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Luxury labels in hot water over China territorial claims

Inkstone logo Inkstone 13/8/2019 Qin Chen
Liu Wen standing in front of a crowd © Handout

A number of different luxury fashion brands have apologized after coming under fire in mainland China for not explicitly including Hong Kong and other cities as parts of China.

Calvin Klein got in trouble over a pull-down menu on its US website, while Coach, Givenchy and Versace were all in hot water over similar looking tops naming major cities and the countries they're located in.

Liu Wen, one of China's first supermodels, canceled her contract with Coach on Monday, hours after Chinese fans discovered the T-shirt in question and circulated photos of it online.

"At any time, China's sovereignty and territorial integrity are inviolable!" she wrote in a statement circulated on her official Weibo account.

"Because of my negligence, I endorsed a brand that hurt people's feelings. I apologize to everyone. I deeply love my country and vow to protect China's sovereignty!"

The first geographic entry on the Coach T-shirt is "Beijing, China." Lower down, it lists Hong Kong on its own. It also lists Taipei as part of Taiwan.

Over the past year, China has grown increasingly intolerant of any geographic references that deviate from its official line on territorial claims. Chinese authorities have pressured airlines to change their drop-down menus and shredded maps they deemed incorrect.

Hong Kong is part of China, but has a different legal, government and financial system. Beijing does not govern Taiwan, a self-ruled democracy, but it claims the island as its sovereign territory that must eventually be brought under its rule.

Management consultants McKinsey & Company believe that Greater China will, for the first time in centuries, overtake the US as the world's largest fashion market this year.

Luxury brands hoping to make money in the country are under pressure to toe the geographic line.

Coach wasn't actually the first brand to cause a backlash. Its T-shirt gaffe only came to light after Chinese netizens started scouring the internet for examples similar to Versace's.

Over the weekend, the Italian fashion house apologized after photos of its tops suggesting Hong Kong and Macau were separate countries went viral. Like Hong Kong, Macau is a special administrative region of China.

In a statement published on the Twitter-like Weibo, Versace said it had made a mistake in the design and would destroy the offending clothing.

However, its brand ambassador in China, actress Yang Mi, cut ties with the label, saying she was "extremely outraged."

Communist Party mouthpiece People's Daily weighed in with an opinion piece saying that "the whole matter shouldn't be over" because Versace's mistake came at a critical time when Beijing was fighting against "Hong Kong independence."

Over the past two months, anti-government protests have engulfed Hong Kong. The demonstrators have made a number of demands, including calls for greater democracy.

Chinese media have often characterized the protests as calling for independence from China, although that is not one of the demands made by activists. Hong Kong independence is not a mainstream political view.

After the Versace scandal was publicized online, one of Givenchy's T-shirt designs (and also Coach) suffered the same backlash. Chinese teen idol Jackson Yee cut ties with the French label, despite an official apology from the fashion house.

Separately, Calvin Klein apologized for "causing misunderstandings" over the way it labeled Hong Kong and Taiwan on its online pull-down menu.

Japanese sportswear brand Asics was also implicated as part of the online campaign to find companies not heeding China's territorial claims. Like Calvin Klein, it did not list Hong Kong and Taiwan as parts China on a pull-down menu.

He Huifeng contributed to reporting.

This story originally appeared on Inkstone, a daily multimedia digest of China-focused news and features. 

Copyright (c) 2019. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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