In China, Dolce & Gabbana Draws Fire and Accusations of Racism on Social Media

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 abruptly canceled 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.

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 unauthorized 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,” Mr. Gabbana 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 apologize after outrages fostered 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. He has clashed with Elton John after the fashion designer criticized in vitro fertilization, leading the pop star to create a hashtag, #boycottdolcegabbana, in response.

He took on the pop star Miley Cyrus when she commented on Instagram that she disagreed with his politics and those of his partner, Domenico Dolce. “We are Italian and we don’t care about politics and mostly neither about the American one!” he responded on Instagram in a later post. “We make dresses and if you think about doing politics with a post it’s simply ignorant. We don’t need your posts or comments so next time please ignore us!! #boycottdolcegabbana.”

Mr. Gabbana has called the singer Selena Gomez “ugly” and hit back at critics of a sneaker with the phrase “I’m thin & gorgeous” written on the side, posting, “Darling, you prefer to be fat and full of cholesterol??? I think u have a problem.”

Most of the posts with offending comments have since been taken down.

The fashion blogger Bryan Yambao, who blogs under the name BryanBoy and has over 600,000 Instagram followers, expressed skepticism 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,” he said in a message on Wednesday.

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 $295 on the company’s website.

Luxury brands have to be especially careful. They 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, and 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, put a halt to conspicuous consumption, and the brands must remain 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. Earlier this year, the German carmaker Daimler apologized after its Mercedes-Benz brand quoted the Dalai Lama — whom the Chinese consider a dangerous voice for separatism in Tibet — in an Instagram post.

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 jewelry 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 huge for you?”

The ad was meant to play on Italian and Chinese cultural differences. In a previous ad, the woman tried to use chopsticks to eat a pizza. But Chinese viewers who saw the cannoli ad — some overseas and some using special software to circumvent Chinese censors — found it crass and patronizing. They put screenshots online in China, where they quickly found an audience.

When some people on Instagram criticized Dolce & Gabbana and Mr. 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 appeared to imply that Chinese people ate 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.

In China, some internet users were unimpressed with the company’s apology.

“Do you think Chinese people are three-year-olds?” an Instagram user, Elainee_Hu, wrote in a comment that was liked 691 times. “We don’t need your apology. Please take your clothes and your brand and leave China.”

By Wednesday afternoon, the controversy was the most-talked-about topic on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter. The hashtags #DGgreatshowcanceled, #DGdesigner and #DGofficial response were trending on the website.

The backlash marks the second time in more than a year that Dolce & Gabbana has courted controversy in the country.

In April 2017, the brand started a campaign that featured migrants and sanitation workers. Critics said the label could have featured more stylish people.

Vanessa Friedman and Matthew Schneier contributed reporting. Claire Fu and Zoe Mou contributed research.

Sui-Lee Wee has been a correspondent for The New York Times in the Beijing bureau since October 2016. She covers business in China, Chinese consumers, health care and the intersection of demographics and the economy. @suilee

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