After this year's Met Gala, we all breathed a collective sigh of relief upon realizing that, aside from a couple of hiccups, guests hadn't misconstrued the event's Chinese theme that badly. While Dolce & Gabbana safely dressed two women — Karen Elson and Brie Larson — for that event, they proved at their spring 2016 runway show on Sunday that they are not the best at representing Chinese culture with their designs.
Flipping through images later, I noticed a section of the collection that I must have missed in the haze of selfies: Three models in a row, all of Asian decent, were wearing distinctly Chinese-inspired outfits that looked nothing like the rest of the frilly, feminine collection. All three looks featured collars in the style of a cheongsam, a traditional Chinese dress.
The collection was otherwise a very clear tribute to Italian style; in addition, the designers were inspired by tourists who visit the country. A section of a press release sent out after the show addresses these looks specifically:
Because of their travels, [the designers] have rediscovered how people and global travelers see and enjoy Summer in Italy (for example during the show, Chinese and Japanese models wear traditional clothes with Italian embellishments and jewels): they represent tourists that have just arrived in Italy and cannot wait to absorb the local mood and culture.
That Italy hosts a lot of Chinese tourists (not to mention residents) is true, but there are a couple of problems with this. For one, the outfits are Chinese-inspired, not Japanese. And a Chinese tourist traveling to Italy in, say, the spring of 2016 when this collection hits stores, would not wear anything like this. It feels icky, and represents an outdated and stereotypical view of Asian culture.
Chinese tourists represent a significant chunk of the luxury brand's customer base, too. Wealthy Chinese woman are known to favor the brand's frilly, Italian dresses, and they may be turned off by these looks if they notice them. "China can no longer exist just in fashion labels’ fantasies if they want to stay in business," wrote Jing Daily editor Liz Flora in an op-ed timed around the Met Gala. "And the perception that a garment is culturally tone-deaf will now lead directly to decreased profits."
Insensitivity is a common issue for the designers. Just last season, they came under fire for their heteronormative views on reproduction after their family-focused fall 2015 collection. It was also last season that fellow Milan-based design duo Dean and Dan Caten of DSquared showed a collection called #DSquaw, filled with Native American cultural appropriation. This season, London-based, South Africa-born Charlotte Olympia Dellal showed a collection partially inspired by African colonialism.
There's a level of ignorance that continues to pervade the fashion industry as a whole; and, particularly in Italy, there seems to be no end to it in sight. Milan is also consistently the whitest fashion week — in terms of editors and runway models alike. While Dolce & Gabbana's cast was one of the most diverse we've seen this week, why did the Asian models have to wear the three traditional Chinese looks? Cheongsam-inspired dresses and tops were trendy for a while in the late '90s/early aughts and could potentially come back into style, but if Dolce and Gabbana wanted to usher them back in, why not put them on non-Asian models as well?
At a time when it's easier than ever to explore (or be inspired by) things happening on the other side of the world — be it by plane or the Internet — and most people dress with little regard to the old traditions of their birthplaces, why do designers feel a need to insensitively harken back to a time when that wasn't the case?