China Strongarms Coach, Versace, Givenchy into Apologizing for T-Shirts

Luxury brands apologise over China T-shirt blunders
ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

China pressured American luxury clothing brand Coach, Italian designer Versace, and French fashion house Givenchy into apologizing on Monday for selling T-shirts that depicted Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan as countries separate from Communist China. 

Coach issued a public statement that it “respects and supports China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity” and has pulled the shirt from sale around the world. The South China Morning Post reported that the shirts were released in May 2018, but apparently were not spotted and singled out for criticism on Chinese social media until recently. According to the report:

The back of the T-shirt featured a list of cities, with their country names, such as “Tokyo, Japan” and “Milan, Italy”. Both Beijing and Shanghai were named as part of China, but Hong Kong and Macau were listed separately only as “Hong Kong” and “Macau”. Taipei was listed as “Taipei, Taiwan”.

China’s mainland online community criticised Coach and accused the label of supporting Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwanese independence. Online comments accused the brand of “disrespecting China’s national sovereignty” and demanded an apology.

Coach also came under fire for the store locator on its website which listed Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan as three separate countries.

Coach’s Chinese spokesmodel Liu Wen issued a public apology on Monday for not choosing her corporate employers more carefully and announced she was terminating her relationship with Coach because it “hurt the national feelings of the Chinese people” and needed to be “condemned seriously” for its T-shirts and website.

“I apologize to everyone for the damage that I have caused as a result of my less-careful choice of brand!” Liu said.

Coach’s groveling apology described the printing on the T-shirts as a “serious inaccuracy” and assured Chinese customers the company has “reviewed our entire assortment to ensure compliance, and have strengthened our internal product development process to avoid the occurrence of a similar issue in the future.” It further promised to “correct” the store locator on its website immediately.

Italy’s Versace found itself in virtually the same situation at the same time, having sold a range of tops that described other cities as “Milan, Italy” and “New York, USA” but listed the contentious semi-autonomous Chinese cities as “Hong Kong, Hong Kong” and “Macau, Macau.”

Users of China’s Twitter-like social media platform Weibo accused Versace of “supporting Hong Kong and Macau secession,” racking up 400 million views in a matter of days and attracting angry coverage from Chinese state media accusing the Italian company of fomenting sedition in Hong Kong. 

Versace’s “brand ambassador to China,” model and actress Yang Mi, announced she was parting ways with the company because she was “extremely outraged” as a “citizen of the People’s Republic of China.”

“We love China and resolutely respect China’s territorial sovereignty,” Versace said in its “profound apology” on Weibo, only to be excoriated by Chinese users who asked why the company did not publish its apology on Western social media services such as Twitter and Facebook.

Givenchy’s situation was the same as Coach and Versace as the French company promised on Monday to “correct and take immediate precautions against any human negligence and mistakes” for a “World Tour” T-shirt that did not label Hong Kong and Macau as parts of China.

“The Givenchy brand has always respected China’s sovereignty and firmly adhered to the One China principle,” the statement said.

Singer Jackson Yee of the popular Chinese boy band TFBoys announced that he would no longer work with Givenchy due to the controversy.

“We are extremely angry at Givenchy for designing clothing that suspected of damaging China’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity. We have stopped all cooperation with Givenchy. Mr. Yee and his studio resolutely uphold the one-China principle, and adamantly safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Yee’s representatives said on Monday.

“As of Monday afternoon, skincare brand Fresh, sportswear maker Asics, and fashion designer Calvin Klein all apologized on their Chinese social media accounts for similar website design that recognized China-claimed regions as independent countries,” Reuters reported.

Similar incidents occurred in May 2018 when the Gap clothing store was criticized by Chinese internet users for selling a T-shirt that did not include Taiwan, southern Tibet, and disputed islands in the South China Sea on a map of China, and in November 2018 when Italian designer Dolce & Gabbana apologized for a humorous advertisement that showed an Asian woman eating Italian food with chopsticks. In July 2018, major U.S. airlines were pressured into changing website menus that described Taiwan as a separate country from China.

The Chinese communist regime generally distances itself from these protests and describes them as completely spontaneous outbursts of patriotism from Internet users, but international reporters couldn’t help noticing the simultaneous assaults on Coach, Versace, and Givenchy coincided with the ever-escalating Hong Kong political crisis, which has Beijing fulminating about “separatists” working for sinister foreign powers who want to undermine China’s sovereignty.

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