What makes good fashion photography? A tricky question indeed. Of course, first and foremost it must present something beautiful. While making sure pictures aesthetically pleasing, photographers probably should be more careful with sensitive messages hidden in pictures that they may or may not realise themselves in a global context. Before any attempt of commercial campaign of juxtaposing cultures, one should at least do a thorough research on the target culture. This is what we can learn from the recent backfired D&G campaign in China.

 In April, netizens of Mainland China’s social media were outraged by Italian fashion house Dolce & Gabbana’s campaign named #D&GLovesChina. On Weibo (Mainland China’s most popular social media platform) the reactions to this new campaign photographed by @morellibrothers are mostly negative due to its featuring of the “ugly” side/people of Beijing.

The campaign highlighted flawlessly dressed (in D&G’s 2017 S/S collection) and good-looking models mingling with ordinary people at Beijing’s landmarks – such as Ti’an Men Square and the Great Wall – as well as Beijing’s traditional “hutongs” (small alleys). Many Weibo users expressed their disappointment and even disgust towards this series, contemplating D&G’s true intention behind. Conspiracy theory conveniently steps in – claiming that D&G’s representation of Mainland China in this “ugly” and “backward” way is to appeal to people who bear negative views towards China politically. This theory becomes popular after the exposure of D&G’s previous campaigns in Tokyo and Hong Kong, which were styled in a similar way and photographed by the Morelli Brothers as well.

D&G loves Tokyo

One Weibo user commented according to People’s Daily:

I saw pictures of #D&GlovesTokyo which included ordinary Japanese people as well, but they are all young and wearing decent clothing. I guess in the eyes of the photographers, Japan represents taste and wealth, while China represents vulgarity and poverty.”

D&G loves Hong Kong

Though this statement might be a little too generalised in that there are actually senior citizens in the Japanese series. Still the contrast between the two campaigns makes the bitterness not entirely unfounded. In the Japanese series, shots were taken on glamorous urban streets in the night with neon lights shining in the background to create the phantasmagoria of a metropolitan. Models are teamed with good-looking young people and some dressed in their beautiful kimonos. Similarly, the Hong Kong series also featured models hanging out with locals with huge neon ads in the background, signifying sophistication and wealth of a highly developed modern city with lively nightlives.

Whereas in the Beijing ones, shots were taken at some “absurd” places with “absurd people”. One shot featured a model sitting in a street corner with brooms and bins next to her and a red lantern above her head supposedly to yield a sense of exoticism. Another shot featured a group of D&G models mingling with a weather-beaten scavenger on his tricycle against the background of a noodle shop with very loud-coloured decoration. Even at the famous landmarks such as Ti’an Men and the Great Wall, the photos fail to present these tourist attractions attractively.

The photos are very unconventional in the sense that the narrative is interrupted by random passerby, which I believe is actually an innovative attempt to create a sense of authenticity of daily life rather than pose and poise that we usually see in fashion magazines. Including ordinary locals and common street views in a fashion campaign is actually a very good idea to create a sense of being effortlessly stylish anytime and anywhere in D&G’s collection. In fact, the whole #D&Gloves campaign’s concept – “hanging out with locals” is in itself a fantastic selling point in the global market. Furthermore, the unconventional camera angles used in the series also could have been lauded for its “going against grain”. Then what went wrong?

Zeng Yuan, a fashion designer in Nanjing told People’s Daily’:

The pictures are so absurd. From the perspective of Dolce & Gabbana, China is filled with bikes, old ladies in rags and rude tourists. Thanks to China’s fast development, the country now has so many modern things to offer the world, but the Chinese people and buildings in the photos all look quite 1990s.”

Evidently, the criticisms are not invoked by D&G’s concept of “hanging out with locals” but rather by its representation of the “locals.” Due to the photographer’s cultural ignorance and/or (un)conscious stereotypical imagination of China, the otherwise innovative campaign turned out to be a fiasco. Even the “locals” presented in the pictures are not Beijingers but tourists and migrant workers. One might argue that as long as they are all Chinese, they are locals. Well, if asking a more nuanced representation of Beijingers is considered too choosey, then any fashion house who wish to open up the Chinese market really need to investigate its Chinese consumers a lot more. Evidently backward looking street views with non-flattering looking common people compared with goddess-like models in the advertisements will not sell. More or less consumers would feel this is more like a parody of ordinary people than an appealing ad, which many articles have already argued. I, however, believe there is something more to be said.

