Stefano’s Instagram story.
Photo 4: D&G announced that their account was hacked.
Photo 5: D&G’s announcement after the fashion show was cancelled.
From vogue to vague
D&G’s sales had become uncertain as China’s biggest retailers like Alibaba, JD, Secoo, VIPshop and Netease dropped the brand soon after the controversy went viral. Even the Italian online fashion retailer YOOX Net-a-Porter Group announced that they were removing the brand from their platform. Lane Crawford, a Hong Kong retailer, stopped selling D&G products, both online and in stores, as customers started returning the goods back to the store.
Videos of Chinese consumers burning or cutting up their D&G products or picking them up with chopsticks just to be thrown onto trash bins flooded the social media. Even photos of “Not me” signs stuck on some of the brand’s storefronts were circulating online (Photo 6). Some European and American celebrities and influencers also joined the collective outcry against the brand.
On November 23, 2018, D&G issued an apology for their words and actions during the crisis. They said: “our family values teach us that we must respect different culture in the world”. Added: “it will certainly never happen again” (Video 2).
Photo 6: D&G’s Shanghai store.
Photo 7: Chinese protesters appeared in front of D&G’s Milan store.
Video 2: Dolce & Gabbana’s apology.
The disaster greatly harmed the brand’s reputation based on YouGov data. From relatively healthy score of +3.3, the brand health score decreased to -11.4, even after the apology video. BrandIndex, a market research company, reported similar observation. While D&G’s ad awareness score rose to +12.1 from +1.1, the buzz score or the measure whether people associated the brand to anything positive or negative had massively decreased. D&G’s buzz score a week before the cancelled show was +6.5 but plummeted to -15.0.
Their products are still not stock on various Chinese e-commerce sites, some of their physical stores had also closed down. From 58 D&G boutiques in 2018 down to 47 stores in 2021, with shops closing in Beijing, Shanghai, and Chengdu. Furthermore, it was reported that the fashion house’s Asia Pacific market suffered a 3% drop in revenue for the fiscal year 2018/2019. A London-based Brand Finance consultancy estimated the damages to the label to be up to 20% of Dolce & Gabbana’s value of US$937 million or roughly US$188 million. However, for Dolce & Gabbana it cost more. Four months later, the fashion house filed a defamation lawsuit against Liu and Schuyler, the people behind Diet Prada, and demanded claims of US$665 million in damages.
Rehabilitating its image
Dolce & Gabbana’s presence on social media, red carpets and fashion editorials laid low for several months after the incident. Its popularity in China was still struggling, in fact, in the first quarter of 2019, the brand’s social media engagement was down 98% from the same quarter of the previous year.
The fashion house had also taken some steps to improve its reputation. Firstly, Gabbana’s Instagram account had been permanently deleted. Moreover, the label and the designers had started to shift more attention to the artisans who have been putting a lot of work to actualize their designs. This had also become apparent in the way they marketed their new collections and presented their runway, among others.
In 2020, the label had engaged in several charity projects. During the height of the pandemic, they announced that they would partner with Humanitas University to fund research on Covid-19. In line with this, they released a campaign with Sofia Vergara in which some proceeds from the sale of its Devotion bag would be donated. They also donated to NAACP, a civil rights organization that aims to eliminate race-based discrimination. D&G also organized events to auction off some of the dresses worn by celebrities and pledged the sales to The Trevor Project, which provides crisis support services to LGBTQ young people, and When We All Vote, a non-profit project founded by Michelle Obama that focused on voter registration.
As early as late 2019, D&G was easing back into Hollywood as it scored high-profile placements in InStyle, Vogue, and Harper’s Bazaar featuring Kylie Jenner. They dressed artists such as Gwen Stefani, Common and Little Big Town at the 2020 Grammys. This was followed by celebrities like Blake Lively, Taylor Hill, Lupito Nyong’o, Lucy Hale, Renee Zellweger, Uma Thurman, and even Kate Middleton seen in D&G clothing in various events. Furthermore, at the 2020 Oscars, D&G dressed Mindy Kaling, Reese Witherspoon, Rachel Brosnahan, Sofia Vergara, Holland Taylor.
