By RaiAnn Bu
As a celebration of Lunar New Year, Italian luxury fashion house Bottega Veneta covered part of the Great Wall of China in a digital installation of their brand name and the Mandarin New Year’s greeting, “新春快乐.” The brand paired their signature green with the lucky color of the new year: a tiger orange. Along with this art installment, the brand has pledged a donation to the maintenance and reconstruction of the segment of the wall titled the “First Pass Under Heaven.”
Upon first seeing this installation, it appeared insulting. An advertising logo covering a historical landmark with great cultural, historical and spiritual significance under the guise of celebrating Chinese culture seemed so culturally insensitive. The Great Wall represents the history and strength of China, taking hundreds of thousands of lives to buildcc, with some bodies still instilled into the wall. The wall stands as a monument to the war and conflict that arose while unifying China and the military power required to build such a large monument. Branding such a monument is a bastardization of the history and culture, reducing a diverse country and its complex past to fit the perspective and creative vision of a Western company trying to market to a stereotyped “mystical East.” To see people applauding this installation demonstrates the monolithic lens through which Westerners see Asia, viewing China and the Great Wall as the best representation of a much larger, even more culturally diverse population of countries that celebrate the holiday: from China to South Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines, Mongolia, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Though Bottega Veneta alone is not representative of the luxury market or markets as a whole, this misrepresentation of the Asian community has been a repeated fault of Western corporations’ cultural insensitivity. In 2018, Dolce & Gabbana released an ad representing an Asian model attempting, in a cartoonish foolishness, to eat pizza, spaghetti and cannoli with chopsticks. The inclusion of Lunar New Year into a broader cultural atmosphere does not erase the heavy xenophobia still present in many of the European countries in which these brands are based. Cultural insensitivity in marketing toward Chinese audiences is directly tied to the objectification of Chinese power; in the name of diversity, companies such as Disney and Marvel create lazy renditions of Asian representation to profit off of the rising buying power in China. Why are these advertisements predominantly aimed towards China rather than other countries who celebrate Lunar New Year? Largely because China has the largest buying power among them, making it the country with the greatest economic incentive.
However, there are conflicting opinions on this installation, each with their own valid points. Asian Americans may be more skeptical of these advertisements for cross-cultural connection because of the history of ridicule and generalization of Asian culture in the West. On the other hand, some mainland Chinese citizens — possibly lacking some of the strong experiences of racial animosity one could face in the West — may choose to celebrate, less cynically, the recognition of Lunar New Year, seeing it as cultural appreciation in the form of mainstream representation and praise of their culture. To fully discount the recent inclusivity of Asians and their cultures into the mainstream as purely economically driven would be unfair, as cultural competency has increased along with interest in Asian cultures. These representations, though perhaps rudimentary, have the potential to share the richness of the diverse cultures of Asia.
Many other brands have released capsule collections with the incoming Year of the Tiger, creatively transforming signature silhouettes to include tiger stripes, patches and the lucky red color. Those born in the Year of the Tiger can commemorate their lucky animal with a well loved piece of fashion with a bit of personalization. For example, Alessandro Michele’s Gucci harmonizes pleasantly with the playfulness and vibrance of the optimism for the new year, releasing signature scarves, knits and shoes adorned with the dominant animal, the tiger. As much as the brand is problematic, Bottega Veneta’s variations on the theme of the new year with their leather goods collection do stand out for their minimalistic yet elegant inclusion of the holiday with iconic silhouettes. Most eye-catching is the orange edition of the previous year’s “it” bag, their cassette bag, along with the orange edition of the Arco bag.
The reality is that these fashion brands are still companies in search of profit, and installations like this can be performative and hollow. These campaigns should be viewed critically to dissect true motives, but it is still a vague step in the direction of inclusivity and representation.