The need for identity consumption is what makes China one of the largest markets for designers. Their products are valued not for its high quality and practical use value in China, rather its indication of high social status and refined taste (as is everywhere). The fixation of exhibiting one’s social status through commercial products – what Marx will say commodity fetishism – is so IN in Mainland that is becoming a pathological phenomenon. As noticed by Paul Fusslle who wrote the famous BOBOs’ Paradise, “in the absence of a system of hereditary ranks and titles, without a tradition of honors conferred by a monarch, and with no well-known status ladder even of high-class regiments to confer various degrees of cachet,” Chinese have to depend on its buying power. As a communistic country, we used to aim to annihilate any social hierarchy that divides people and separates fellow men and egalitarian is the core of a socialist society.

The ‘80s and ‘90s generations desperately want to distinguish themselves from their peers.

However this situation has changed since 1976 when China started its economic reformation – from state run economy to market economy. Following this change in the aspect of economy, there is a subtle but rather influential change in the aspect of social ethos. The proletariat uniformity is disregarded since then. The ‘80s and ‘90s generations desperately want to distinguish themselves from their peers. Consumption of extremely expensive and exhibit-able commercial products seems to be the best way to display the difference and taste. Anything associated with exclusivity and privilege is the gold fleece.

Now, let’s look back at the term “Beijinger.” It is such a monolithic geopolitical signifier of privileges (hundreds of thousands of graduates from China’s top universities are fighting for that title with millions of migrant workers from around China) that entitles to a PhD level social science paper on its weight in contemporary China’s society. Native Beijingers are enjoying relatively more welfare and cultural capital in many ways compared to its ever-growing migrant population. Tacitly Beijingers are very proud of their nativeness that entangles with Beijing’s long history, tradition, and even a lingering sense of royalty.  People captured by the D&G series, however, are tourists and migrant workers, and hence cannot generate that sense of exclusivity nor high social status much valued among D&G’s consumers. Henceforth, the campaign ignored one of the most valued features among its consumers are simply unwise and even stupid marketing strategy.

Apart from this overlooked geopolitical signifier, another mistake that fashion industry usually commits when it comes to appropriating other culture is the condescending tone in the pictures. While all the models are of East Asian origin, their images in D&G’s collection are to some extent Westernised and thus a tacit post-colonial layer is imposed on the pictures that even the photographers themselves might not intend to create. In the whole series the models are posed as somewhat superior than the other ordinary people. Almost all the ordinary people appeared in the series – apart from the one in which models taking selfie with a group you girls, are serving the models, from the taxi driver in that green cab to the street sweepers.

Although the photographer meant to present D&G’s potential consumers would look flawless even in routine interactions by wearing their designs, Chinese audience, however, will immediately identify with the ordinary people in the Ads instead of the models, hence a sense of inferiority is created may or may not by accident. Worse, mostly the models in the pictures do not even register the ordinary people’s existence, their eyes are never interacting with the ordinary people. Especially the two photos at the beginning of this article are considered most offensive. The first looks like a weather-beaten old lady in rugs rudely stepped between the model and the camera; while in the second photo models are interacting with local elderly people without even looking at them.

D&G’s Chinese series might be a valuable case for cultural study, but it is a failed commercial campaign for sure.

Yet I need to stress that models dressed in Western designed clothes are nothing offensive at all; and in fact Chinese consumers find Westernised images of good-looking models rather more familiar than those ordinary people in the pictures, since all our native celebrities almost always dress in Western costumes. Along with international celebrities, the celebrity culture has created a “hyper-reality” through our mass media, as puts by the famous cultural study scholar Jean Baudrilard. The world is remade in the image of our desires in his argument. As previously mentioned by Weibo users and the Chinese designer. They want to see the glamorous and advanced side of China in the pictures and implicitly wish that China’s achievement will be recognized by influential brands such as D&G.

However instead of featuring fashionable people in stylish blocks in Beijing, Western photographers are clearly more interested in places and people that they perceived as authentically Chinese. The contradicting perspectives probably are the main cause of this PR disaster. The pictures are a reminder of the ugly reality that has been buried by the inundated mass media images of glamor and poise. The ordinary working class people captured in the pictures are ugly in that they remind us of the ever-increasing polarisation of class and the uneven development in our society. That said, D&G’s Chinese series might be a valuable case for cultural study, but it is a failed commercial campaign for sure.

So, should I feel offended by this campaign? A Taiwanese press criticised Mainland neitizens being too sensitive and too harsh. This criticism to me sounds more out of the on-going Sino-Taiwan political tension than out of the concern of aestheticism. I believe we have every right to make our voices heard; especially on the photographer’s cultural ignorance and essentialist attitude to reduce China to loud colours and mere symbols. Yet at the same time, instead of blind hatred to the fashion house, more disturbing issues reflected back to us from the ugly photos are something we should stop ignoring anymore.

“The 19th century dislike of Realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass.”  – Oscar Wilde.