Chinese sportswear brand Li-Ning courts controversy for 'offensive' clothing

The apparel-maker is rocked by accusations that items from its latest collection strongly resemble Japanese military outfits during WW2.

(L)Li-Ning’s new design from the brand’s official Weibo account, (R)the brand’s national fashion image Chinese Li-Ning, Japanese military uniform during WWII
(L)Li-Ning’s new design from the brand’s official Weibo account, (R)the brand’s national fashion image Chinese Li-Ning, Japanese military uniform during WWII

Chinese sportswear giant Li-Ning, widely known for its namesake's athlete winning six medals in China's first Olympics in 1984, has found itself mired in controversy after accusations surfaced that items from its new collection strongly resemble the Japanese military uniform during the World War II.

The collection launched on September 23 at the Li-Ning Fashion Show for Tmall's Super Brand Day, but the backlash on Chinese social media took a few weeks to develop. 

Left: Still from Li Ning's fashion show, right: Japanese military hat from World War 2

China is a hugely important market for the apparel-maker. Nearly 99% of Li-Ning’s revenue comes from China, while only 1.1% comes from abroad. While the brand is known for its bold sneakers and unorthodox avant-garde silhouettes, the current collection seems to have crossed an artistic boundary for Chinese netizens.

Viewed individually, the oversized parkas, the bomber and the exaggerated down jackets are constructed in fashion’s favourite winter colour—a timeless monochromatic army green. The point of contention, however, is the headgear. The circular brim, structured belted crown style of the hat with neck and ear flaps draws clear resemblance with the classic Japanese military hat worn by Japanese soldiers during the invasion of China.

On Monday, October 17, Li Ning’s share price plummeted over 13% and suffered a 4.31% loss, a new low in almost five months. The drop continued on the Hang Sang Index on October 18—at the opening bell, Li-Ning’s shares fell over three points in the first hour of trading. 

Most big fashion retailers like H&M and Zara have a three-part process for vetting their products before launch; the review processes for fashion giant like Li-Ning are under the scanner after the current controversy. Surprisingly, the brand’s official Weibo account still retains the photo of the controversial design in its grid.

But this isn’t the first time the company has found itself in the thick of a firestorm.

War-inspired fashion or an artist’s interpretation?

A suspected screenshot of Li-Ning’s ecommerce general manager Ye Feng has been making rounds on WeChat. Loosely translated, it states that our collective accumulation and education of Chinese culture and knowledge is still limited. At the same time, the message says, we should be careful of avoiding misinterpretations in the process of proper consumer education. In a way, the post defends Li-Ning’s design idea that it originated from traditional hat helmets (笠型盔). 

Another screenshot that emerged online was from Li-Ning’s son, Colin Li Qilin's Weibo post. Without any comment, he shared photos of traditional Chinese hat helmets and other military hats, in what can also be viewed as an attempt to save face. The post does not appear on his Weibo account any more; Campaign Asia-Pacificannot independently verify the authenticity of the screenshots in circulation. 

Left: Screenshots from Weibo which is said posted by the brand’s ecommerce general manager (right) and the son of Li Ning, the brand’s founder

Chinese netizens also blamed one of its three executive directors of Li-Ning. According to the company’s investor relations website, Kosaka Takeshi is the joint CEO of Li-Ning and a Japanese Chinese who has a former Chinese name (钱炜)and worked for Uniqlo’s parent company Fast Retailing for over two decades before joining Li-Ning in 2019. 

Past scandals

Earlier in March 2022, the US Customs and Border Protection detained a consignment at the port after a probe found that a North Korean worker was found to be working in the company’s supply chain. The company was required to provide evidence within 30 days that its merchandise was not produced with convict, forced, or indentured labour, or it "may be subject to seizure and forfeiture".

Prior to that in March 2021, the Chinese apparel company came under heavy scrutiny over its use of cotton from the Xinjiang region after reports of human rights abuses against Uighur Muslims resurfaced. Though China denies all such abuses, Norway banned the company due to "unacceptable risk" that it was contributing to human rights harms in Xinjiang, China.

Campaign Asia-Pacific has reached out to Li-Ning for comment. 

When Campaign reached out to China marketing expert, founder of Alarice and ChoZan, Ashley Dudarenok, on how the brand should manage this PR crisis, she believed that “silence is not a particularly wise choice at this time, but rather a response should be made as soon as possible”.

She added: “In particular, if Li-Ning as a local national brand continues to delay a response, the negative sentiment among Chinese consumers may fester even more dramatically. Li-Ning's failure to respond to the market will continue to raise questions as to whether the brand's design crisis is deliberate”.

Dudarenok offered more advice for Li-Ning on how to resolve the issue. Firstly, she said the brand should monitor public opinion by identifying the exact problems and to what extent they have developed. Then, the brand should react quickly and show a serious attitude about this issue. This is to “calm the immediate negative sentiment in time to avoid further development and festering”. Finally, Li-Ning should take practical action to control public opinion and avoid further furore.

“[The brand should] provide a sincere explanation of the problems in the design of the garment and apologise for the negative impact,” said Dudarenok. “To avoid another PR crisis, it is important to respond rather than just trying to cover up the incident.”

On Wednesday, Li-Ning issued a statement, apologising for the design's troubles and confusion and expressing sincere thanks to Chinese consumers for all the support and feedback. The statement also emphasised that “the design of the flight cap originated from ancient Chinese helmets, outdoor protective hats and cotton caps, presented various colours and styles, with professional functions such as wind protection and keeping warm”. The content of the statement also echoes social media screenshots which are said to be posted by the Li-Ning management team.

The brand's share price continued to drop over 6%, but this decline is unclear if caused by this scandal. Chinese media recently analysed the competitive scene of sportswear in the market and Li-Ning remains as one of the top-five sportswear brands in China in terms of market share.

Campaign Asia

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