Italian fashion brand Versace apologized on social media platforms on Sunday after Chinese netizens criticized it for selling clothes that misrepresented Hong Kong and Macao, both special administrative regions of China, as separate countries.
The controversy started when images of a Versace T-shirt and hoodie with a printed design showing Hong Kong and Macao as separate countries began to circulate on Sina Weibo micro blogs over the weekend. The design-a list of cities and countries-listed Beijing and Shanghai as part of China but not the two SARs.
The fashion house first apologized on early Sunday morning on its official Sina Weibo account, which has around 850,000 followers, saying it was sorry for the design mistakes and had removed and destroyed all the offending clothes from its official retail channels since July 24.
"It was our negligence, and we are deeply sorry for the ramifications we caused," it said, adding that "we love China and have resolute respect for its territorial and national sovereignty."
By Sunday afternoon, the Sina Weibo hashtag of the incident had received more than 510 million views on the platform. The apology was also one of the most searched topics of the day on Chinese search engine Baidu, with more than 6.3 million searches.
Donatella Versace, chief creative officer for the brand, said in an online statement in English and Chinese posted on Versace's Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts on Sunday afternoon that she wanted to "personally apologize for such inaccuracy and for any distress that it might have caused".
"I am deeply sorry for the unfortunate recent error that was made by our company," she said. "Never have I wanted to disrespect China's national sovereignty."
Versace has more than 5.3 million followers on Facebook, 4.7 million on Twitter, and 19 million on Instagram.
The "find a store" section of Versace's official website lists Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macao as separate entities to China, under an Asia-Pacific tag.
The studio of top Chinese actress Yang Mi, who has 104.9 million followers on Sina Weibo, said on its Sina Weibo micro blog that Yang terminated a contract signed with Versace in June on Sunday. She was Versace's first Chinese brand ambassador.
"Our company and Ms Yang found online that some clothing designed by Versace was suspected of damaging China's national sovereignty and territorial integrity," the studio said in an online statement. "We, as a company of the People's Republic of China, and Yang, being a citizen of the People's Republic of China, are deeply offended.
"National sovereignty and territorial integrity are sacred and cannot be violated under any circumstances. It is the duty of all Chinese citizens to uphold the one-China principle and adamantly safeguard national unification."
Although Versace has pulled the T-shirt and hoodie from its official retail platforms, they can still be found on fashion e-commerce platforms. Cettire, one such platform, is selling a black Versace hoodie with the misprinted design at a discounted price of $400, down from $500.
Versace is the latest foreign fashion brand to spark fury in China over inappropriate marketing.
In November, Dolce &Gabbana published a series of video advertisements showing a female Chinese model struggling to eat Italian food with chopsticks while a male narrator belittled her effort. The videos were regarded as sexist, condescending and stereotypical at home and abroad, and sparked a boycott of its products.
In 2017, model Gigi Hadid was removed from a Victoria's Secret fashion show in Shanghai after she caused offense by impersonating the Buddha and mocking Asians in an Instagram video.