What Went Down at Dolce & Gabbana's Shanghai Scandal

Dolce & Gabbana's The Great Show in Shanghai (tonight) was cancelled last minute amidst a huge controversy sparked through social media. As one of the journalists supposed to attend (for nowfashion), I followed the dramatic snowballing of events via social media with horror and slight disbelief – especially as Instagram message screen grabs between @stefanogabbana and @michaelatranova emerged. And then came the fury on WeChat and Weibo (Chinese social media) and the unfortunate beginning of the end for The Great Show.

Post by Diet Prada (@diet_prada) on Instagram.  

"This is one of the biggest PR fiascos in luxury in China," says producer and prolific Chinese blogger Peter Xu (who has previously worked with the brand). "People are furious."   

What actually happened? It all started out as online backlash grew over an official Dolce & Gabbana video teaser featuring a Chinese model struggling to eat Italian food with chopsticks. Slammed by many online for perpetuating negative stereotypes and being an "outdated" way to view China, some argued it was insensitive in a Chinese context, others thought it was downright "racist."


Video by 'Entertainment is Fun' Channel on YouTube. 

Video by "Enteirtainment is Fun" channel on YouTube. 

Personally (I'm Chinese and speak Mandarin), I didn't interpret the video as really racist. There's an element of tongue-in-cheek to many of Dolce's previous videos, though, admittedly, local friends of mine told me that the tone, dialogue, and way of speaking was an insulting, low 'Fu Manchu' stereotype. The brand has sparked similar negative reactions before and the video was soon removed by Dolce & Gabbana's China team. In poor taste or not, this whole thing might have faded in time creating minor damage, just stacked up as another one of those un-PC things done by an independent Italian brand not shy of controversy. 

However... then a private instagram argument between Gabbana's personal account and user @michaelatranova emerged, reposted by @michaelatranova and @DietPrada and passed along Weibo, WeChat, everywhere. My own timeline was awash with this news by midday in Shanghai. In them, Gabbana is seen responding to accusations of racism with insults to China, "the country of (poo emoji),” saying, "China Ignorant Dirty Smelling Mafia," whilst denying the videos were racist. The pair traded insults; it's all quite ugly.

Posts by @michaelatranova on Instagram. 

A few short hours later, both the official Dolce & Gabbana instagram and Stefano Gabbana's personal page posted statements saying that both accounts were hacked and that said offensive messages were not from the designers or team. "Our legal office is currently investigating. We are very sorry for any distress caused by these unauthorized posts. We have nothing but respect for China and the people of China," it continued. Gabbana also wrote a huge "Not Me" sign over screen grabs of the conversation with @michaelatranova.

Post by the Dolce & Gabbana (@dolcegabbana) official page on Instagram.  

Many on Chinese social media are not buying it. In the Chinese fashion community, lots of bloggers and editors disavowed the brand and hacking claims. Before show cancellation, some invited celebrities and guests had already started to announce their boycott of the show.   


                                                             Post by Makeup Artist Andy Koh on WeChat.  

By late afternoon (mere hours before the show was supposed to start), it was clear that The Great Show was stopped in its tracks. Leaked pictures of an empty runway stage began to appear on WeChat. Diet Prada (@dietprada), who helped spread the news, posted that show cancellation was ordered by the Cultural Affairs Bureau of Shanghai. For those unfamiliar with China, the government here often steps into cultural/creative industries when an issue goes viral.     

"I think this brand is finished in China for the next 3-5 years, I guess," says Xu. "A lot of models left onsite today, and posted 'NOT ME' on their runway prep pictures" – a protest against the brand sparked by Gabbana's "Not Me" hacking post.

"Now that it’s become political, it can be very dangerous for them," adds Xu. "It's much more serious than the recent call to boycott Balenciaga."

As for my personal interactions with the brand as a fashion editor and journalist, I've had a good relationship with them. I'm ethnically Chinese and both designers (and their team) always treated me with respect in private conversations and interviews – yes, I realise many designers will pander to press, but I personally never detected any racism.

As much as Gabbana has been known to be controversial with his off-the-cuff speech, it's hard to fathom that any famous person in this day and age would write such blatantly racist things in an online message to a perfect stranger, even in the heat of an argument. Then again, a double hacking of accounts also seems very strange.

Image leaked on WeChat of the supposed set of Dolce & Gabbana's show in Shanghai. 

#DGLovesChina was the hashtag used in the lead up for the event. It seems that today China, or at least its angered netizens, does not return that sentiment anymore. People will be waiting to see what follow up the brand has to offer – if there will be any further apology, explanation, or proof of hacking. At a time when European luxury giants are already nervous about China, sudden scorn from the world's biggest spenders is a terrifying proposition. Economics aside, racism is incredibly ugly and intolerable. What is unearthed soon will no doubt have deep ramifications for Dolce & Gabbana's future in the country, as well as the power of social media. We will be here to report as more of this story unfolds...