Victoria’s Secret the latest international brand to rub Chinese consumers the wrong way with ill-conceived Chinese-inspired elements in its designs

By Zhang Xinyuan Source:Global Times Published: 2016/12/12 20:38:39

Chinese viewers cry foul, saying that the 2016 Victoria's Secret Fashion Show's use of Chinese style is superficial and tacky. Photo: Li Hao/GT

Chinese viewers cry foul, saying that the 2016 Victoria's Secret Fashion Show's use of Chinese style is superficial and tacky. Photo: Li Hao/GT

Like many young people in China, 24-year-old Cassiel Xing is a huge fan of Victoria's Secret Fashion Show. She was not only attracted by the models' perfectly shaped bodies but also the extravaganza and the inspiring lingerie and accessory designs featured in the show.

This year, she was even more excited about the show because it included several Chinese models and showcased some Chinese elements.

But when the show opened and she caught sight of famousSwedish model Elsa Hosk wearing a Chinese dragon on her back and a pair of boots with a dragon embroidered on them, she was immediately put off. She barely watched the show to the end, and she didn't post or repost anything related to the show afterward.

"Even though I am a big fan of the show, this year I really had a hard time enjoying it. I didn't find it fantastic and exciting at all. I am almost kind of embarrassed seeing them apply Chinese elements in such a ridiculous and superficial way," Xing said.

"I have never seen a Chinese dragon so ugly and fake. The expression of the dragon is almost like it got choked with a bunch of steamed buns. Is that Victoria's Secret's understanding of Chinese style?"

The fashion show dedicated its opening and the first chapter of its The Road Ahead section to Chinese style. The brand recently opened two stores in Beijing that sell beauty products, accessories and lingerie. The aim is to appeal to Chinese consumers. But rather than a step forward, the Chinese elements in the show might have propelled the brand backward, as Chinese social media did not take too kindly to its depiction of Chinese style.

According to the majority of the people who posted comments online, the designers' understanding of Chinese style is superficial and hard on the eyes.

In recent years, as more big international brands turn their attention to China in the hope of tapping into the world's biggest luxury consumption market, many of them have adopted Chinese styles to appeal to consumers. However, as in the case of Victoria's Secret, most of them have failed to capture the Chinese aesthetic and have alienated some of their potential clients. 

Left: A model wears a Chinese-themed outfit during the 2017 Spring/Summer Milan Fashion Week. Photo: IC

A model wears a Chinese-themed outfit during the 2017 Spring/Summer Milan Fashion Week. Photo: IC


Elsa Hosk wears a dragon accessory during the 2016 Victoria's Secret Fashion Show in the US recently. Photo: IC

Elsa Hosk wears a dragon accessory during the 2016 Victoria's Secret Fashion Show  recently. Photo: IC


A secret better kept to yourself

During and after the fashion show, many Chinese Net users posted sharp criticisms about the depiction of the Chinese aesthetic.

One Net user named "Yejuhua" ridiculed Adriana Lima's dragon-embroidered boots saying, "She looks just like Nezha, (a Chinese mythological figure that wears levitating fire wheels)."

Sia, the co-founder of a branding agency in Beijing, said that it's obvious that Victoria's Secret is trying to apply traditional Chinese elements to their designs to narrow the aesthetic differences between the Western and Chinese cultures and make the brand appealing to both markets. However, the way they used the elements was not in line with the Chinese aesthetic.

"Liu Wen's Chinese-themed outfit contains headgear from the Chinese opera and a cape, and the main colors are red and green. The designers might have thought that the red could represent China, and the green is very elegant, but the two colors are not in harmony. Chinese rarely use that combination," Sia said.

"The Western designers want beauty with a strong visual impact, while Chinese appreciate beauty that's more conservative and in harmony."

The 2016 fashion show included four Chinese models. It was the largest number of Chinese models in the show's history. Chinese supermodels Liu Wen and Xi Mengyao wore Chinese-style outfits. They were not entirely spared from ridicule, but for the most part, the reviews of their performance were good. The Chinese models seem to stick to a standard that went better with the Chinese-themed outfits.

