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French Fashion Brand Sparks Social Media Firestorm With 'No Chinese' Rule [Updated]

Posted by Abe Sauer on October 1, 2012 10:06 AM

One of the most famous landmarks of colonial era Shanghai was a sign that hung in The Bund park reading "No Dogs and Chinese." That sign never existed, although the urban legend persists because such rules did exist. Now, nearly 100 years later, with Chinese consumers growing more powerful every year, a luxury fashion designer has opened old wounds with a statement so colonially racist it would be comfortable on the streets of the French Concession circa 1921.

In a statement to WWD, the founder of high-end fashioner Zadig & Voltaire said that its new boutique hotel slated to open on the Left Bank in Paris in 2014 "won’t be open to Chinese tourists." Outrageous, for sure. But does the sentiment reveal an uncomfortable relationship between the world's haute fashion houses and their nouveau riche Chinese patrons? Just a week after D&G needed to explain its "Moorish" earrings, Thierry Gillier, fashion brand Zadig + Voltaire's founder, told WWD of the brand's new Paris hotel:

“It will be a slightly private hotel, not open to everybody, with 40 rooms. We are going to select guests. It won’t be open to Chinese tourists, for example. There is a lot of demand in Paris — many people are looking for quiet with a certain privacy.”

Through the weekend the story lit up Chinese social media networks including Weibo. Needless to say, reactions were swift and scathing.

Some Chinese microbloggers wondered if any Chinese consumers even know the French brand, the suggestion being that maybe the damage would not be that great. But in a way, this is the worst possible reality for Zadig & Voltaire, a brand whose name derives from Voltaire's book Zadig ou la Destinée and whose philosophy is to create a "specific distribution network."

It's not that Zadig & Voltaire doesn't want Chinese customers — after all, it sells its ready-to-wear fashion in Asia, with stores in Hong Kong's tony Pacific Place mall and Singapore's Marina Bay Sands hotel and casino, a favorite vacation spot for China's high rollers. It just doesn't want them coming to Paris and bringing down the tone of its flagship brand, it seems.

Furthering the scandal is the fact that fashion digest WWD appears to have covered up the faux pas by changing Gillier's quote to instead read "busloads of tourists." The Style Bistro blog has the damning screenshot.

Gillier is right about one thing — there is a lot of demand in Paris and a lot of that demand is coming from Chinese tourists. Last year, France received more than 900,000 Chinese tourists, making it Europe's most popular travel target for the Chinese. The country expects that by 2020 that number will reach nearly 4 million. Paris is the top spot for these tourists who are practically driving the luxury industry. It is estimated that Chinese tourists spent $72 billion on luxury goods last year, a staggering increase from $54 billion in 2010.

Like other high-end French brands, Gillier is also concerned about the French government's plan to introduce a temporary levy of 75% on annual revenue exceeding 1 million euros — a disincentive for France's wealthy to open their pocketbooks. “If the other countries do that then, you know, it’s okay, but if we are the only one it’s very stupid,” said Gillier to the Wall Street Journal. He added that he isn’t currently considering moving the company’s headquarters out of France, because he’s taking things "day by day." Still, it begs the question, Why shun Chinese consumers?

Across the English Channel, London is strategizing on how to lure Chinese tourists, including new laws to ease immigration restrictions. And England isn't alone, with neighbors like Denmark also angling to cash in on China's tourism boom.

This trend is here to stay. Financial service group CLSA Asia-Pacific Markets projects that by the end of the decade the Chinese will be the largest consumer group for luxury products, accounting for 44 percent of the world's total. This means the highest names in French luxury — from Louis Vuitton to, yes, Zadig & Voltaire — will have bottom lines propped up by China.

This current and future market trend makes Gillier's inflammatory remarks more interesting when one reads between the lines. The relationship between luxury fashion brands and their new benefactors may not be a two-way street of respect, with brands like Zadig & Voltaire clearly somewhat resentful of the new reality. It's no secret that Chinese luxury consumers are considered mindless nouveau riche by some brands, "tastelessly" buying every luxury product in sight.

