An anonymous model tells the story of Dolce & Gabbana’s cancelled Shanghai spectacle
On the morning of what was supposed to be Dolce & Gabbana’s Great Show in Shanghai, around 300 semi-nude models huddled together on a giant gold stage, their feet decked in flip-flops, the angular curves of clavicles sometimes visible underneath their black-silk dressing gowns. I was one of them. The runway included three catwalks that forked between a giant letter D and a giant letter G, connected in the centre by a glittering golden heart. We were set to walk a dizzying pattern, tracing the lines of the letters, pausing at the apex of their curlicues. We were to do this while avoiding Chinese acrobats and dancers, confetti and smoke machines, and during the finale, something ominously referred to as cold fireworks. The director for the show was already losing her voice. As she barked orders through a headset it wasn’t clear whether it was static or her cracking vocal cords that made it so hard to hear her. Backstage, a Chinese dragon curled lazily on the floor, its tongue lolling out to the side of its mouth as if it had already had enough.
We’d rehearsed until nearly 2am the night before, and had been here for around two hours already this morning. It was a Wednesday, a light drizzle pattering outside. We had walked the runway once in our flip-flops, the stage still covered in a thin plastic sheet to prevent scuff marks. It was technically the dress rehearsal, but we’d been asked to change out of the clothes we’d arrived in, so it felt more like an undressed rehearsal. We were hustled out to change our shoes at some point. Shoes changed, we trooped back onstage. The girls teetered in bedazzled high-heels; the guys in a mixture of loafers, sports shoes with knee-high socks and dress shoes worn sockless. We were all still in our dressing gowns. I was wearing a pair of black leather shoes with giant golden Swarovski crystals embedded on every surface. I looked like a bipedal disco ball.
We lined up for a run-through of the finale. Amongst the models there were a bunch of influencers (or KOLs – key opinion leaders as they’re referred to in Asia) and celebrities who hadn’t changed into dressing gowns. They stood conspicuously; a pair of singers from the Philippines; a Chinese male supermodel wearing dark glasses; the scion of a Malaysian billionaire; a smattering of Chinese bloggers with Weibo followings larger than most European nations; Chinese-millennial clients of the brand who have bought their way into the show through their big spending; and Lucky Blue Smith, wearing a tatty hoody and a beige flat-clap, and looking so uninterested in the scene before him that his eyes seemed to have glazed over.
In the centre of the golden heart stood the director. Around her the production crew fanned out, dressed all in black. Off the side of the stage construction workers fussed with curtains and snaked wires across linoleum floors, cameramen set up equipment, and behind them dancers limbered themselves up and worked through their routines. A troupe of dragon dancers in red costumes sat in a row, their heads bowed, each of them staring into their mobile phones.
The show was certainly great, if nothing else but in terms of scale. I heard offhandedly that there were over a thousand people involved in putting it together; not including the 360 people who were set to walk in it. As one of the production crew would later note in a post on Wechat, the Chinese social media app, if they had only dealt with each of the walkers individually for a minute that would have amounted to at least six hours of work in and of itself. Instead, they’d had to cast them, book them, in many cases fly them in from various corners of the world, deal with the petty demands of well-chiseled egos, and then assign an outfit to them, fit it (which for some of the KOLs meant fairly extensive re-tailoring), arrange hair and make-up, and then funnel them onto this stage; to stand under these lights, to speak to them in two languages and all this – all of it – to make them disappear, for just the briefest of moments, beneath layers of finery.
All of this, in other words, for us to walk in clothes.
And so it is, standing on a glittering golden heart, that I watch a murmur spread through the KOLs. The one behind me – a rich Chinese guy, who, despite being roughly my age, has had significant botox and other cosmetic procedures which limit his facial range – receives a text. His eyebrows twitch, his eyes flash (but the areas where crows-feet could be stay intensely rigid) and he calls over three of his friends. They stare at the phone. The fuck do we do? they say to each other in as many words. I peek over, and I see they’re looking at Instagram, at the now infamous screenshots from @diet_prada showing DMs in which Stefano Gabbana uses five shit emojis to refer to China and talks about people eating dogs.
“They stare at the phone. The fuck do we do? they say to each other in as many words. I peek over, and I see they’re looking at Instagram, at the now infamous screenshots from @diet_prada showing DMs in which Stefano Gabbana uses five shit emojis to refer to China and talks about people eating dogs”
“Do you think it’s real?” One of them asks. No-one answers him. They keep looking at the phone, lost in their own worlds for a moment. Then one of them walks over to the Chinese supermodel in the sunglasses and shows him the phone. He lifts his glasses and looks at it. I notice the other three KOLs quietly walk off the stage. The model with the sunglasses puts them back on and he too quietly leaves. I watch as slowly but surely all of the people who aren’t in dressing gowns melt away.
