Dior, Not Again

Chinese Netizens think Dior is guilty of cultural appropriation once more

Painterly parallel: (left) print on a Dior dress and (right) a Chinese painting by Lu Ji. Photos: Dior and collection.sina.cn respectively

Before the first accusation has died down, before an official statement is released in response to the denunciation, out comes another. Dior is not well placed in China this summer. It could be 流年不利 (liunian buli) or that the year has been inauspicious for Dior. Or, it could be that Chinese consumers have been paying the brand with 眼不转睛 (yanbu zhuanjing) or strict attention. After the controversy of the horse-face skirt, the maison is again criticised by Chinese Netizens for cultural and artistic appropriation. As with the previous drama, which saw Chinese students protest in front of the Dior store in Paris, the brand has not responded. They could be hoping that the furore would eventually die down.

Last week, the first complaint emerged on Weibo, when one Netizen sharing a side-by-side photo of a Dior varsity jacket and a traditional Chinese 花鸟画 (huaniaohua) or flower-and-bird painting, with the garment sporting similar blooms and winged vertebrates, even colours. Others started posting photos of a dress and a trench coat with prints that owe their similarity to Chinese paintings that are evocative of those of 10th century (or later) China. It doesn’t help that the choice of the “beige” fabrics is not dissimilar to (now-aged) Chinese paper or silk on which those paintings were executed.

Full view of the Dior shirt-dress with the Jardin d’Hiver motif. Photo: Dior

The Weibo users who disapprove the Dior motif possibly took offence at the brand describing the “Dior Jardin d’Hiver (winter garden)” as its “signature motif”. On the website, Dior states that the print is “a poetic and exotic representation of Mr Dior’s wall tapestries”. We do not know what the founder of the maison exactly had on his wall, or whether the provenance is Chinese. It is possible that what Mr Dior owned was a work in the style of Chinoiserie (also referred in Chinese as 中国风 [zhongguofeng]), a French word that refers to European interpretation—and also imitation—of Chinese (or Oriental) art, especially decorative art. Of course, something that was installed in a residence does not necessarily become a “signature motif” and with its similarity to Chinese artistic tradition, is not hard to understand that it might be thought of as a “copy”. Similarly, Dior considering its horse-face skirt lookalike a “hallmark silhouette” is provocative when, to the Chinese, it cannot be.

But Jardin d’Hiver as motif and inspiration go as far back as the Marc Bohan years. And the print looks quite different on the Book tote and silk scarves. When we studied the version that appeared on the SGD5,200, beige, cotton gabardine shirt-dress, it was, to us, evocative of paintings by the Ming dynasty painter Lu Ji (呂紀), such as the striking piece titled 秋鷺芙蓉 (qiulu furong or autumn heron and hibiscus). It is probable that Dior will remain mum on this new controversy too since it is, as some observers noted, unlikely that the brand will be affected by a few (and possibly not Dior costumers) who seem determined to “find fault”. But this could be seen as the result of consumers being culturally self-aware, and Dior might serve its image better if it can say that it did not just plonk a motif on a dress to lift it from being a nothing-to-look-at without considering how one of the largest markets for luxury goods would react.

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