“In Paris, only the most unassuming French sales assistants will assist you,” a friend once informed me. “The Mandarin-speaking ones know better by your accent that you’re not a mainlander.”
There’s some pragmatic truth to this friendly anecdote, but increasingly I wonder if this reflects more worryingly the way European luxury houses view Asian people, and the Chinese particularly. It’s no news that the massive country is now the source of much of the industry and market’s growth, with its burgeoning middle and upper classes craving sophistication by way of spending.
It’s interesting because the spending habits and tastes of this part of the world are different, and yes, selling to Asian people is a different affair than selling to Europeans and Americans. But fundamentally, there is something wrong when these brands fail to see this part the world as people, and instead as mere cash cows.
What exactly do European fashion designers think we Asian people are? These days, and aplenty on the runway if you wanted evidence, are painfully stereotypical visions of the East. It might very well be that these brands see Asia – and China especially – as its most lucrative opportunity in years. ‘Oriental’ has, in recent times, been socially outlawed as a backwards way of othering and exoticising East Asians, but this awareness has not filtered into the actual designs. And going by the Stefano Gabbana debacle, nor into the mind of European racists.
Alessandro Michele has a vast mind and mine of chintz, kitsch and camp for his Gucci world. His version of excess borrows liberally from many cultures, but a recurring source of his decorative tricks is chinoiserie. Think fur trimmings, embroidery patterns of phoenixes, dragons, etc. There’s always a touch of the Chinese mythic in his collections and I’ve wondered for a while now who these designs are meant for? Surely they’re not meant for the modern Chinese customer – whose fashion tastes run closer to the street smarts of something more akin to Demna Gvasalia’s Balenciaga. I'll argue that cultural loans are a great source of inspiration, but it might now have come time to consider a less literal and more sophisticated approach.
In Shanghai, Dior put on a show re-presenting its Spring/Summer 2018 haute couture collection. Certainly, there may be a market of new couture clients in the region now to warrant the event – but Maria Grazia Chiuri sent down 10 new designs that seemed intended placate what she considered an Asian market. Ball gowns in red (of course, since this colour is cultural shorthand for good luck) and suits with pleats meant to resemble the original Bar skirt and, quite simplistically, fans. Honestly, it’s a little patronising that Chiuri thought the colour red and pleats as fans could suffice to pay homage to “the culture and art of China”. It might have been more integrous to have skipped those looks anyway, or better yet present them without a flimsy justification. The gowns and suits were beautiful, doubtless, but it seemed like a cheap afterthought to tie them to homage. They can stand on their own, and the Chinese can and will appreciate them anyway – assuming any less seems like condescension.
Worse still are the inane glut of themed products that come out during the Chinese New Year period. Year of the dog? Watch as brands throw out dog-shaped accessories ad nauseam – in red, half the time. Yes, the Chinese are proud of their cultural heritage and all but don’t you think we’d rather look to home if we were to celebrate it? Do we really need a European luxury house to toss up something mindless, especially when its attempt at a cash grab is so damn obvious?
This is all very Sino-centric, but there’s another problem to this whole charade of cultural response. Rather than genuinely view and respect the Asian continent for its tapestry of cultural variety, designers would sooner jump to the most immediate hallmarks of the country that has promised itself to be a golden egg.
"Eating With Chopsticks Episode 1" was posted by Dolce & Gabbana on the brand's social media platforms.
And that’s before we get to the Dolce & Gabbana debacle. The Italian brand had planned, flown, and was ready to stage a multimillion dollar, one hour runway show it titled ‘The Great Show’. What ensued was a great mess. Prior to show day, the brand put up teaser videos on its Instagram that depicted a Chinese model struggling to eat Italian foods with a chopstick. There’s a male voice-over that asks her if it’s “too big” -- I’ll let you guess what they’re insinuating.
It was disgusting and offensive and made me angry and uncomfortable. The kind of reaction I get when I see Mickey Rooney in Breakfast At Tiffany’s as Mr Yunioshi, a yellow-face type of demeaning caricature.
If that weren’t enough, fashion vigilantes Diet Prada uploaded screenshots of Stefano Gabbana’s responses to Chinese users on Instagram over direct messages. The gist of which is vulgar spoutings of tired racist insults to do with smelliness and dog eating. The brand quickly volte-faced and released a statement claiming it -- and Gabbana -- had been hacked on Instagram, denying responsibility and culpability from those remarks. Nice try, had Gabbana himself not taken a screenshot of the conversation and uploaded it himself earlier. Better yet, Chinese celebrities and modeling agencies quickly released statements withdrawing themselves from the event, Zhang Ziyi for one vowing a personal boycott against the brand.
Perhaps most frustrating is that this isn’t the first big cultural fuck up that Dolce & Gabbana has landed itself in. Previously, the pair had been homophobic despite themselves being flaming homosexuals; grossly dismissive of IVF and using the term ‘synthetic babies’; and racist before too when they stated they refused to pass their label on, especially not toward a Japanese designer. What I wonder now is who are the people still supporting this heinous pair? Can the rarefied and bubble-headed world of Dolce & Gabbana be so fortified as to resist the realities of a world that no longer accepts this kind of bald-faced discrimination?
Thankfully, the whole shitshow was cancelled by the Cultural Affairs Bureau of Shanghai. It puzzles me that the brand had the audacity and plain stupidity to let this happen. The pair are famous for their Sicilian pride, but if they planned to spend millions staging a blockbuster fashion show in Shanghai, they should be well aware the nationalistic pride the Chinese have. And even if not nationalistic, then the number of overseas Chinese with cultural and ethnic ties.
Sure, it’s all business, but in a business of creativity should we not pause to acknowledge that sincerity is a value worth having? That the people you sell to are worthy of respect? And that if you want their money to feed your company, that that respect is thus paramount? Whether well-intentioned or plainly racist in this latest instance, fashion must re-examine how it is approaching Asia and China if they expect to make any money out of the region.
I Have An Issue With is our new series of complaints – big and small – about things. Because if writing about what gets you angry and riled up doesn’t constitute productivity, what does?