From the time Apax Group received a phone call from Dolce & Gabbana’s head office in Milan just after the Milan Fashion Week in September 2018, things immediately began "steam-rolling at an exponential pace" between the Italian brand and the experiential agency, according to the founder of Apax, Terence Chu.
In an exclusive interview with Campaign China, Chu shared how he personally got involved with the inception, planning, production (and eventual cancellation) of the 'Great Show' project—an "splendiferously-decorated" extravaganza that would have normally taken many more months to develop and produce, he stressed. "The Great Show was not D&G's first show in China, but would have been the largest," he said.
Instead, the show was unfortunately cancelled following outrage concerning a video meant to promote it. And the brand's two co-founders had to issue a video apology.
In the lead-up to the show, a team of stylists, tailors and accessory makers had prepped a "supersized" collection of more than 500 new looks, Chu said. The outfits were specifically created for the China market, Chu revealed, as a new experiment titled the 'Millennium' collection, which was never showcased in the end. Its target was intended to be the fashionable, well-travelled millennials of today's China—those having the right amount of disposable income and "an extremely interesting cross-cultural, old-new, east-west attitude".
This was a potential segment D&G wanted to explore, Chu said, with this collection that reflected their preferences as well as "all the usual D&G embellishments of bodacious bling, street-style sensibility, glam and sophistication".
'Millennium' was supposed to be a stepping stone for the luxury fashion house to open up many more opportunities in the vibrant China market, Chu stated.
The model who appeared in the now-infamous videos, Zuo Ye, broke her silence about the incident in a public Weibo post on Monday afternoon. Because of the positioning and intent of the collection, D&G wanted a young, clearly Oriental-looking model (representative of a Chinese person) to greet the market.
In her post, Zuo, a full-time model who just graduated from college, recalled the details of the three-hour D&G shoot, directed by an in-house team. It took place in Milan on 12 November last year, after she was briefed for a D&G "social video". On the set, people spoke Italian, while the director communicated with her in English, she wrote. According to her post, she did not give her opinion despite feeling awkward, but also did not suspect the video would end up being perceived as so demeaning to Chinese culture.
“Are you kidding me? With chopsticks?” she complained after failing to pick up a giant cannoli during the shoot at first, according to her post. “Yes! I know it’s hard, just try,” the director replied, she wrote.
"Professionally, models have no say in what the finished product looks like," Zuo's post said. "The model has absolutely no right to see the work in advance, or the power to modify the creative direction. Leaking any bits of the videos in advance of the client's launch date will incur financial penalties as well."
Zuo wrote the fallout from the videos "practically ruined my modelling career." She added that she was “deeply ashamed” and will learn to "represent the Chinese better in the future.”
While the 'DG Loves China' social video campaign and the cancelled 'The Great Show' are firmly in the past now, the brand's prolonged boycott in China seems not. As of today, D&G's products are still not for sale on the main e-commerce platforms, including Tmall, JD, Farfetch China and Lane Crawford Hong Kong. "Dolce Vita" or "Dolce Gusto" come up in searches. Net-a-Porter featured 21 D&G items, mostly small accessories, on its local site.
Elsewhere, earlier this month, Kim Kardashian West deleted her Instagram story promoting D&G after facing a backlash. Vogue editor Suzy Menkes also endured criticism after publishing a positive review of the brand's December show in Milan.
Dolce & Gabbana senior vice president for Asia Pacific, Grace Zhao, did not respond to an interview request from Campaign.
According to Chu, the cancelled show, set up to the tune of millions of RMB, would have presented each of the 1,500 invited guests with a special D&G bracelet plated with 24-carat gold, and had installations inspired by China-Italy relations, including a Chinese pavilion, "meandering" dragon tables, and "calming" Chinese calligraphic art on screen. Italian operatic music would have "juxtaposed the pairing of cultures" in the background. To their credit, the Dolce & Gabbana team paid the 2,000 staffers (comprising 360 local and foreign models, 40 celebrities and brand ambassadors, 175 professional performers, dancers, acrobats and artists) fairly for whatever work already done during rehearsals.
The cancellation was a joint decision involving Chu, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana, who both left Shanghai on their private jet for fear of physical reprise, Chu confirmed. Their apology video was filmed two days later back in Italy.
D&G will have to wait for at least two to three years before resetting or restarting what would have been its China strategy, Chu suggested.
That strategy was not just about the massive staging and elaborate productions anymore, Chu asserted. "It is about concerning ourselves with the 'last person at the back of the room'... The premise was that the show was not just about selling fashion anymore, but about embracing a contemporary lifestyle, relatability and understanding of popular culture", summarised Chu. "The themes developed within the Millennium collection and the various segments of the show were going all out to give tribute to China, from its history, art and culture, to its modern pop iconography."
The whole saga provides a good lesson, Chu said. "In the much larger picture, the message that was to be conveyed through this was that no matter where we come from, the world is getting smaller. People are not the same. We have different desires, different wants, different attitudes and different cultures. All it takes is a little understanding and a little learning so that we have fun and eventually move forward together, and hopefully enjoy the process along the way, together."