While a record number of Chinese models strutted down the runway of this year’s annual Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, the brand’s additional attempts to woo Chinese consumers through dragon-themed outfits were called “racist” in a since-deleted English-language article on Cosmopolitan. According to a look at comments on Chinese social media, the show’s Chinese elements also fell flat on China’s internet.
This year, viewers saw several of the lingerie-clad models sporting Chinese elements on their elaborate outfits, including Elsa Hosk’s dragon wrap, Adriana Lima’s embroidered stiletto boots, and Kendall Jenner’s phoenix wings, among others. Right after the show was broadcast online to a global audience, it led to heated discussions on China’s social media sites as most people failed to find Chinese traditional beauty in the outfits. One Weibo commenter said, “Honestly, if it wasn’t for these beautiful models, the lingerie is really ugly!” Other netizens chimed in with their typical acerbic wit, saying that Elsa Hosk and Kendall Jenner were perfect to attend China’s Spring Festival Gala—a traditional annual TV program hosted by the Chinese central government, mainly China Central Television (CCTV), on the eve of every year’s Spring Festival (the gala is considered by young people in China to be outdated and out-of-touch).
Meanwhile, some of the more conservative commenters were highly judgmental about the decision to pair lingerie with traditional Chinese elements. One Weibo user said, “Chinese style is reserved; linking it with bikini outfits just makes it slutty.”
The comments seem to show more tolerance toward the Chinese-style designs being worn by the Chinese models in the show this year. Out of four total Chinese models, supermodels Liu Wen and Ming Xi each wore a Chinese-themed outfit during the show. Some Weibo posts criticized Hosk and Jenner while at the same time mentioning Liu and Xi’s outfits as the “right way” to present Chinese cultural emblems.
On WeChat, the country’s biggest mobile messaging app, many bloggers were less harsh about the presentation of Chinese culture. Popular fashion blogger and KOL gogoboi, who attended the show in person, wrote a detailed article about this year’s show, attracting more than 100,000 views. “No joke, Elsa Hosk really carried a dragon on her back!” he exclaimed in his post. “She was the first one coming out to greet us for a good New Year ahead and wished us to have a great fortune,” using a traditional Chinese New Year greeting message for the year of the dragon (the next year’s zodiac animal is the rooster). He went on, “They should have played the song, ‘The God of Wealth is Knocking on Your Door!’”: a song usually sung and played during the Spring Festival by people who wish to have a year of fortune ahead. A user commented under gogoboi’s article that she had big trouble in really enjoying this year’s show even though she is a big fan of the brand and some supermodels who performed during the show.
Victoria’s Secret opened its first flagship store in China in early 2015, starting first with only beauty and accessories. Earlier this year, the first fully stocked store offering all products opened in Shanghai, as the company discovered a rapidly growing market demand for lingerie in China.
This isn’t the first time a foreign brand or entity has tried to impress Chinese consumers through making Chinese cultural references with their products—and many have ended up unintentionally amusing, shocking or even displeasing Chinese people instead.
For example, special-edition Chinese New Year items can be hit-or-miss with Chinese consumers—last year, a monkey necklace designed by Dior for the year of the monkey was described online as “alien-like” while a red-and-gold pouch with a star on it by Givenchy the year before was criticized for looking like the Vietnamese flag. Meanwhile, Burberry was criticized that year for bright red Chinese calligraphy embroidered onto its signature scarf, which net users said looked tacky and wasn’t displayed properly for Chinese New Year. Many Chinese luxury consumers see these products as awkward and tone-deaf—fashion publisher Hung Huang once stated in a column, “Most of the time when I see these special creations, I ask myself, ‘who on earth would buy that stuff?’ Yet each year they appear, so someone must buy them.”
It’s not just Chinese New Year products that cause controversy. Last year, Dolce & Gabbana caused a stir by sending its Asian models down the runway dressed as stereotypical “Chinese tourists” wearing qipaos and carrying cameras or a mobile phone to reference their propensity for taking photos. In 2012, the luxury Italian automaker Ferrari ran into a PR disaster when it filmed a dragon-adorned Ferrari 458 Italia spinning its wheels on top of a 600-year-old wall in the city of Nanjing to celebrate the 20th anniversary of its entry into the Chinese market. The car was believed to damage the old wall that was built during the early Ming dynasty. In the end, Ferrari issued an apology to the Chinese government and canceled other promotion events.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2015 China-themed Costume Institute exhibition was based on luxury fashion labels’ misinterpretations of Chinese culture, featuring outfits from through the years generally geared toward Western consumption. But as the Chinese market is now one of the most important segments for these brands, many are going to need to rethink their Western perspective of Orientalism or stereotyped approach to Chinese culture. For many Chinese customers, if these brands cannot show an appropriate understanding of Chinese culture in their Chinese-themed products, it is better just not to have it at all.