I don’t think the director notices at first. The KOLs and celebrities had had a later call time than the models, and most of them had been late on top of that, so we had gotten used to not having them around. But then she calls out some numbers (we each have a little tag with our number in the show colour-coordinated with our section) and notices that people are missing. She walks around looking at us, in our dressing gowns, and tries to find out what is going on. She sends her production team scurrying for answers. The gentle rhythm of the day – the prolonged waiting and bursts of action that typify a day in the life of a model – is broken. What started with a murmur now appears to be a skipped beat. At this moment, standing on the perimeter edge of the glittering golden heart, I don’t yet know it will prove to be fatal.
The director tells us to go and take a break while she figures out what is going on. The KOLs still haven’t rematerialised and I go and sit on a packing crate backstage. I’m reading an article on my phone, kicking my bedazzled heels against the edge of the box. The dancers are still rehearsing their routines in little retinues and I pause every now and then to watch some Chinese acrobats.
By this point, it is maybe one in the afternoon. I spot a model I’d spoken to the night before, a Parisian boy with beautiful hair, and I flag him over. “What a mess,” he says to me in French, “the Chinese are leaving now.” I look around and notice that I can’t see any Chinese models. We get up and walk together to the catering area. I see a few Chinese models in the hallways, but they’re in tight groups and they all seem deep in conversation, their voices so hushed I don’t even bother to try and catch fragments of what they’re saying to each other.
Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana are no strangers to controversy. Mr Gabbana regularly calls out celebrities on Instagram, calling the Kardashians “the cheapest family ever,” Selena Gomez “so ugly”, and the Italian blogger Chiara Ferragni’s Dior couture wedding dress “cheap” (it’s clearly a theme). They have long-standing beef with @diet_prada. They sold a shoe called the ‘slave sandal’. They released their own #boycottD&G t-shirts, sold for $295, to mock people trying to boycott their brand for being worn by Melania Trump with their support. (Singer Raury also staged a protest on the runway, after being invited to walk the show). Dolce also publicly claimed that children born via IVF are ‘synthetic babies’ – which led to a temporary celebrity boycott of the brand – and, despite being gay (having been a couple themselves) they have argued on numerous occasions against gay marriage and the right for gay couples to adopt children. When backed into a corner and forced to release a statement, they did so with a shrug. Our views are ‘traditional’ they said.
A few nights before the show I touched down in Shanghai and had dinner with a Chinese friend. He pulled out his phone and loaded Instagram when I told him what I was in town for, and showed me the videos on D&G’s Instagram account. I watched a Chinese model, dressed in cliché chinoiserie, a pair of chopsticks in hand, failing to eat Italian food while a presenter fires off in rapid Mandarin. At one point she can’t lift a giant cannelloni with her chopsticks – “maybe it’s too big for you?” the voice-over says – the misogynistic grace of the locker-room slightly muted by the chintzy Chinese soundtrack and the way the presenter had mispronounced the names Dolce and Gabbana just a few moments ago.
“Are you going to walk?” my friend asked me. I watched the videos again and said they were definitely questionable, but that I probably would. It was a big show for me, a good opportunity, and I thought that amongst all their other bullshit, this was actually relatively minor. I said that I thought the videos were particularly tone deaf, especially considering the other controversies that brands have had in China recently. He nodded, “they’re playing edge-ball,” he said, using a Chinese phrase coined by netizens to refer to things that go right up to the line in terms of acceptability.
Last year, Victoria’s Secret hosted one of their biggest shows ever in Shanghai, in the Mercedes-Benz Arena, just one building over from where Dolce planned to host its own. They too had controversies; Katy Perry and Gigi Hadid both were not present, rumoured to have failed last minute to get visas issued; respectively for wearing a sunflower dress in a concert in Taiwan (this is allegedly a symbol for Taiwanese independence) and for a post on Instagram which seemed to make fun of Asian eyes. More generally, it was unclear exactly what part of VS’s hypersexualised marketing accorded itself to the ‘core socialist values’ that the Chinese leadership likes to talk about in speeches and in propaganda campaigns. The show did go on, with tickets being sold on the resale markets for tens of thousands of USD, and a cascade of think pieces in the West questioning the symbolism of lingerie models in the age of Harvey Weinstein. In China, a country covered in posters talking about the ‘great rejuvenation of the Chinese people’, netizens focused on Ming Xi, the Chinese model who fell while walking but managed to dust herself off with a smile.
