Cultural appropriation is, without question, one of fashion’s most contentious topics right now. Although this issue has caused tremendous controversies in the past, it continues to show up season after season; Marc Jacobs recently came under fire for styling white models in dreadlocks for his Spring/Summer 2017 collection. Offense was taken mostly because neither Jacobs nor the stylists credited black culture or Rastafarianism as a source of inspiration, in coupling with the predominantly white casting. So how can designers avoid such a problem, without totalling isolating themselves from other cultural influences? In my belief, designers can draw inspiration from cultural heritage by, essentially, properly crediting or contributing back to the communities they influenced their collections from, effectively creating an exchange of permissions and a progressive dialogue.
Another recent happening of uncredited cultural appropriation is the Marant vs. Mixe case, when French designer Isabel Marant's Spring/Summer 2015 Étoile collection portrayed Mixe tribal influences. She originally described the collection as “tribal without being too literal.” However, several pieces shared extreme similarities with embroidery that traditionally originates from the Mixe group, an indigenous peoples living in the Santa Maria de Tlahuitoltepec municipality in Oaxaca, a southern state of Mexico. They have been around for hundreds of years, and have an official district where they maintain their traditions, including having their own Mixe language and garment trade. Initially, Marant did not credit the group as her inspiration. The Mixe people noticed, and accused the designer of committing plagiarism. Later on, she claimed that the designs were “inspired” by them. Later on, another label called Antik Batik tried to claim the copyright to the design, and accused Marant of copying them. A French court finally ruled that Batik could not copyright the print because Oaxaca’s congress declared the Mixe community’s traditional designs and language as Intangible Cultural Heritage per UNESCO guidelines. The status is not legally binding, but it is protected, meaning that Mixe craftsmanship should have sovereignty.
The Marant case raised many eyebrows, and provoked outcry on social media; the hashtag #miblusadetlahui ("my Tlahui blouse") went viral on Twitter. Marant received serious criticism, and she had to remove the garment from sales.
Unfortunately, the history of cultural appropriation in fashion is extensive, from fast fashion retailers, to luxury brands. To name a few, in 2012, the Navajo Nation sued Urban Outfitters for using the word “Navajo” on several of its products; the indigenous group possesses trademarks in the use of their name. That year, Victoria’s Secret also had to apologize for styling model Karlie Kloss in a Native-American inspired feathered headdress and lingerie in their annual 'fashion show.' More recently, Valentino’s SS16 “Africa-inspired” collection was controversial due to race misrepresentation; the show was inspired by Africa, yet, most of the models were white. Show notes also described the collection as 'primitive' and referenced stereotypical imagery of Afrian culture. Although Valentino ultimately failed to sensitively do so, the brand's intention was to engage with global cultural influences. This is why designers should be very careful - even though their intentions are harmless, every action has its consequences, especially in an industry as significant as fashion. And yet in spite of cultural appropriation's long (and painful) history, fashion industry leaders continue to imitate cultural symbols without consent. And this is where the debate of inspiration vs. plagiarism comes.
There is a very thin line between these two. In order to honour without outright appropriating, ideally, designers should contribute back to where they are taking their designs from and ask for permission to do so. Crediting goes hand-in-hand with this, as well as trying to accurately represent the specific culture. To all of those who argue this is “unrealistic,” it is very much possible and it has been done. Oskar Metsavaht, Brazilian founder and Creative Director of sportswear label Osklen dropped an SS16 collection inspired by the designs of the Asháninka community, found in the Amazon forest. Metsavaht asked for permission to use their prints and fabrics, and in return, he paid the group. The Asháninka people benefitted greatly from the money, and made improvements within their community, like building a school. Osklen’s collection presented at both New York and Sao Paolo Fashion Week.
Valentino also collaborated with Métis artist Christi Belcourt for their Resort 2016 collection, engaging in effective cultural exchange instead of appropriation. Belcourt was reluctant at first, being aware of the fashion industry’s proclivity for cultural appropriation and misrepresentation of indigenous influences, but agreed, helping to produce a collection that was accurate and respectful to her indigenous heritage. The billion-dollar brand involved the Métis community in their design process, giving them the opportunity to use fashion to amplify their voice and culture, versus assimilating it.
Cultural appropriation in fashion has a rich history, and insiders have continued to expose it. Nevertheless, public opinion is still divided. Some argue that there is not an issue here, arguing cultural heritage should not be protected and should be shared across our common humanity. But, innately, plagiarizing a community’s traditional designs and profiting off of them is deeply complex and oftentimes detrimental, especially when many of these indigenous groups are often marginalized by the majority. Considering the Marant vs. Mixe case, indigenous groups in Mexico suffer significantly from issues such as discrimination by the majority population. Subsequently, Marant, who could have done things sensitively since the beginning and give this community a voice, came to 'rip off' their traditional prints in order sell them at a high profit.
The fashion industry should definitely take a stand when designers opt to produce collections that reference borrowed cultural symbolism. Did you find deep inspiration from a specific traditional print? Involve the group that created it. You like the way that a certain culture’s 'trend' looks? Represent it accurately on the runway and most importantly, understand the wider social implications.