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How an Instagram conversation led to a firestorm in China

How an Instagram conversation led to a firestorm in China


Chinese users are furious over ‘racist’ Dolce & Gabbana Instagram comments even if the platform is censored

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Dolce & Gabbana Pop-up Store Launch At Isetan In Tokyo
Photo by Keith Tsuji/Getty Images for Dolce & Gabbana

Racist Instagram exchanges have gone viral in China, despite the platform being blocked. A Dolce & Gabbana fashion show has been apparently canceled in China as hordes of online users accuse the brand of racism. First denounced by famous actors including Zhang Ziyi (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), the brand pulled its Shanghai fashion show last night after a dozen models left, and now, online platforms like Net-A-Porter and Alibaba’s Taobao have swiftly stopped carrying its wares in China.

The ire stemmed from a series of Instagram exchanges between Stefano Gabbana, one of two designers behind the fashion line, and a model, Michele Tranovo, who pointed out one of Dolce & Gabbana’s ads came across as patronizingly and potentially racist. Gabbana appeared to denounce the model in comments, accusing her of eating dogs and name-calling her “China Ignorant Dirty Smelling Mafia.”

Image: michaelatranovo via Instagram

The ad that Tranovo was questioning in particular has also drawn the attention of internet users this week. Dolce & Gabbana posted a controversial spot on Instagram featuring a Chinese woman wearing a glittery red D&G dress attempting to eat a large cannoli with chopsticks while a guy asks her, “Is it too big for you?”

Chinese users who caught the ad either outside of China where the platform isn’t blocked or through a VPN to bypass the firewall are now calling for a boycott of the brand. One Weibo user wrote, “The most annoying thing about this ad is that Chinese people only use chopsticks when it’s appropriate.” Another wrote, “You try eating Chinese hot pot with a knife and fork then.” On Instagram, some Chinese users have responded in profanity, calling Dolce & Gabbana a “bad brand.”

The brand has defended itself from the Instagram exchanges by saying Gabbana and its own Dolce & Gabbana Instagram accounts were hacked. “We are very sorry for any distress caused by these unauthorized posts,” the brand wrote in a statement and said its legal offices were investigating the situation. Gabbana posted to his own Instagram account a screenshot of the viral exchange with the large letters “NOT ME” over it. He captioned the post, “I love China and the Chinese Culture.”

Brands in China have to toe the line

Many aren’t buying the excuse of hacking, pointing out that Gabbana has a history of picking high-profile fights with multiple singers on Instagram. Gabbana has fought with Elton John after making controversial remarks against vitro fertilization, called Selena Gomez “ugly,” and dismissed Miley Cyrus for critiquing his politics.

His pattern of picking fights might have gotten him in trouble here. Chinese social media controversies can blow up overnight and many companies have come under fire, including Apple and Mercedes-Benz, often with the state media penning op-eds encouraging the outrage. Dolce & Gabbana has also gotten in trouble with China in 2017 before for featuring migrant workers and sanitation staff in ads as well as run-down parts of Beijing that didn’t promote a glamorous look for the country.

With the latest viral scandal, Dolce & Gabbana’s use of Instagram as a marketing tool to lure younger customers appears to be backfiring, due mainly to a lack of cultural understanding. While the brand might have meant the chopsticks ad to be a cute nod to Chinese culture, it came across as rudely patronizing, and the harrowing comments from Gabbana’s account only poured salt in the wound.