BEIJING (Reuters) – Chinese e-commerce sites have removed Dolce & Gabbana products amid a spiralling backlash against an advertising campaign that was decried as racist by celebrities and on social media.
The ads – released earlier this week to drum up interest in a Shanghai fashion show the Italian brand later canceled – featured a Chinese woman struggling to eat spaghetti and pizza with chopsticks, sparking criticism from consumers.
The blunder was compounded when screenshots were circulated online of a private Instagram conversation, in which the brand’s designer Stefano Gabbana makes a reference to “China Ignorant Dirty Smelling Mafia” and uses the smiling poo emoji to describe the country. The brand said Gabbana’s account had been hacked.
Amid calls for a boycott, the furore threatened to grow into a big setback for one of Italy’s best-known fashion brands in a crucial market, where rivals from Louis Vuitton of LVMH to Kering’s Gucci are vying to expand.
Chinese customers account for more than a third of spending on luxury products worldwide, and are increasingly shopping for these in their home market rather than on overseas trips.
China’s Kaola, an e-commerce platform belonging to China’s NetEase Inc confirmed it had removed Dolce & Gabbana products while luxury goods retailer Secoo said it removed the brand’s listings on Wednesday evening.
On Yoox Net-A-Porter – owned by Cartier parent Richemont and a leading online high-end retailer – the label’s wares were no longer available on its platforms within China. The company declined to comment.
Checks done by Reuters on Thursday morning also showed pages that previously linked to Dolce & Gabbana items on the e-commerce sites hosted by Alibaba Group Holding Ltd and JD.com Inc were no longer available and searches for the brand returned no products.
Alibaba and JD.com did not respond to requests for comment, and Dolce & Gabbana did not comment on the retailers’ moves.
After its China missteps quickly went viral on China’s Twitter-like Weibo platform, it apologised in a statement on the site.
Celebrities including “Memoirs of a Geisha” movie star Zhang Ziyi criticized the brand, while singer Wang Junkai said he had terminated an agreement to be the brand’s ambassador.
An airport duty fee shop in the southern Chinese city of Haikou said on Weibo it had removed all Dolce & Gabbana products from its shelves.
The Communist Party Youth League, the youth wing of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, said on Weibo “we welcome foreign companies to invest and develop in China … companies working in the country should respect China and Chinese people”.
The gaffe is not the first by Dolce & Gabbana in China, even as it pushes to increase its appeal there. It came under fire on social media last year for another series of ads showing the grungy side of Chinese life.
The unlisted firm does not publish earnings or disclose how much revenue it derives from China.
Other uproars have come and gone in China without appearing to cause lasting damage, including at brands like Kering’s Balenciaga, which apologised in April amid a backlash over how some Chinese customers had been treated in Paris.
But there was an increased chance such controversies could affect sales as buyers became more discerning about brands, some analysts said.
“It’s a different market now – Chinese customers are more savvy, and there’s so much more choice,” said Sindy Liu, a London-based luxury marketing consultant.
“A lot of western brands don’t really understand China that well when it comes to cultural sensitivities. But most brands are quite careful, they don’t do things that are humorous.”
Controversial comments by designers can be devastating for luxury brands. In one of the worst fallouts from in the fashion world, Christian Dior, now fully part of LVMH, fired designer John Galliano in 2011 after a video of him surfaced hurling anti-Semitic abuse at people in a bar in Paris.
Reporting by Pei Li and Cate Cadell in Beijing; Additional reporting by Sarah White in Paris and Claudia Cristoferi in Milan, Editing by Himani Sarkar