Over the weekend, Versace posted a T-shirt that listed Hong Kong and Macau as independent countries from China.
Immediately, the shirts generated backlash from China's Sina Weibo social media network.
In response, China's Versace ambassador, Yang Mi, terminated her contract with the company. "China's territorial integrity and sovereignty are sacred and inviolable at all times," read a statement posted by her agency.
Following the outcry, the / other similar high fashion companies Coach and Givenchy came under fire for similar mishaps. Both labels have previously released clothing that lists Hong Kong as a separate nation, and a Coach shirt also implied that Taiwan—considered a province by Beijing—was a separate country. Gucci has also come under fire for listing Hong Kong as a separate country on a drop-down menu on their website.
In response, Givenchy ambassador Jackson Yee, a member of the boy band TFBoys, also severed fashion ties with the brand. Today, a hashtag on Weibo calling for a boycott of Coach has been read over a billion times.
All the brands have posted social media apologies, including Donatella Versace, who captioned a picture of herself on Instagram, "Never have I wanted to disrespect China's National Sovereignty and this is why I wanted to personally apologize for such inaccuracy and for any distress that it might have caused."
The backlash comes during a period when China's national sovereignty and unity are under fire. For over ten weeks, widespread and sometimes violent anti-Beijing protests have torn through Hong Kong, resisting a bill proposed by the territory's chief executive Carrie Lam, which threatened to allow authorities to prosecute criminals in mainland China instead of Hong Kong.
Fashion Mishaps: Symptoms of a Larger Problem?
Though they come at a particularly sensitive time, these mistakes have not happened in a vacuum: They are a symptom of the fashion industry's lack of diversity. In recent months, companies including Chanel and Gucci have appointed their first heads of diversity and inclusion, perhaps at last becoming aware that with the help of social media, racist fashion products can no longer be brushed under the rug. (Chanel has come under fire once again for appointing a white woman as head of its diversity department, leading to even more social media criticism).
Other high-profile gaffes from fashion companies include the time when Dolce and Gabbana faced fire for portraying a Chinese model eating with chopsticks, when Gucci merch resembled blackface, and when Kim Kardashian West's beauty line briefly co-opted the name "Kimono."
Social media accounts such as Diet Prada have helped call out racism that has long been part of the fabric of the fashion industry, which has long cherry-picked styles from cultural stereotypes. "The nationalist sentiment has been rising in recent years. All aspects of the fashion industry need to be thinking about this at every level, that is, this decision, this product, whether this kind of marketing will cause a public opinion crisis related to nationalism," said Joyce Xu, the Executive Editor of Chinese digital business publication Jiemian.
In today's hyper-surveilled social media age, even fashion brands and celebrities must be aware that each of their actions—or lack thereof—is fundamentally political, especially during a time of upheaval like the one that China is experiencing. "In general there has been a bit of a shift from the government, basically saying, 'If you are going to be a celebrity and make money being a celebrity, that's ok, however, you have to live up to the ideals of the [Communist] Party and if you do anything counter to that, we are going to be taking a very close look at everything going on in your life. Celebrities are being extremely careful right now," said Mark Tanner, the managing director of a Chinese insight-marketing agency. It's clear that fashion brands need to follow suit.