Balenciaga also caused a stir on the Chinese internet twice this year, first by outsourcing production of its Triple-S shoe from Italy to China without informing customers – or readjusting the price – and then with an incident in a Parisian store in which security was alleged to have roughed up a pair of Chinese shoppers after an argument over line-cutting. They were, as it happens, queuing up to buy Triple Ss.
Plenty of celebrities are also believed to be banned from China. For example: Elton John for dedicating a show to Ai Weiwei, Lady Gaga for meeting the Dalai Lama and Björk for shouting “Tibet, Tibet” during a concert.
The point is that China is sensitive to perceived slights. Given that I know all of this, I didn’t necessarily think those Instagram videos were racist. I thought they were clearly in poor taste – an outdated orientalism that looked cheap and sad rather than actively intended to offend – and more importantly that they reflected a pretty severe lapse in understanding the market they were trying to cater to. Maybe in the future, this whole sorry event will be seen as a turning point in which people come to a deeper understanding of the ways that breezy western hubris can be used to fan the flames of Chinese nationalism. Or maybe it won’t.
What do I know? I’m just a model.
As the day goes on, bookers for the Chinese models start turning up and shepherding their models out. I watch them leave in little troupes. Mostar, a local agency, takes all 24 of its models out of the show. Stefano Gabbana lamely backtracks, posting screenshots of the DMs from @diet_prada covered in bold red type with the words NOT ME. On my Wechat account, I see bookers from Chinese agencies posting pictures of their models dressed in looks from the show with the same words over them. “I love my China” one of the bookers writes, noting that none of her models will be walking.
The Chinese models that remain are told they can walk if they want but risk their bookings from Chinese brands who’ll want to distance themselves from this as much as possible. I can hear them agonising over what to do. A few of the girls are crying on the phone to their bookers, others are wondering what is worse; losing this show and their first shot at international recognition or being accused of being a traitor to the country that made them.
The western models are less fazed. It’s fake, a lot of them say, referring to Gabbana’s post, surely no-one is that stupid. It doesn’t matter/we can still do the show/I just want my pictures/I don’t even work in China anyway/etc. One group of models debates whether they can do the show and just do the outfits the Chinese models would have worn. When I say that they’d be walking to an empty auditorium one of them laughs. “I don’t care,” he says, “once I’ve walked, I’ll run into the seats and clap for my friends.”
“A few of the girls are crying on the phone to their bookers, others are wondering what is worse; losing this show and their first shot at international recognition or being accused of being a traitor to the country that made them”
A few months ago, I was in New York at Dolce’s four-day ‘Alta Moda’ couture event. They rented out the New York public library, the Rainbow Room, and the Metropolitan Opera house. Clients from all over the world descended on the city. One night I sat next to a Mexican actress and her suitor, one of Mexico’s biggest venture capitalists, and we left together in her armored car surrounded by bodyguards – she turned out to be the President of Mexico’s step-daughter. The next night I saw Jamie Foxx at the entrance to the Met Opera, an assistant arranging his bow-tie and holding an MCM bag with speakers in it. He wanted to have his own entrance music.
Haute couture was, as of the late 90s and early 00s, a dying segment of the overall fashion industry. D&G has been one of the brands driving its revival (although, as it’s made in Milan rather than France, D&G’s couture isn’t technically recognised as such). At the heart of their business model has been the ability to connect the ultra-wealthy from far-flung corners of the globe, bring them together in elaborate islands of fantasy – be they chateaus on Lake Como or the stage of the Met Opera in New York – and create a permissive environment in which luxuriating in the trappings of obscene wealth is not seen as gauche. It then injects into these environments clothes of such gaudy impossibility and outsized opulence that they can only be worn in that world.
Dolce has also been smart at leveraging influencers and targeting millennial kids with multi-millionaire parents and offering them the chance to be in their shows (both to reward their substantial shopping, but also presumably on the tacit agreement that they will then siphon money back into the brand by continuing to spend money). The customer base is therefore more integrated at the highest level than perhaps in any other brand.
I remember at the event in New York being sat on a table with a girl who had brought a personal photographer as her plus one for the event. She was head to toe in Dolce and despite being in her early twenties had been one of their highest paying customers that year. She sat there alone, glancing at her phone, occasionally dropping it to wave over a passing socialite or another influencer. Her photographer would click away some shots and then they’d move on and she’d be left alone again. She’d go back to her Instagram and update a faceless multitude of tens of thousands about all the fun she was having. The photographer would fumble around with settings and she’d stare deeper into her phone, the dull glow of the screen twinkling in the crystals of her tiara.
