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Dolce & Gabbana draws ire of China netizens

First, a publicity ad for the brand's fashion show hits a wrong note; then Steffano Gabbana's response stokes more anger

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Reproductions of Stefano Gabbana's Instagram posts with 'Not Me' super- imposed over them on show at the brand's store in Shanghai. He and the brand have said sorry for the remarks that have caused offence.

Beijing

INSTAGRAM may be blocked in China, but it can still make waves there.

Dolce & Gabbana, the Italian luxury brand, found that out on Wednesday with stunning swiftness. It had to abruptly cancel a Shanghai fashion show it had been planning to hold that night, as waves of online Chinese users accused Stefano Gabbana, one of the two designers of the fashion line, of being racist.

They pointed to private Instagram messages from Mr Gabbana's account that the recipient posted publicly.

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Zhang Ziyi, the Chinese actress best known in the West for the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, took the brand to task online; two dozen models said they would pull out of the show.

Dolce & Gabbana said its account and the account of Mr Gabbana had been hacked and disavowed the messages.

"We are very sorry for any distress caused by these unauthorised posts," Dolce & Gabbana said on its Instagram account. "We have nothing but respect for China and the people of China."

On his account, Mr Gabbana posted an image of the offensive comments with the words "Not Me" superimposed in big red letters. "I love China and the Chinese culture," he said. "I'm so sorry for what happened."

Dolce & Gabbana moved quickly in a country with a voluble online audience that can quickly punish companies, especially foreign ones, if they offend. Companies like Apple and the Gap have rushed to apologise after outrage brewed online, often abetted by state-controlled media.

That makes it potentially dangerous territory for someone like Mr Gabbana, who is famous for picking online feuds and in the past has used his Instagram account to make barbed attacks. His criticism of in vitro fertilisation, for example, had put him on collision course with pop star Elton John, who created the hashtag #boycottdolcegabbana, in response.

Fashion blogger Bryan Yambao, who blogs under the name BryanBoy, and has more than 600,000 Instagram followers, expressed scepticism about the brand's claim that it was hacked - a sentiment echoed widely online.

"I am having a hard time believing the notion that both social media accounts were hacked, especially when Mr Gabbana has a proven track record of trolling everyone under the sun, from celebrities like Lady Gaga and Selena Gomez to influencers like Chiara Ferragni, both on public feed posts or on comments."

The latest online flap began with a Dolce & Gabbana ad for the Shanghai show that it posted on Instagram.

It features a young Chinese woman in a glittery red dress and dangling jewellery trying to eat a cannoli with chopsticks. Traditional Chinese-sounding music plays in the background. As she flirts with the camera, a male narrator asks: "Is it too big for you?"

Another ad shows the woman trying to eat pizza using chopsticks, in an attempt to play on Italian and Chinese cultural differences.

But Chinese viewers who saw the cannoli ad - some overseas and some using special software to circumvent Chinese censors - found it crass and patronising. They put screenshots online in China, where they quickly found an audience.

When some people on Instagram criticised Dolce & Gabbana and Stefano Gabbana for the ad, the response was beyond what they expected.

One private message from Mr Gabbana's account, which the recipient posted publicly, contained statements using crude emoji. The message added: "China ignorant dirty smelling mafia". In another message, Mr Gabbana made a reference to Chinese people's enjoyment of dog meat.

Dolce & Gabbana said its legal offices were investigating the incidents. "What happened today was very unfortunate not only for us, but also for all the people who worked day and night to bring this event to life," the designers said in a statement, referring to the fashion show.

The controversy could be especially damaging for the fashion brand because it has made using Instagram stars in its runway shows a tent pole of its strategy to court millennials.

By Wednesday afternoon, the controversy was the most-talked-about topic on Weibo, China's version of Twitter.

The backlash marks the second time in consecutive years that Dolce & Gabbana has courted controversy in the country. In April last year, the brand started a campaign that featured migrants and sanitation workers. Critics said the label could have featured more stylish people.

Dolce & Gabbana has been the subject of boycotts so often that the company makes T-shirts inviting people to "#Boycott Dolce & Gabbana" with a red heart. It is listed for US$295 on the company's website.

Luxury brands have poured into China in recent years, attracted by its stunning growth and its increasingly affluent population.

In September, Tommy Hilfiger brought its #TommyNow extravaganza to Shanghai; in December, Coach is planning its 15th anniversary pre-fall show in Shanghai's picturesque Bund area, demonstrating that the brands want to cater increasingly to local tastes.

But a corruption crackdown under Xi Jinping, the Communist Party's top leader, has put the brakes on conspicuous consumption, so the brands must be wary of a yawning wealth gap that has developed in China.

Those sensitivities don't stop at China's border. China blocks many foreign stalwarts of the modern Internet, like Facebook, Google, YouTube and Twitter, but that doesn't make those forums safe from Chinese sensitivities.

This year, German carmaker Daimler apologised after its Mercedes-Benz brand quoted the Dalai Lama - whom the Chinese consider a dangerous voice for separatism in Tibet - in an Instagram post. NYTIMES