China’s Most Controversial Fashion Incidents in 2020

Thanks to previous luxury brand marketing mistakes, from China mapping errors to eye-rolling cultural stereotypes, most Western companies have learned to tread lightly when it comes to China. But, in 2020, not knowing the country’s different cultural nuances and cringeworthy acts of cultural appropriation still stand out as the two main barriers for brands trying to connect with the local market. But brands should also note that they need to act quickly when their high-ranking employees cause a backlash. 

Such as when a former Lululemon global art director promoted an image of a Chinese takeout box with bat wings on his social media page (a reference to the supposed origins of COVID-19), stirring up anger from Chinese around the globe. Controversies started piling up in the second half of the year, as marketing activities in post-COVID-19 China skyrocket thanks to numerous holidays and shopping festivals. Harper’s Bazaar China and Jo Malone London were both accused of appropriation, while Balenciaga and Coach were told they were “misrepresenting” China. 

Below is Jing Daily’s selection of the top 5 controversies in China’s fashion world this year. For more of our 2020 year in review analysis, click here.

  • A former Lululemon employee promoted racially-sensitive content

In April, Trevor Fleming, Lululemon’s former global art director, promoted a link on Instagram of a white, long-sleeved T-shirt bearing an image of a Chinese takeout box with bat wings that read “No Thank You” across it. The image triggered anger among Asian Americans on social media, and Chinese netizens accused Fleming of stirring up anti-Chinese sentiment and racism. Lululemon issued a statement to distance the brand from the former employee. “We reached out to our community members immediately after the news came out and have since received a lot of support,” said a Lululemon employee in China. Read More

  • Harper’s Bazaar China appropriated a tainted term from China’s painful past

In July, Harper’s Bazaar China provoked Chinese netizens by appropriating the derogatory term liangmin zheng (translated as “good-citizen certificate”) on Weibo from the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. The day also happened to be the anniversary of a historic event that marked the beginning of the full-scale war between China and Japan. The magazine responded to criticism by apologizing, stating that it will “engrave patriotism and love for the Party in mind and further improve historical and political education.” Read More

  • Netizens felt misrepresented by Balenciaga’s Qixi handbag campaign 

For Qixi (China’s version of Valentine’s Day) in July, Balenciaga released four limited-edition Hourglass handbags at the brand’s Tmall flagship store. The bag’s campaign mimicked styles preferred by China’s rural population and was labeled “tasteless” or even “insulting of Chinese culture” by many netizens, despite a small appreciative audience. The campaign demonstrates that China’s market might be trickier to work in than most thought. Read More

  • Coach fell into the “tasteless” pitfall following the steps of Balenciaga

In September, former NBA star Jeremy Lin’s campaign photos from the brand’s Spring 2021 collection appeared to have pushed many Chinese netizens’ buttons. Lin, decked out in Coach’s American street vintage style, stands alone in front of a hazy, almost smokey orange sky. Reminding many of the brush fires that plagued their country, netizens called the photos “tasteless” and said the photographer made their hero look “rural.” Read More

  • Jo Malone London appropriated Western ambassador’s story for China

As with Lululemon, Jo Malone’s case proves how a fast-moving internet environment can carry a Western backlash to China very quickly. In September, the Estée Lauder-owned brand Jo Malone London apologized about replacing Star Wars actor John Boyega, who conceived and directed the brand’s London Gent advertisement, with the actor Liu Haoran for the Chinese version of the ad. Some in the West took to social media to condemn the ad switch as racist, and Jo Malone quickly responded to the backlash in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter, saying it was a “mistake in the local execution,” while also apologizing to both Boyega and Liu. Read More

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