In the aftermath of Dolce and Gabbana’s ‘The Great Show’, the importance of the Chinese customer in luxury fashion has never been so defined. Spending a mouth-watering $7 billion a year on luxury items, nearly a third of all sales, Chinese buyers really do have the power to make or break a brand. Dolce and Gabbana are unfortunately evidence of the latter after the 21st November show whereby, in an attempt to strengthen Chinese relations with a multi-million-dollar runway show in Shanghai, the world watched via social media as the company was brought to their knees. After all this, I question what makes a brand fly in China, and why there is such a captivation with luxury goods in the first place.
The unprecedented and continual boom of the Chinese economy has seen the number of the mega-rich skyrocket, and caused the fastest growing middle class globally. With the rise of the Chinese middle and upper classes, perceptions surrounding wealth and success are undeniably set to change. Social status has become of utmost importance and assuring a proper status comes hand-in-hand with luxury, branded items. Not just any item, however, but products of high quality and a deeply assured brand heritage. One explanation for this is that China is the biggest producer of counterfeited items; if customers can be sure about an item’s quality, they will spend more to obtain it. The top four most popular brands of the Chinese customer, according to CNN Business this year, is evidence of this – going from Gucci and Cartier at joint third, Chanel in second, and Hermès the most popular. What do they have in common? Rich, respectable brand histories filled with class and utmost quality. Bar Gucci, they are all French houses, born from the country renowned for its haute couture, the epitome of high social standing and luxury at its finest. On the contrary, brands that have failed to succeed in China are those in the middle ground between dirt cheap and über expensive. M&S, for example, failed to meet customer demand and was forced to pull its stores from China in 2017. While they could assure quality, the priority for non-luxury items is the price; why buy an expensive M&S t-shirt that would set you back from a new Chanel bag or Hermès scarf?
Additionally, there is a new wave of mega-rich millennials who also make up much of the Chinese luxury spending. Born into money, it is this niche who want to fulfill the lives of extravagance and well-regarded products. This again proves the popularity of brands like Hermès and Chanel, but it was also with these millennials that Dolce and Gabbana found success in the Chinese market; their boldly patterned and often heavily branded bags, ready-to-wear and shoes fulfilled the customer needs. The Financial Times stated that before the catastrophe of November, “Greater China accounts for…about a third of Dolce & Gabbana’s €1.3bn annual revenues”. To consolidate and further these buying habits, the house planned their largest runway in history, to be shown in Shanghai; British Vogue describes “a 300-plus-look, 140-performer, one hour ode to China watched by a 1,400-strong audience” – appropriately coined ‘The Great Show’. While the house claimed it was to be an appreciation of the country and culture, it’s transparency in wanting more sales and a lack of understanding of the Chinese market led to its rapid demise. The first fall came with a three-video campaign, tastelessly showing a hyper-stereotyped Asian woman struggling to eat oversized Italian food with chopsticks.
A Chinese man narrates the videos, and attempts to comically undermine the Chinese accent by struggling and mispronouncing the brand name. Bizarre that this concept made it to production, the videos faced immediate backlash and were branded as racist. Within 24 hours they were banned from the Chinese social media site Weibo. The final blow came when screenshots of designer Stephano Gabbana circulated, showing a conversation he had over Instagram; the most shocking lines including “I will say the country of [multiple poo emoji’s] is China”, and “China Ignorant Dirty Smelling Mafia”. Such views are the antithesis of all ‘The Great Show’ worked to present, and within hours “the police had called the show off, detaining the remaining models to check their papers and then forcing them onto a bus back to their hotel” as reported by Dazed; total shambles.
The aftermath has been destructive, and the fiasco has brought the brand to their knees. CNN Business reports that major Chinese E-commerce sites have dropped the brand, one being Yangmatou who have claimed “the motherland is more important than anything else”, and have proceeded to pull 58,000 D&G products . Other Chinese sites cutting them include the tech firm NetEase, retailer Secoo, Alibaba Group Holding and JD.com. Despite the D&G PR team’s best efforts – an apology video and loose claim Gabbana’s texts were the results of hacking – the offense caused to the Chinese people, and a lack of representation on Chinese sites much of the damage is already done.
The fact that Dolce and Gabbana’s believed that a controversial campaign mocking China, would be a winner is telling. While the aim may have been to replicate other brands that have spiraled into popularity due to being controversial (cue Balenciaga), using China and its culture as the punchline failed in securing such goals. It acts as another example of a long list of companies that have fallen at the feet of the Chinese customer, though with the rewards so great it will hardly deter more brands from trying their luck in the market.