Adding to the turmoil rocking the city of Hong Kong from pro-democracy protests, western fashion brands are coming under fire in China for designs perceived to run afoul of local political sensitivities. The uproar has sparked calls for boycotts in a market that accounts for a third of global luxury demand.
Less than 24 hours after Versace apologized for t-shirts that were accused of defying the One-China Policy, American fashion label Coach and French luxury house Givenchy are facing a backlash from Chinese consumers for similar faux pas.
Calls grew on Chinese social media for boycotts of Tapestry Inc.-owned Coach and LVMH’s Givenchy after pictures circulated online of t-shirts sold by both brands with designs suggesting Hong Kong and Taiwan are countries, rather than cities. Coach’s brand ambassador, Chinese supermodel Liu Wen, said Monday on the Weibo platform that she would terminate her relationship with the brand for “seriously hurting the Chinese people’s feelings.”
Givenchy’s t-shirt, which is being sold for 3,990 yuan ($565) on the Chinese website of luxury e-commerce platform FarFetch, features a list of cities and their corresponding countries. Hong Kong is listed as both a city and country, while Taipei’s corresponding country is listed as Taiwan. Coach’s T-shirt was similar.
Coach said on its Weibo account on Monday that the t-shirts were pulled from sale in May 2018 after the mistake was identified and said that it is “deeply sorry for the emotional harm caused to consumers.” Representatives for LVMH and for Givenchy did not immediately respond to requests for comment; Jackson Yee, a boyband star who’s an ambassador for Givenchy’s beauty line, said he was terminating his contract with the French label.
Hong Kong protests, t-shirt apologies
The t-shirt backlash comes as China steps up its response to months-long anti-Beijing, pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. The city is part of China, just like the gambling enclave of Macau. In 1997, Hong Kong reverted to Chinese sovereignty after 156 years of British rule. China reclaimed Macau in 1999, after being controlled for 442 years by Portugal.
Responding to its t-shirt slight, Versace apologized on Sunday for a “wrong design" where Hong Kong and Macau were listed as countries. Versace's China brand ambassador, actress Yang Mi, also ended her cooperation with the Italian fashion house, which were removed from sale July 24 and destroyed.
Mi, known for films like Eternal Love and the Tiny Times series, said the Versace t-shirts had harmed China’s sovereign and territorial integrity. Designer Donatella Versace apologized in a post on Instagram on Sunday for an “unfortunate error.”
Outrage over the t-shirts is reminiscent of then president-elect Donald Trump's gaffe three years ago, and the subsequent uproar, when he telephoned Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen. In doing so, Trump broke nearly four decades of diplomatic protocol between the U.S. and China of no direct communication between a U.S. president and Taiwanese leaders. This has been in place since the U.S.’s move in 1979 to recognize Beijing as the sole government of China. Since 1949, the island of Taiwan has been governed independently of China.
Previous cultural slights
The fracas surrounding the t-shirts shows how easy it is for foreign companies to fall afoul of local sensibilities in China, where the government censors web and media content and consumers can be increasingly nationalistic, especially online.
An advertisement from Dolce & Gabbana last year showing a Chinese model struggling to eat spaghetti and pizza with chopsticks sparked outrage and a boycott of the luxury fashion retailer’s goods. In April, Leica Camera AG quickly distanced itself from a promotional video bearing the camera maker’s name that prompted a backlash against the company in China for partially focusing on the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests.
With both Tapestry and LVMH increasingly focused on China to drive growth, the t-shirt incidents are likely to add to growing concern about western luxury brands’ ability to navigate the huge market. Chinese consumers are estimated to account for at least a third of current luxury sales and two-thirds of the industry’s growth, according to figures from consultancy Bain & Co.
Meanwhile, demonstrations in Hong Kong that started as a protest against a law allowing extraditions to China have entered their 10th week. Companies have been caught in between, with shares of Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. falling on Monday after China’s civil aviation authority demanded the airline bar employees who supported the protests from flying to the mainland.
More must-read stories from Fortune:
—Sales are so common—are they meaningless?
—Over 1,000 new craft breweries have opened in the past year
—Victoria’s Secret hires its first trans model
—Has mezcal become too big for its own good?
—Listen to our audio briefing, Fortune 500 Daily
Follow Fortune on Flipboard to stay up-to-date on the latest news and analysis.