SupChina illustration by Derek Zheng
Canadian athleisure brand Lululemon has upset Chinese consumers after its global art director, Trevor Fleming, promoted a “Bat Fried Rice” shirt on his personal social media account. While Lululemon quickly apologized and fired Fleming, many Chinese internet users have called for a boycott of the apparel retailer.
The controversy started on April 19 when Fleming shared an Instagram post advertising the offending item. Featured on the back of the long-sleeved white T-shirt was a graphic of a Chinese takeout box with two bat wings and the words “No Thank You.” On the front, there was a pair of chopsticks also with bat wings attached. The shirt, called “Bat Fried Rice” and priced at $60, was designed and sold by California-based artist Jess Sluder.
In a now-deleted Instagram post describing the item, Sluder wrote, “Where did COVID-19 come from? Nothing is certain, but we know a bat was involved.”
Almost immediately, criticism of the design and Fleming’s use of social media to promote it spread on the internet. On Twitter and Instagram, under the hashtag #boycottLululemon, the product was denounced as inflaming anti-Asian sentiment during the coronavirus pandemic.
Pictures of the offending item also made their way to the Chinese micro-blogging platform Weibo, where the #lululemon辱华# (#LululemonInsultsChina#) hashtag has hit over 33 million views and generated thousands of posts. “This is blatant racism. Stop selling your stuff here if you have no respect for Chinese customers,” a Weibo user commented.
On April 21, as the backlash intensified, Lululemon responded to an angry customer on Instagram, saying that while the controversial item was not its product, it had fired Fleming because of the offense he caused. “We hold our values at our core and find the image and post inexcusable,” the brand wrote. According to Women’s Wear Daily (WWD), Calvin McDonald, Lululemon’s chief executive officer, shared an internal note with the company’s employees on Monday evening in which he wrote, “I want you to understand that culturally insensitive or discriminatory actions will not be tolerated at any level, in any form, within Lululemon.”
On Weibo, Lululemon issued a similar statement (in Chinese), saying that it strongly opposes any form of racism against Chinese. But for those demanding a public apology on all major social media services, including Twitter and Facebook, they said that Lululemon’s Weibo post was not enough. “It seems like this is a Chinese apology made only for Chinese customers. I’ll be boycotting Lululemon until it releases an English version of it on Twitter,” a Weibo user wrote.