"The Chinese models' facial profile and figure are more gentle and soft, and their facial expressions were more reserved than that of the Western models, so in comparison, they were more suitable for showcasing Chinese-themed outfits," Xing said.

Fashion faux pas

The November 30 debacle wasn't the first time that an international brand tried to impress Chinese consumers by injecting their interpretation of the Chinese aesthetic into their products. It's also not the first time that their attempts backfired.

According to a December 6 report by, in 2015, Armani launched a special edition foundation with a monkey on it for the Chinese market in honor of the Year of the Monkey, and it flopped. Also, jewelry brands, including Dior, have been criticized online for making special jewelry to commemorate the Chinese New Year that looked like aliens. Another popular brand, Burberry, earned the ire of Chinese consumers when it tried to appeal to their taste and culture by embroidering the Chinese word for luck onto its scarves. Chinese consumers scoffed at the attempt, saying that it made the scarf look tacky, cheap and like a knockoff.

Trying to head off the influx of Chinese New Year-inspired goods from Western brands, news portal recently published an online plea begging international brands not to put a rooster on any of their products for the upcoming Year of the Rooster. However, they were too late. The Swedish watch producer Piaget has already put a rooster on the face of one of its watches.

"Piaget was my favorite watch brand. When I saw their new watch with a rooster on it, I almost fainted," said June, a seamstress in Beijing.

The issue it seems is that while it is admirable that international brands make a concerted effort to appeal the Chinese market, the products they put out often come off as tacky or ill-conceived.

 "My impression of Piaget is not as good as before now," said June.

Differing ideas of Chinese style

The gap between the international brands' expectations when they launch their Chinese style products and the response from Chinese consumers is due to differing understandings of what constitutes Chinese style.

Shoe brand Vans also launched an embroidered shoe line in July. The line was well received in the US, but when it made the journey to China, it flopped. Many Chinese customers said that the shoes scared them. They said that when they look at the shoes, they feel they are for the dead or zombies because embroidered shoes are always linked to such things in Chinese movies.

Ji Yueqin, a cheongsam designer in Beijing, said that the concept of Chinese style is very broad and diverse because China has a long history, not to mention that there are many ethnic minority groups. She said most foreign designers only focus on the superficial part, instead of the meaning and history behind the symbols they use. There are many rules associated with Chinese style symbols, such as how the symbol should be arranged, what it means, and where it should be used, she explained.

"Most foreign brands just bluntly put a Chinese element in their design without thoughtful consideration," Ji said.

"Most of them don't really know about Chinese culture and the essence of Chinese style."

However, despite the apparent lack of depth in many of the Chinese-inspired products created by international brands, both Ji and June said that they couldn't entirely blame them for not understanding Chinese style.

According to them, when Chinese customers get something designed in the Chinese style, they often choose designs with obvious cultural symbols on them, such as a Chinese dragon, phoenix or an auspicious cloud.

"Many Chinese customers' understanding of Chinese style is just as superficial: thinking that adding some traditional cultural symbols to a design makes it Chinese style," said June.

Although most foreign brands to date have not mastered how to use the Chinese style in their designs, according to June's observation, there are several brands, like Dolce & Gabbana and Gucci, that are way ahead of the pack in their approach to the Chinese aesthetic.

"The way they use color, the lines, and the Chinese elements are more subtle, in harmony, and in line with the taste of modern Chinese," June said.

She added that, currently, the two most successful applications of the Chinese style in the Chinese market are either a blend of modern style and subtle Chinese element or a traditional Chinese style with a modern color scheme.

"Chinese style is broad and covers many aspects. Designers, whether foreign or domestic, all have a lot to learn about Chinese culture and history, and how to combine them with modern style aesthetics before they could successfully apply the Chinese style," she said.

Newspaper headline: Tasteful or tacky?


blog comments powered by Disqus