Chinese people as identical Maoist robots? Thanks for that, Dior
How can the fashion house think it is acceptable to make such a nakedly racist ad campaign?
Given the history of Orientalism in western sartorial practice, is it any surprise that Christian Dior’s latest ad campaign, “Shanghai Dreamers” shot by Chinese artist, Quentin Shih, features a series of photos where a strikingly-styled white model clad in Dior couture towers over rows of digitally reproduced Chinese women and men dressed in cultural revolution drag? And no, your eyes have not deceived you – the Chinese people in the background literally all look the same.
Of course, fashion has always blithely forged ahead with little concern for blatant cultural appropriation (see: the past 20 years of Galliano‘s fashion career) or cultural appropriateness (see: images of colonial and imperialist splendour in the return of plantation chic and harem chic.) But can and should they continue to get away with it?
Earlier this month, China’s economy surpassed that of Japan’s to become the second largest in the world. LVMH, the company that owns Dior and Louis Vuitton, among other brands, and the world’s largest maker of luxury goods, recently reported a 53% rise in half-year profits, with a 21% sales gain in the Asian markets.
In considering Asian consumers, it would be wise to have fewer fashion moments like Karl Lagerfield’s admission last December: “I haven’t left the hotel since I arrived in Shanghai, not that there is much of it left over,” made before debuting a short video he directed, in which a fictionalised Coco Chanel visits the Shanghai of her dreams. It is precisely nothing more than a dream, because in what other reality could 1960s Chinese labour camp workers possibly be played by Danish supermodel Freja Beha and Lagerfeld’s French muse Baptiste Giabiconi? In one scene, Lara Stone as Coco Chanel informs the two actors that “the Chinese invented quilting”, followed by one of the Chinese labourers lamenting: “I much prefer to have blue jeans.” The message couldn’t be clearer – the Chinese are ignorant of their own history, desire to imitate the west, and need a cultured European to educate them.
My reading of the Chanel film might seem hyperbolic until you take stock of the similarities between images in fashion portraying China and Chinese people as inscrutable, ignorant, backward, jejune, and robotic, and the rhetoric employed by pundits who are predicting the Chinese do not know how to handle their growth and will inevitably crash and burn if they don’t change course. The west is both transfixed and utterly horrified by China’s rapid development, and the fashion world, as much as it would like to see itself as the final frontier for nonconformity, is no different.
Whatever you think of China’s human rights record, economic policies, politics, culture, or social conditions, old-school racism just can’t fly. The mainstream media needs to put pressure on Dior to apologise for its embarrassing Shanghai Dreamers campaign. But they have been silent, with the exception of Art Info, who focused most of their critique on the photographer, Quentin Shih. Shih, a native Chinese artist, born in 1975, has gone on the record to say that the ad campaign was entirely his idea and that he meant no he meant no offence.
Rather, Dior and Galliano should know better than to commission these photographs for their Shanghai storefront, should have sent Chinese models for Shih to shoot, and should understand that the modern Chinese Dior customer will not recognise herself or himself in these photographs.
If fantasy is part of the appeal of fashion, then wouldn’t it be worthwhile for Dior, Chanel, and other couture houses to figure out how Chinese people fantasise and see themselves? Surely, the vision does not include wearing a Mao suit, carrying a migrant’s work bag, and dressing exactly like everyone else. Just as with their economy, which they have lately proved themselves as competent as any other nation at managing, it’s possible that Chinese consumers have more nous than the likes of Dior give them credit for.