Dolce and Gabbana is over. This was the message sent by the Chinese after a 24-hour social media whirlwind that resulted in public boycotts by Chinese celebrities, videos of Chinese fans and consumers burning D&G garments and ultimately, the cancellation of the brand’s Shanghai fashion show by the Shanghai Bureau of Cultural Affairs. All of this was in retaliation to Stefano Gabbana, designer and namesake of the Italian luxury fashion house, and his racist exchanges via Instagram in argument over blatantly racist advertisements for the D&G Shanghai fashion show.
The advertisements are best described as a corporate “ni hao” catcall: unsettling, racist and rooted in a lazy ignorance, featuring a Chinese model who embodies the archaic caricature of a submissive and silent East Asian woman, giggling as she struggles to eat Italian foods with chopsticks. The discomfort is furthered as the Chinese game show host voiceover, whose mispronunciation of Dolce and Gabbana is emphasized as an element of “kitsch,” expounds condescending rhetoric that in direct translation varies from “use those two little sticks to eat the pizza” to “that’s too big for you to handle.”
These advertisements resulted in an immediate outcry and an Instagram DM showdown between Instagram user Michaela Tronova and Stefano Gabbana himself, where it was made clear that Gabbana was a racist as he issued tired insults such as “dog-eater” and “China Ignorant Dirty Smelling Mafia.” The Instagram account Diet Prada (@diet_prada), renowned for calling out fashion copycats, publicized these exchanges, inciting an outrage that swept across social media platforms. What followed was what felt like a testament to the power of the Chinese, a power that Gabbana had underestimated, forcing D&G to abandon its show and issue a half-hearted video apology.
As I watched this moment unfold, I was exhilarated and in some ways, validated. This was the mobilization of internet vigilante justice against the same insults that every Chinese kid hears on the playground growing up, except the players were now an Italian fashion house and 32 percent of its luxury goods consumer base. These callouts had real world effects, with e-Commerce provider Net-A-Porter removing all Dolce and Gabbana items from its website and other brand affiliates jumping ship and distancing themselves from the scandal. However, Gabbana’s racism points to a more troubling underlying truth — economic power does not mean racial equality.
China’s ability to dominate the current world economy has continued to fascinate and mystify the West, providing fodder for journal articles, thinkpieces and books since the implementation of the Open Door Policy in 1978. In the past few decades as the Chinese upper and upper middle class have grown in number and in wealth, Chinese consumers have turned towards luxury brands, consuming at a frenetic pace. These luxury brands, rooted in elitism and the trade of keeping people out, quickly recognized the opportunity for economic growth and have since embraced the Chinese consumer demographic.
However, this trend has continued to perpetuate what I call the Crazy Rich Asians trope, demonstrated by that scene in the movie where the fabled Young family is turned away from a London hotel because of the stereotypes associated with the color of their skin, and they “win” by buying the hotel in spite of racist concierges. While buying out every racist establishment is unrealistic for the majority of the Chinese population, this mentality can be found in the relentless pursuance of academic, cultural and economic prosperity so that if faced with such racism there is the power to use one’s undeniable success to define one’s own rules.
What does this power of definition mean for Chinese people? It means that museums across the U.S. are scrambling to institute Mandarin programming in order to appeal to the Chinese tourist, it means that China is quickly becoming the top film market, it also means that fashion houses, like Dolce & Gabbana, have begun creating collections directly marketed towards the Chinese market.
These trends, while exciting and empowering, are also hypocritical as evidenced by Stefano Gabbana’s words, and should be reevaluated. There is a sense of hollowness to this economic power, that while it has been able to garner recognition, it has failed to get at the root of the embedded racism that continues to prevail. This is reflected in the scene from Crazy Rich Asians, which lauds this flipping of the socioeconomic power dynamic but never delves deeper into whether or not the racism that is held by the concierges is deconstructed. Inherently this propagates the idea that the Chinese are only valuable in their propensity to consume, and that without money, we are still less.
Despite all this, the Dolce & Gabbana debacle and its resulting consequences are a hopeful move in the right direction. The global unification of the Chinese community as well as the rallying by the rest of the fashion world have created some precedence against racism, at least in the fashion industry. This feeling is best captured by a statement made by Diet Prada, the Instagram account that most vehemently followed and reported on the Dolce & Gabbana scandal, “The takeaway is loud and clear: respect the consumers of the markets you want to profit from. You are not bestowing them a gift… you’re taking their money. See people as something more than just a line on the annual revenue reports.”
Isabel Ling is a senior in the College of Art, Architecture and Planning. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Linguistics runs alternate Mondays this semester.