Gucci’s PR faux pas in Hong Kong over luxury paper tomb offerings

Italian fashion house trips over its own high-end hems claiming trademark infringement by small stores in the city that sell paper versions of its goods to be burnt at funerals

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 May, 2016, 12:12pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 May, 2016, 4:21pm

Luxury brands are all in a constant struggle against trademark infringement and unscrupulous massive industries of fake goods. Often, it’s brands launching legal offensives against shadowy companies producing fake, cheap versions of their goods and logos, which can be hard as these companies can often disappear and re-emerge under another name. When it happens in a country such as China, where intellectual property laws are vague and fledgling, it can be especially tough.

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Gucci, which has so far enjoyed a blistering period of PR glory since fashion’s golden boy Alessandro Michele took over, has this week fallen into a PR quagmire. News leaked that it sent warning letters about trademark infringement to so-called mom and pop-type stores in Hong Kong selling paper tomb offerings for the dead. The point of contention? The rise in fake paper Gucci accessories sold to be burnt for the dead. Yeah, try not to laugh.

Since Gucci warned the shops not to sell these items violating their brand’s trademark, the store owners subsequently contacted Hong Kong’s local press. As a result of their report, the news has made it around the world via English media – and the Italian fashion house has been made to look quite petty. The symbolism of a global multibillion dollar luxury company “warning” perhaps some of the poorest retailers in the city over items that could not ever be taken for the real thing just seems a little bullying.

In an ironic little side note, one store owner apparently told Apple Daily that she has never bought a luxury bag and didn’t even know that Gucci was a famous brand. Ouch, but doesn’t that just put things into context?

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As for the brand, there is some back-pedalling and explaining to be done. When we reached out to Gucci for comment, it sent this back via email:

“Gucci is committed to protect its intellectual rights and fight against trademark infringement throughout the world. In this instance, we fully respect the funeral context and we trust that the store owners did not have the intention to infringe Gucci’s trademark.

“Thus a letter was sent on an informational basis to let these stores know about the products they were carrying, and by asking them to stop selling those items. There was no suggestion of legal action or compensation.”

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So, for a bit more clarity, that final point is key: Gucci was not in fact threatening legal action or asking for compensation. But even reaching out like this, might seem to the lay person, a little bit overly sensitive and over the top. Especially since this is over items (poorly) made from paper, where the end game is to be burnt shortly after purchase.

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For a bit of context, these paper tomb offerings are symbolically burnt so that the dead can “enjoy” them in the afterlife … these objects came as an extension of the paper “money” and gold painted notes that families such as mine would burn for our ancestors during festivals such as Ching Ming or at funerals. It’s a widely practised Chinese ritual based on traditional beliefs about the afterlife, first established hundreds of years ago.

Only in recent years has there come a rise in hilariously extravagant paper offerings in the shape of modern luxuries. It’s come at a time of China’s sharp economic rise and resulting apex of conspicuous consumption. Thus it’s now common in those Hong Kong specialist stores in Sheung Wan to see paper models of a Lamborghini convertible, the latest iPad or indeed a luxury monogrammed bag from Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Chanel or Hermés. This clearly says more about the living than it does about the dead.

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What should Gucci have done upon finding out about the trend? They could have just ignored it, clocking it up as one of those quirky cultural almost-accidents that will never affect their brand or business. After all, their reaction is what caused this minor PR calamity now spreading around the world. Or they could have taken a leaf out of Stefano Gabbana’s book – he often posts hilarious and unsuccessful copycats of Dolce & Gabbana fashions on his Instagram account, taking humour and delight in a poster advertising dresses under the label “Dolce & Banana” or a bottle of “Dona Gabbanna perfume for Men”.

Maybe Gucci should even be a bit flattered. It’s really only the biggest and oldest luxury brands represented at these paper tomb offering stores. I mean, I don’t see anyone trying to send a Michael Kors tote bag into the afterlife just yet. Apparently, even the dead can be label snobs.

#SoHongKong ­– for more stories about what makes Hong Kong unique, search for this hashtag.