Is Dior's New Chinese Ad Campaign Racist?

It smacks of "Orientalism," but the Chinese artist is defending his work

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Dior's new "Shanghai Dreamers" ad campaign is raising some eyebrows. The images, produced by Chinese artist Quentin Shih, feature row upon row of identical (as in digitally reproduced) Chinese men and women dressed in 1960s and 70s Cultural Revolution garb, and a single strikingly tall Western model dressed in Dior.

Unsurprisingly, some in the blogosphere are crying foul. The images, to them, just seem too reminiscent of "Orientalism" and stereotypes, too flippant with a sensitive period of China's past, and a little too close to imperialist notions of the West bringing culture eastwards. Not everyone, though, agrees. Are the images, in fact, racist? Here's the debate:

  • The Artist Speaks  Shih corresponds with McClatchy's Beijing bureau chief Tom Lasseter. He first says that the images are solely his, supported by Dior, but his idea.

In this series of work, I wanted to express a dialogue between Chinese fashion (60s to 90s) and Western fashion (Dior Haute Couture represents it the most). During that time, China was a country with socialism--people wearing all the same outfits and divided into different groups/identities like workers, students, intellectuals etc. That's the history. ... I don't think the Chinese models are in some way demeaning. The Dior model for me is also a 'model'--I mean she stands there only to represent the clothes, not herself and not a western people.

I was not lucky enough to shoot a Chinese model wearing Dior--if I did I would have put her in my work.

  • 'No, Your Eyes Have Not Deceived You,' writes an irate Jenny Zhang in The Guardian: "the Chinese people in the background literally all look the same." She thinks, whatever Shih's intentions, Dior "should know better than to commission these photographs for their Shanghai storefront" and "should have sent Chinese models for Shih to shoot."
  • Sensitive Subject, Throws Designer-Artist Issues Into Relief  "The visual message makes many queasy," writes Madeleine O'Dea at Artinfo. "They suggest that the Chinese are a featureless mass, while Dior (and the west) represent individuality." She also points out the difficulty in parodying the 1970s in China, which to many is far from funny. Finally, she looks at the way this incident shows the "danger of fashion/art collaborations":
when the products of these collaborations are questioned, it is the artists who find themselves in the firing line, forced to defend their credibility and knowing that at all costs they must never admit they did it for the money.
  • 'Clueless,' Not Racist  At Shanghaiist, Shanghai resident Elaine Chow points out that, from what she's heard from those who have lived through the Cultural Revolution, "smiling, 'plastic' youth pretending to be happy being exactly the same as someone else while one person stands out could be a Shanghai dream." She also suspects the white model was "more just the casually vapid decision made by whomever did the shoot," and the result of the "fashion industry itself basically lik[ing] one type of model," who tends to be "Eastern European." Finally, she adds the perspective of a Shanghai resident:
As an aside, frankly--given the general "harmonization" of Cultural Revolution history and China's own fetishistic use of white models in advertising, I doubt anyone who does go into the Dior store here in Shanghai would have been offended anyway.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.