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Top fashion houses bungle Chinese Zodiac-inspired releases

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With Chinese customers spending big on luxury products comes pressure for the fashion industry to cater to their tastes. But they seem to have failed - and failed hard in this Chinese New Year.

Eager to incorporate traditional Chinese elements into their collections for the lucrative Chinese market, the Year of the Monkey saw many special releases. Sadly, for many Chinese customers, these releases failed to appeal. Most items, if not all, inspired by the Year of the Monkey became fodder of rampant online ridicule.

Brands whose designs were "lost in translation" include Louis Vuitton, Piaget and Nike, all well-respected brands that faced jeers from Chinese Internet users for going against their usually classy style.

Incorporating animal icons in fine jewelry can be tricky. Take Louis Vuitton's newly-unveiled necklaces and bracelets, for example.

Fashion pundits were apparently bemused by the alien-looking monkey motif, which, according to Netease's style section, is "too creepy to look at". The public is not buying the designs either. "You've got to be kidding me. Do monkeys in the real world look like that for them?" A post on WeChat said.

Top fashion houses bungle Chinese Zodiac-inspired releases

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Louis Vuitton has company in facing ridicule. Dior, another French fashion house, didn't manage to incorporate Chinese elements successfully either. Unlike Louis Vuitton's gold chain necklace, Dior's "Diorelita" limited-edition collection opted for red rope, paired with a golden monkey motif. It was not well received either.

When it comes to China-inspired colour choices, designers seem to unanimously go for red and gold, as both are seen as festive and auspicious. Beauty products seem to have gone for this pairing as well. However, is this obvious pairing really the way to Chinese customers' hearts?

Giorgio Armani and Givenchy chose red for their makeup cases. Sporting the Chinese character "fu", meaning bliss, engraved on the front of the compact, Armani's face powder was bright red instead of their usually darker, more exclusive-looking compacts, and winded up rather cheap-looking. "The Armani compact is surprisingly ugly so that I couldn't help vandalizing mine," said a Weibo user.

Sadly, in going for what is traditional and perceived as "popular" in China - red and gold - these beauty products ended up looking common rather than exclusive. Instead of creating Chinese-inspired luxury, they end up cheapening the brand.

For brands grappling with omnipresent knockoffs in China, for example, Nike, taking Chinese culture emblems into their design might actually be counterproductive for anti-fake campaigns.

The US sportswear company's new Air Force 1 model has the Chinese lotus flower on the tongue, while the brand's Chinese translation, Nai Ke, is sewn into the back as Chinese characters. By doing this, the shoemaker put itself in an awkward position.

Its authentic items now bear the same feature as their cheap knockoffs which often have Chinese characters imprinted on leather upper. As one Weibo post put it, loyal customers may risk their reputation because "people would think I wear fakes if I do spend on this collection."

Compared with the negative feedback on new releases in jewelry, beauty products and apparel, the feedback on watches released for the season has been more positive.

Chopard stood out from its fellow Swiss haute jewelers and watchmakers. Its L.U.C XP Urushi watch, featuring a vivid portrayal of a monkey on its face, stays true to the brand's image and style. The painting was supervised and executed by Japanese masters. No wonder it suits Asian aesthetics.

When the online buzz dies down, however, it's time to think calmly and admit that just because Chinese customers voiced frustration online doesn't mean designers didn't put in great effort to understand the culture and appeal to it. Some designers clearly did substantial research before releasing their collections.

For example, Carrera y Carrera released a pair of monkey head rings in white and yellow gold, and the blue-blood jeweler cleverly said that they were inspired by a historical story with a Chinese connection. The rings pay tribute to Isabella of Portugal in the 16th century. The queen was said to have commissioned a Cantonese man from Macao to make a monkey amulet for her.

The idea to give a piece of jewelry a historical lineage is beautiful, but the product still didn't live up to expectations. Many said the monkey face on the ring looks amusing, but not in way that would convince them to buy it.

With due respect to the designers, this is where aesthetics again failed to transcend East-West culture barriers.

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