When I heard the news of Dolce & Gabbana’s latest blunder, I thought I was still in some bizarre dream inspired by the cheeky snack of brie I ate before bed. “Not possible. It’s 2018. No one could be this tone deaf,” I thought as I snuggled under the covers, scrolling through various Instagram posts and news stories.
But no. It was not a dream. Somehow, it’s real. And it’s turned into a real nightmare for the Italian luxury house. Long story short, D&G was set to stage a 500-look runway extravaganza in Shanghai with numerous Chinese celebrities confirmed to attend. To promote the event, which was no doubt meant to court China’s powerful luxury consumers, the brand released a series of frankly absurd videos featuring a Chinese model, decked out in D&G, trying to eat Italian food with chopsticks—a cartoonish take on Chinese music played in the background as the model clumsily tried to pick up a pizza, spaghetti, and (the worst part) a giant, phallic cannoli. A male voice speaks from behind the lens while the model struggles. According to the New York Times’ translation, it asks, “Is it too huge for you?” while she tries to grasp the cannoli between her utensils. (Guys. Come on. Are you kidding me?) Users on Chinese platform Weibo took offense to the ads that seemingly mocked Chinese culture. To make matters worse, @Diet_Prada posted an Instagram chat exchange between Stefano Gabbana’s account and another user in which the individual behind Gabbana’s account makes blatantly racist comments about China and its people. Gabbana and the brand released a statement insisting both D&G’s official account and Gabbana’s account were hacked. They kind of apologized, but not really. The Internet isn’t buying it, largely because Gabbana has a history of trolling celebrities and those who don’t agree with him both online and IRL. Celebrities and models pulled out of the event, making strong statements against the brand on both Western and Chinese social media. And the show was cancelled. (According to some reports, the government stepped in to shut the event down. D&G, however, stated it was “postponed.”)
“What’s the big deal about pizza and chopsticks?” you might ask. It’s a fair question—particularly because the conversation surrounding political correctness, cultural appropriation, who can reference what, and the like has gotten a bit out of control. Perhaps there is a way in which D&G’s campaign could have been cute, playful, and respectful. The end result, though, effectively mocked the Chinese—the very people to whom the brand is trying to peddle its high-priced wares.
This campaign, like so many that have come before it, was a huge missed opportunity. Cultural crosspollination can be a beautiful thing. If we all existed inside our own little cultural bubbles, this big, gorgeous, global world of ours would be a terribly boring place. The lines are blurry, sure, but it really comes down to respect and intent—does the brand truly respect the culture it’s referencing, or is it simply appropriating something from said culture in order to exploit it for financial gain? I, for one, would have loved to have seen D&G collaborate with a Chinese artist or filmmaker rather than playing up offensive Chinese stereotypes. Same goes for Dior, who received backlash when it released a campaign starring Jennifer Lawrence, lensed in California, for its Mexican-inspired Cruise 2019 collection. Why not engage with the culture that inspired the outing, collaborate with Mexican artisans, shoot the campaign in Mexico, and/or cast a Mexican actress, model, musician, etc. as the face?
Naturally, cultural appropriation is not a new phenomenon. For instance, Jean Paul Gaultier’s Fall 1994 Nanook of the North-inspired collection, in which Bjork walked, was critically acclaimed, with WWD calling the lineup “Eskimo Chic.” To wit, in his Fall 1997 Haute Couture collection for Christian Dior, John Galliano showed a model in a Native American headdress and beaded look. The collection wasn’t necessarily a hit, with critics disapproving of the designer’s signature theatrics, but his appropriation of the headdress was not a point of discussion.
But today we’re more connected—we know more and we know better. That’s why there was a media firestorm when Victoria’s Secret sent Karlie Kloss down the runway in skimpy lingerie and another Native American headdress which, by the way, is a sacred symbol. That’s why TheWeeknd cut ties with H&M after the fast fashion retailer advertised a children’s sweatshirt that read “coolest monkey in the jungle” on a black model. That’s why there was an outcry when Valentino presented its African-inspired Spring 2016 collection on an almost entirely white cast.
Cultural appropriation and sensitivity is a tricky topic that involves high emotions and a broad spectrum of opinions. Sometimes, the outcries are just white noise, like when Sacai’s Chitose Abe raised questions about appropriation with her abstract Fall 2018 print, which she acknowledged was inspired by Native American patterns but had no religious imagery or attachment to any tribe. But oftentimes, brands make terrible decisions that can be easily avoided. I’m not sure if that’s because they’re lazy, or truly tone deaf, or if the executive bodies who give the thumbs up on these epic missteps are so whitewashed that they can’t see the error of their ways. But in my opinion, the solution is simple: Don’t do something that mocks another culture; don’t do something that perpetuates stereotypes; and if you’re going to pull inspiration from a culture that’s not your own, acknowledge that culture in a meaningful way via collaboration or, at the very least, representation. Also, don’t portray a Chinese model helplessly stabbing at a cannoli with chopsticks while asking her if it’s “too huge.” Dio mio.