Wooing back the Chinese clientele
The first appearance of the brand after the campaign disaster was at the China Import and Export Expo (CIIE) in November 2019. It was said that participating in this event is a smart approach as it signaled rebuilding relationship with the government, especially that CIIE was of high importance to Beijing. The label continued to join the said event annually. In the end of 2020, D&G started to show in Chinese fashion media, published in ElleChina, ElleMen, Vogue China, among others in an editorial form announcing their participation in CIIE that appeared to be an advertisement as well.
Their presence on the red carpet in Chinese market had also begun in late 2020, some celebrities in Hong Kong were seen wearing the label. Furthermore, some small Chinese celebrities and mid-to-lower tier influencers attended their pop-ups for summer collection and social campaign for their Spring 2021 collection, respectively. Reasonably, the fashion house had not signed any big Chinese name since the disaster. The Chinese model featured in the controversial “Eating with chopsticks” campaign shared in 2019 that the videos almost ruined her career. While in 2021, Hong Kong pop singer Karen Mok received a lot of criticisms on social media when she wore a D&G cloak in the music video for her new song. In fact, for the label’s 2020 Valentine’s Day campaign in China, they used a combination of White and CGI models, named as “virtual idols”.
In an interview with Fedele Usai, the label’s group communication and marketing officer, a newly created role in 2021, he mentioned that they are more focused on supporting their Chinese colleagues more than anything else. In line with the brand’s strategy, they were looking for local artists, instead of influencers, to highlight Chinese craftsmanship. Their Valentine’s Day campaign in the region highlighted their partnerships with the locals and promoted their work, which was followed by a collection drop by a Chinese designer in April of the same year.
Meanwhile in the United States, the fashion label tried tapping Chinese American to carry their designs. In the recent 80th Golden Globe Awards, Chinese American actress Li Jun Li wore a silver dress from Dolce & Gabbana. This did not do much about the label’s reputation, it did, however, symbolize the rehabilitated image with Asians in the West.
Diversity and inclusivity in the organization are critical, especially for global brands. If an organization is trying to expand internationally, it is imperative to have diverse employees. They can guide the brand through complicated details of culture, race, and religion, among others. Diversity definitely does not end with a mere representation in the organization. Ensuring that everyone, regardless of their background are listened to, respected, and treated equally. Many were puzzled why nobody of Dolce & Gabbana’s staff in China did not have a say in whether or not to release the campaign video. Had the brand consulted or listened to their perspective, they would have avoided the crisis at all.
Listen to your clientele’s sentiment to be informed about the ways your brand does right or wrong. Gone are the days when luxury items are screaming exclusivity. With the emergence of social media, consumers can easily demand for accountability and transparency. Strong brand awareness means nothing when it is not associated with professionalism, fairness, and equality. Feedback also helps your company in spotting potential issues early on before they become a crisis, avoiding drastic damage to your reputation. Dolce & Gabbana missed the opportunity to temper the outrage by not doing a follow through after taking down the campaign videos. Clearly, the Chinese consumers were still offended and hurt by the campaign. Had the brand recognized this, they would have apologized earlier. As what the New York Times said: “They seemed to have underestimated the importance of Chinese national identity while also overestimating their place in the wider fashion ecosystem”.
Align your company’s core values with your brand identity. A company that truly knows what it stands for in every aspect brings about authenticity into the brand image. When the core values of the organizations are consistent with the brand story, employees can easily understand what they are working for, and customers will right away know what they are buying into. Otherwise, it would bring confusion and lessen your credibility. This is the reason why many did not accept Gabbana’s claim that his Instagram account was hacked as the brand has had a long history of racism, homophobia, and other politically incorrect stands. Furthermore, actions taken by Dolce & Gabbana to rehabilitate its reputation were seen as only performative to shift public perception as they never issued an official statement about the crisis after the initial apologies. Some critics still see the disconnect between what the brand has been doing and the historic public presence of the founders.
Have a crisis management plan and ensure to consider geopolitical and cultural factors when building it. It appeared that crisis management was never in the label’s vocabulary as they seemed to get away with the several times they have been involved in controversies in the past. However, their chickens have come home to roost and cost them hundreds of millions, enough reasons to have a robust crisis management plan.
Author: Lucil Aguada
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