As China’s become one of the biggest markets in the world over the past decade, international brands — especially fashion and luxury brands — have sought to claim a share of this wealth for themselves. But as their spate of recent, poorly received ad campaigns reveals, the line between winning over Chinese consumers and setting them off is a thin one, and cultural and aesthetic gaps between China and the West can’t be papered over with good intentions.
In early January, the well-known British brand Burberry debuted an ad campaign in honor of the upcoming Lunar New Year holiday. Shot by photographer Ethan James Green, the campaign, which starred the well-known Chinese actresses Zhao Wei and Zhou Dongyu, was meant to invoke the happiness of home. But the resulting photos — which feature a dour, cold-looking family set against an ominous gray backdrop — left netizens feeling more chilled than cheered. Online, some wondered at Green’s ability to make Lunar New Year look like Tomb-Sweeping Day.
A little over a month later, in mid-February, Spanish retailer Zara ran into problems of its own. The company’s latest cosmetics campaign, which starred a freckled Chinese model named Li Jingwen, known professionally as Jing Wen, ignited an online firestorm as netizens debated whether Zara had insulted China with its choice of such an “ugly” model. Public opinion was largely split, with some praising Zara for providing a natural, unaltered representation of Jing Wen’s unique allure, and others criticizing the company for propagating tired Western stereotypes of Asian beauty.
Even Vogue’s American edition has come under fire. On March 3, the magazine’s official Instagram page posted a photo of Gao Qizhen, a Chinese model with narrow, wide-set eyes, delicate eyebrows, and flat facial features who also goes by Tin Gao. The caption praised Gao’s “singular appeal,” but netizens disagreed once again. Almost as soon as the photo hit the internet, they were up in arms, with some decrying the photo’s latent “cultural imperialism,” or complaining that Westerners continue to fixate on one, highly stereotypical type of Asian appearance, to the exclusion of all others.
Top: Burberry’s 2019 campaign. Ethan James Green/IC; Bottom left: A portrait of Chinese model Tin Gao published on Vogue’s Instagram account on March 3, 2019. From the Instagram of voguemagazine; Bottom right: a photo of the freckle-faced Chinese model Li Jingwen from Zara’s February campaign. From Zara’s official website
Western fashion brands and magazines occasionally use models to challenge traditional beauty norms. But to many Chinese, the “beauty” Westerners find in some Chinese faces is grounded in outdated, highly rigid notions of what Asians should look like.
Take, for example, the so-called high-level face — a term for a combination of traits including wide-set eyes, high cheekbones, thick lips, and a square jaw. The word became popular in China as a complimentary, but firmly tongue-in-cheek way of referring to the kinds of Asian faces the Western fashion world tends to highlight.
One reason why netizens are so sensitive to the content of these campaigns is that the West, whether implicitly or explicitly, has a long history of exploiting and exoticizing the bodies and cultures of people of color. Take the backlash against Dolce & Gabbana’s embarrassingly stereotypical video series last year, for example, or the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2015 exhibition “China: Through the Looking Glass,” which traded in what the scholar Edward Said would have identified as Orientalist fantasies. Holland Cotter, an art critic at The New York Times, got it right when he pointed out that the show elided discussions of how fashion perpetuates stereotypes in favor of “harmless surface and shine.”
Yet while we must be mindful of this history, we shouldn’t let the past turn us into oversensitive hyper-nationalists, either. Fashion, as the Met exhibit itself tried to argue, is ill-suited to politics. When it comes to beauty and taste, on the other hand, it stands on much firmer ground.
In a materialistic society like ours, fashion and luxury goods are expected to be more than just typical commodities: They’re meant to stand against all that’s dull, uniform, and boring about our era of mass-produced consumerism. Their combination of scarcity and singularity, as well as their aesthetic flair, speaks to a widespread desire to set oneself apart from the crowd.
To pull this off, luxury brands are always seeking the cutting edge, sometimes in ways that challenge the boundaries of aesthetic expression or our preconceived notions of beauty — and sometimes in ways that overstep them. But by positing that what some might call “ugly” is in fact beautiful, they force us to reconsider otherwise neglected forms of beauty.
It’s a good thing to have our notions of beauty challenged. The fashion world’s emphasis on high-level faces can help expand our definitions of beauty, or even encourage us to rethink our habit of judging people by their appearances alone. And when people accuse Zara or Vogue of using “ugly” models, they, unintentionally or otherwise, put limits on women and equate beauty with outward appearances.
But good intentions shouldn’t exempt brands from criticism, either. Given the immense power fashion companies wield, it’s a shame that, as they seek to broaden the boundaries of beauty, they often end up setting up new limits. For example, their recent obsession with high-level faces has marked these traits as a new standard of beauty. Such standards are always simplistic, however, and ultimately just as hegemonic as any other.
So how should fashion and luxury brands proceed? Consumers have made it clear that they have no interest in Orientalist fantasies, nor can Western companies get away with pleading ignorance anymore. That doesn’t mean their artistic directors have to give up on diversity; it just means that it should come from a place of respect, not authority. Their goal should be to introduce people to as many different types of beauty as possible, not the creation of new, but ultimately equally unattainable and limiting aesthetic ideals.
Translator: Matt Turner; editors: Zhang Bo and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: The actresses Zhao Wei (in black) and Zhou Dongyu (in the red sweater) pose for a 2019 Burberry campaign. Ethan James Green/VCG)