"Fashionable buyers have youth, money and rotten taste" read the headline of a China Daily report last year. That same year, founder of the magazine Privateluxy, Le Yaohui, told the South China Morning Post, "Chinese rich people are not discerning when it comes to consuming luxury products. Many have no idea what luxury is about. Cost and foreign brands are their only standards."

It's not surprising that designers who consider themselves preeminent artists might then resent patrons that were not buying out of true artistic appreciation. Zadig's Gillier is not the first designer to slag off the Chinese consumer. In February 2011, Jean Touitou, the man behind brand A.P.C., set the bar for designer resentment with his anti-China rant:

"You go there and you get so depressed. There's no culture, nothing. The streets are ugly and people do not know how to dress themselves. You go to India and you find all these inspiring people to look at. You go to China and want to kill yourself. That's not very nice to say but those people are taking over the resources of the planet and we cannot do or say anything because they have all the cash."

So A.P.C. is an acronym for Anti-Paying Chinese, evidently. This idea that the mainland's luxury consumers are a group of vulgar, uncultured and unsophisticated fat wallets dovetails with recent polling on sentiment toward China. In a 2012 BBC survey measuring China's influence, France ranked highest of any European country in terms of anti-China feelings with 49 percent of respondents saying China's global influence was negative. It just so happens that, with conglomerates like LVMH Moët Hennessy • Louis Vuitton S.A calling it home, France happens to be the global HQ of luxury. Such racist attitudes aren't doing much to change the stereotype of French rudeness and snootiness, of course.

Avery Booker, editor of Jing Daily which covers the China luxury marketplace, acknowledges "simmering discomfort" but is not fully convinced that the broader industry truly cares. Booker told brandchannel, "After all, we are in the era of online shopping and flash sales, where exclusivity has plummeted in the West as well." He adds, "From the China angle, not only can brands not afford to deride this consumer class, they've already gone through similar readjustments before, most notably in the 1970s-80s when 'busloads' of Japanese tourist-shoppers were wiping out stores in Paris or Fifth Avenue."

While this is a good cautionary tale for other brands, especially French luxury ones, it's unclear yet whether or not Zadig & Voltaire's misstep could cost it a future in the future's biggest luxury market. The fact that the brand has yet to release a statement of any kind is a bad sign as word spreads. As one luxury fashion blogger Bag Snob® tweeted, "I (along w/all Chinese) am not welcome at Zadig et Voltaire hotels, so I'll stop shopping there."

Bag Snob® has 64,189 Twitter followers.

By the way, the "No Dogs and Chinese" sign is not the only untrue Chinese urban legend; so is the saying that the Chinese word for "crisis" contains the word for "opportunity." Shanghai, however, has been known as "Paris of the East" — but if Zadig & Voltaire has its way, Paris will miss out on becoming the "Shanghai of the West."

UPDATE: Zadig's Gillier has apologized for his remarks, releasing a statement on Oct. 4th: "My remarks were doubtless clumsy... I understand they might have hurt my friends from China, France or elsewhere, and I am deeply sorry for that."

[Top picture via Weibo]


Sascha Matuszak People's Republic of China says:

I live in China and I agree that the streets are ugly and most people can't dress nice. It also strikes me as anti-productive to slag off your best customers. But on second thought, Zadig is getting more press than ever because of this and if you consider what they are trying to promote - a 40 room boutique experience for the last remaining non-Chinese rich people out there - then they've done a great job.

How many older, white rich people are going to call that hotel up and say, "thank you for having the courage to say what we all feel. I'd like to book a room."

October 2, 2012 01:36 AM #

Wendy United Kingdom says:

Ur comment makes u sound very childish, if u hate those streets and people so much, then u better bug off, back to ur " beautiful " mother land! What r u doing in that country? Begging them to give u a business so u can live on?!

October 2, 2012 04:12 PM #

John Dol People's Republic of China says:

Kid, ur mom is calling you for dinner !

