Dolce & Gabbana has been a brand declining in popularity within a saturated market of Italian branded luxury labels. The opportunity to enter into the Chinese market, a large emerging market within the industry, could have marked a new period of growth for the company. However, D&G blew this opportunity far before it began through a culturally insensitive advertisement targeted towards Chinese consumers.
The ad features a Chinese actress eating a variety of traditional Italian dishes with chopsticks, displaying Chinese subtitles below that read “Eat like this… This will make you feel like you were in Italy. But you are in China”. It is clear the campaign attempted to merge the Chinese and Italian cultures through the concept of food and eating. That being said, the ad received immediate backlash from Chinese and foreign consumers who believe that it plays into discriminatory Chinese stereotypes. During the peak of media outrage, racist messages were also released between designer Stefano Gabbana and a Chinese model, adding more fuel to the fire against the brand. Many customers have now called for a boycott of the brand, leading industry experts to ponder whether or not Dolce & Gabbana can redeem itself in the eyes of its consumers.
The repercussions following the controversial advertisement have been ongoing, with one of the largest being the cancellation of D&G’s first ever runway show in Shanghai. Staged to be their launch into the Chinese market, this show was extremely important to the initial growth of the brand in China. It would have also marked a turning point for a stagnant brand in a widely saturated industry. China is one of the largest luxury markets in the world, currently accounting for 28% of the global market and growing at a rate of approximately 3.1%. That being said, sales growth in the Chinese market has began and will likely continue to slow. Many luxury brands have already entered the market and established themselves during the market’s peak, leading to high levels of competition with luxury giants LVMH and Burberry as industry leaders. The decision for D&G to enter the market was more or less out of necessity, both to catch up with competitors and beachhead into other developing Asian markets. However, without expansion to China, it will become much more difficult to catch up with key players with similar country-of-origin branding, such as Gucci and Giorgio Armani, that are already dominating in China.
Another casualty of the controversy has been the loss of key distributor Yoox and its subsidiaries Net-A-Porter and Mr. Porter, who have both annouced they will no longer be selling D&G after the social media firestorm. This is particularly damaging, as modern luxury consumers are now turning towards e-commerce platforms to make more of their purchases. As a result, the failed campaign has not only harmed consumer attitudes towards the brand, but has also placed the company in a very poor position in the luxury market today.
Despite apologies from both Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana, the internet has spoken. Social media has proven to be a catalyst for social justice, which many fashion brands have been making a conscious effort to mitigate against. Burberry was put under fire earlier in the year for burning $37 million worth of unsold products. However, the brand has managed to turn these negative perceptions on its face by publically adressing the controversy. It has announced that it will stop burning its goods and begin a partnership with a sustainable luxury company to transform Burberry leather cuts into new recycled products over the next five years. Gucci has taken a similar approach by owning up the brand’s past history of cultural appropriation and making an effort to change brand perceptions through work with popular Harlem designer Dapper Dan. Both brands have made a positive bounce back from negative social controversies, however how easy will it be for Dolce & Gabbana?
The issue with D&G is that the China incident is the latest act in a long string of scandals orchestrated by D&G’s famed designers. Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana have been outspoken in the past with their thoughts against gay adoption and invetro fertilization, conservative values not shared by the next generation of left-leaning consumers. Controversy also surrounded the pair after they chose to label a pair of shoes in one of their collections as “slave sandals”. Without any shareholders or investors to please as a privately owned firm, there seems to be little to halt the endless flow of negative press following designers Dolce and Gabbana. As the face of the brand and root cause of all controversies, the brand will carry around these negative associations, regardless of whether that is representative of D&G as a whole. Therefore, with the same leadership in place, the brand will face an exceptionally difficult return after their most recent fall from grace.