If you live by the sword, you die by it. Dolce had been instrumental in promoting the careers of some of these Chinese KOLs, but they were the first to leave the show. In a contest between loyalty to a brand of Italian racists and the risk of offending their Chinese fans and risking the ire of the Chinese government, there was no choice. Some of them had apparently already received their fee in advance for being there, and for the ones who had paid their way into the show through shopping, it was a drop in the ocean of their shoreless wealth; nothing more than an archipelago in their overall closets. There’d be other events for other brands.
It’s a few hours since the KOLs have left and I have by now also seen most of the Chinese models leave, watching as a number of them go in tears. Sitting with the foreign models in the catering room and listening to them go back and forth over whether or not they themselves should walk in the show – the overwhelming sentiment is that they believe they should – I have already decided that I won’t. I stay to watch the thing crumble from the inside, though I take no pleasure in it. Part of me is, on some level, gutted. This would have been my biggest show.
But as I sit and I listen to the models looking at @diet_prada, desperately trying to connect VPNs to cross-check what they’re seeing against Stefano’s Instagram, dissecting timelines and trying to work out whether or not he actually sent that message, I’m struck with this horrible moment of clarity. We’re not talking about the racism anymore, we’re just trying to work out what is real. I feel like this must be what it’s like to work in the White House; to watch the endeavors of thousands of well-meaning people torpedoed by a single message.
“Sitting with the foreign models and listening to them go back and forth over whether or not they themselves should walk in the show, I have already decided that I won’t. I stay to watch the thing crumble from the inside”
The whole thing is hyperreal – booking the largest cast of Chinese models ever to walk a fashion show, probably paying tens of thousands of dollars to court Chinese celebrities to sit in the front row, and then producing a questionable video campaign based on racial stereotypes and calling the country you purport to love a nation of dog-eaters and shit emojis. It is, I think to myself, Trumpian fashion for the Trump era.
And as I am thinking these thoughts, a producer walks in and quietly puts out a message amongst the foreign models that anyone who doesn’t have a proper visa should get their things and leave immediately; the police are coming to shut this thing down now.
I grab my things and leave. The police coming wasn’t that surprising to me; there was no way they’d have risked a massive protest outside the venue had the thing gone on. Already D&G is trending on Weibo nationwide. It will be the most talked about thing on the Chinese internet for the next two days. I see dozens of foreign models heading for the exit; the Shanghainese government had been shut down for ten days prior to the show because China’s Core Leader Xi Jinping had visited the city for the Import expo so a lot of visas weren’t issued in time. A lot of foreign models work in China without proper papers anyway.
Later in the day, I will see a post by one of the production crew. She talks about how in a few hours, once the police have called the show off, detaining the remaining models to check their papers and then forcing them onto a bus back to their hotel, and she is all alone, how she will go out into the smoking area. Everything is quiet; the first moment of quiet she has heard in days. She says she can hear the Huangpu river flowing in the distance; “Oh,” she writes, “I never knew history could be made so quietly.”
When I leave, I don’t hear the river. I hear the burbling hum of models huddled together outside debating what to do, and I hear the sound of wheelie-suitcases on concrete and, intermingled, I suppose these sounds could be riverine. I see the rain gracing the cheek of a crying model and the two liquids flowing together. I pull the hood up on my jacket and head towards the subway.
My friend, the beautiful-haired boy from Paris who stays, updates me throughout the day. He’s there when the police arrive. He tells me that his agency isn’t sure he will be paid for the show. The next day, he will tell me that some models wake up to find out they have been cancelled for other jobs in China, as brands seek to distance themselves from D&G entirely. On the Chinese internet, Dolce’s Taobao and Tmall shops will disappear offline. It is estimated the brand will have lost €36mn that day alone. A meme, Dead & Gone, spreads throughout the Chinese internet. Some enterprising kid sells screen-grabs of Stefano’s Instagram as phone covers on Taobao for 37yuan.
I watch this all unfurl around me but the whole time I can’t shake a single image. The night before the show I had walked out onto the stage for the first time and I’d traced the perimeter of the golden glittering heart and I’d stepped through its centre – pierced its very aorta – and walked out to the tip of the stage and paused. A producer held up two fingers, then one and then bid me on. I stared up into the rows and rows of empty seats and thought to myself how nice it would be to see them filled.
Dazed reached out to Dolce & Gabbana to confirm facts, including whether proper visas were obtained for models. At the time of publishing, we had not heard back.