October 3, 2012 07:11 AM #

Tina Dee United States says:

I'm incredibly appalled at this.

October 2, 2012 02:13 AM #

Simon United States says:

This has echoes of the Cristal debacle when that French champagne brand publicly snubbed rappers who had propelled the brand to great popularity. The result for Cristal were significant losses as their brand quickly dropped from being the market leader to being brand non grata in many of the most popular clubs around the world. Zadig + Voltaire are not the first nor will they be the last dog that bites the hand that feeds it. Chinese nouveux riche, however, can be a particularly aggressively nationalistic group, so expect blowback against not just Z + V but many other French brands in general, who will probably be publicly distancing themselves from or denouncing the Z + V position in order to appease angry Chinese consumers. Making such racist policies, regardless of how you 'justify' it, is simply stupid as hell in this modern day and age.

October 2, 2012 10:09 AM #

n United Kingdom says:

we don't even give you a fuck,  and you think too much of yourself.

October 2, 2012 04:21 PM #

John Dol People's Republic of China says:

Good, why dont we all stay in the Middle Kingdom and enjoy the movie !

October 3, 2012 07:13 AM #

J ARMSTRONG United Kingdom says:

what a idiot...

October 2, 2012 08:39 PM #

Gay_Chevara People's Republic of China says:

All done for publicity, of which they will get tons.

October 2, 2012 09:12 PM #

Shirley United Kingdom says:

What a stupid nation!! You think you are better than UK. That's the most ridiculous joke I have ever heard. idiot idiot idiot besides arrogance

October 2, 2012 09:26 PM #

John Dol People's Republic of China says:

Ah ... yes.

Can I watch my TV now ?

October 3, 2012 07:14 AM #

SAND People's Republic of China says:

for a 40 rooms' tiny 'hotel', of course it can not meet the requirements of any Chinese tourist groups.

and if I am a super rich non-Chinese tourist, am I willing to share the hotel with 40 other people? The answer is NO.

but yet, a very successful promotion I have to say.

October 3, 2012 01:54 AM #

London_reader United Kingdom says:

The Daily Mail (or Daily Fail as we call it) tabloid picked up your piece, and if you thought the comments are bad above, read on....


October 3, 2012 11:12 AM #

Shrug France says:

All of this seems to me so obviously blown out of proportions... Nowadays in Paris when people think about Chinese tourists they conjure up bus tours with dozens of people dressed in red or yellow and waving little flags. He was obviously thinking about those when he mentionned "Chinese tourists" (at a different time he could have said Dutch or Japanese tourists...). Sure, this plays on national stereotypes about tourists (but who doesn't have them really?), but to call it racist... Even assuming he was anti-Chinese, how dumb would he have to be to mention it boldly in a public interview and while promoting his hotel? And would the paper have printed it?
It seems to me people acting all outraged about this are really disingenuous or haven't given this any thought. And to assume the change brought by the paper is a "cover-up" and not a correction such as happens every day in every newspaper just shows how eager you are to throw the first stone...

October 5, 2012 05:44 AM #

GeorgieM Australia says:

I am in Shanghai right now, my 6th visit in as many years. I obviously enjoy Shanghai (and China in general).

I do see some improvements in Shanghai. Things like spitting in public - not so evident today. Annoying and silly behaviour like passengers rushing into train carriages - still happens but it is better today.

But other habits die hard. Things like people shouting or at least speaking very loudly. This is perhaps the major reason behind this hotel's outrageous stance. But I still recall when Americans were very loud and boorish - the ugly Americans. Or my countrymen who are still very loud today especially when they are outside Australia. Or Indians. Chinese do not have the monopoly on loud and boorish behaviour. But they certainly seem to hold the record for talking the loudest.

But I do believe there is a positive to this silly affair. This will perhaps make them aware that they need to change certain behaviour - talking softer for instance. And also to make them realise that money does not equate sophistication. Money can't buy you class.

October 5, 2012 07:44 PM #

Comments are closed

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