Luxury fashion brands have been apologising left and right after mainland Chinese shoppers took offence with T-shirt designs that list Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan as independent countries.
Italian fashion brand Versace came first. On August 11, it issued an apology in response to a white T-shirt that featured a list of cities and their corresponding countries.
“Berlin-Germany,” “London-UK,” “Paris-France,” the graphic reads. What mainland Chinese social media users took issue with was that “Macau-Macao,” and “Hong Kong-Hong Kong” were also part of the list. This is against the Chinese government’s “one-China” policy, which considers Hong Kong and Macau a part of mainland China as special administrative regions and Taiwan as the Republic of China. This policy has long been contested in Hong Kong and Taiwan, where pro-democracy sentiments are popular.
Versace’s apology came from Creative Director Donatella Versace herself following a swift backlash. They also removed the shirts from sales.
But even with Versace’s retraction, the damage had already been done. Chinese netizens and consumers called for a boycott of Versace entirely. Yang Mi, a mainland Chinese actress, and singer, even terminated her contract as a leading ambassador for the label.
She announced this on Weibo, China's version of Twitter, where she has over 104 million followers.
“As a Chinese citizen, Ms. Yang Mi is very indignant that Versace’s mistake blatantly defies the sovereignty and territorial integrality of China,” her statement posted by studio Jiaxing Xingguang read.
“China’s territorial integrity and sovereignty are sacred and inviolable at all times. It is the duty of all Chinese citizens to uphold the ‘One China’ principle and adamantly safeguard national unification,” it continued.
Soon after Versace’s debacle, luxury brands Coach and Givenchy also found themselves in hot water with mainland Chinese netizens. Similar T-shirts from both brands which insinuated that Hong Kong and Taiwan are independent countries also went viral.
Coach quickly issued an apology on Twitter, while Givenchy did the same on Weibo. The latter wrote that they “firmly [adhere] to the One China principle.” But the consequences for these brands were similar to Versace’s.
Jackson Yee, a member of popular Chinese boy band TFBoys declared he would stop working with Givenchy. Supermodel Liu Wen announced on Weibo that she was walking away from her position as one of Coach’s brand ambassadors.
“My carelessness in choosing which brand to work with has brought harm to everyone,” she wrote. “I apologise to everyone here! I love my motherland and resolutely safeguard China’s sovereignty.”
The backlash against these fashion powerhouses comes as pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong continue to heighten. Since June, the city has seen weeks of protests calling for increased autonomy from the mainland, which Beijing has condemned vehemently.
China’s state-run newspaper, the People’s Daily, even criticised Versace and Coach for making “stupid mistakes spontaneously” during a “sensitive period.”
“This is a matter of principle,” read the article.
Overlooking China’s firmly-upheld “one-China” policy could have very real consequences for these luxury brands. China accounted for 33 percent of all luxury goods sold in 2018. According to the Business of Fashion, 2018 saw a growth rate of 20 percent in China’s luxury market for the second consecutive year.
The fashion industry is just the latest to receive backlash from China’s social-media active netizens. Earlier this month, Chinese social media users called to boycott bubble tea brands from Taiwan for allegedly standing in solidarity with Hong Kong over the ongoing protests.