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Chinese boycott of Dolce & Gabbana ramps up as company founders apologize for racial insults

Chinese boycott of Dolce & Gabbana ramps up as company founders apologize for racial insults
Founders of Dolce & Gabbana Domenico Dolce, left, and Stefano Gabbana apologize in a video. (Ng Han Guan / Associated Press)

The Italian luxury brand Dolce & Gabbana apologized Friday for racist-tinged insults that touched off a growing boycott in China and left the company struggling to return its products to store shelves and e-commerce sites.

But it was unclear whether the contrition will be enough to stem the punishment and backlash doled out across China over the past week.

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Some Dolce & Gabbana stores in Beijing were temporarily shut, and Chinese students in Italy held a small protest in front of the flagship store in Milan, according to Chinese reports.

Earlier this week, a lavish Shanghai fashion show, which had been months in the making, was canceled after a leaked online conversation showed co-founder Stefano Gabbana using several feces emoji and disparaging language to describe China — the world's largest market for luxury items.

In a span of five days, the Milan fashion house swung from preparing a historic Shanghai extravaganza — billed as a no-expense-spared tribute to Chinese culture and the biggest runway event in label history — to pleading for forgiveness, its reputation shredded in a country that accounts for more than a third of luxury spending worldwide.

"Our families have always taught us to respect the various cultures in all the world, and that's why we want to ask for your forgiveness," co-founder Domenico Dolce said in a video apology on Friday with his partner, Gabbana. "We will never forget this experience and lesson, and this sort of thing will never happen again."

The mea culpa capped a topsy-turvy week that started with the company promoting its "Great Show" in Shanghai, an hourlong event with more than 300 looks, 100 models and 1,500 guests, with an ill-considered video featuring a Chinese model struggling to eat spaghetti and a large pastry with chopsticks.

After the video was widely criticized in China as insulting, a well-known fashion blogger leaked an Instagram conversation with Gabbana in which the designer fumed about the criticism, referred to China using several poo emoji and then blurted out: "China Ignorant Dirty Smelling Mafia." (Gabbana later claimed he was hacked.)

With models, event staff and celebrity guests pulling out hours before the event and calling for a boycott, the label's Great Show was in tatters before it started on Wednesday.

By Friday, so was the brand's reputation. Numerous e-commerce sites including Alibaba and JD.com, the country's two biggest platforms, removed the brand's products. As did Lane Crawford, a leading luxury department store in China, at least one duty-free shop and the U.S.-based e-commerce site Net-a-Porter.

"We believe that brands need to be aware of the cultural implications of their actions and understand the potential backlash when customers feel their values have been disrespected," Lane Crawford President Andrew Keith said in a statement Friday. "Customers have been returning Dolce & Gabbana products to our stores. With respect to our customers, we have taken the decision to remove the brand from all stores in mainland China, online and in Hong Kong."

China is no stranger to boycotts. Japanese and South Korean companies have been targeted in government-stoked campaigns during periods of geopolitical tension between Beijing and its neighbors. But Dolce & Gabbana's troubles this week felt different — more profound — as organic grass-roots anger roiled Chinese social media all week, said Jerry Clode, head of digital and social insight at Resonance, a Shanghai agency that advises luxury brands.

"There wasn't a national political context. This was grass-roots anger that snowballed into a real catastrophe," Clode said.

Now, it's unclear how or when Dolce & Gabbana will recover in its most crucial market. But if history is any indication, it will bounce back.

Gabbana has previously lashed out at gay parents, openly mocked female celebrities as ugly, derided fat people — and reveled in his ability to catch flak by designing ironic "#Boycott Dolce & Gabbana" white tees. They’re available for $295.

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He recently was criticized for denying the existence of sexual harassment in Italy, for dismissing the #MeToo movement and for voicing support for First Lady Melania Trump in a fashion industry largely opposed to her husband.

And through it all, his label has emerged unscathed and stronger than ever, recording record sales of 1.3 billion euros in 2017.

In a May interview with the Washington Post, Gabbana was unapologetic about his penchant for stirring controversy, saying he was merely unshackled from political correctness.

"I love to be free," he said. "Free, free, free, free, free. I love to say what I think."

Shih writes for the Washington Post.

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