Turban by Poiret, from ‘Les choses de Paul Poiret’ by Georges Lepape, 1911
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Globally Connected: when a fashion production inspired by another culture is not respectful

One of the most common mistakes made by fashion houses when using specific traits from another culture to which they do not belong, is the non-admission

Fashion system flaws and errors

One of the most common mistakes made by fashion houses when using specific traits from another culture to which they do not belong, is the non-admission. This involves not declaring the use of this tradition and not being grateful to the culture itself for this borrowing; but it also often coincides with a lack of agreement and collaboration with the people who own the tradition, who see their know-how taken away through a remake of the original creation. Several big luxury brands have been penalized by this misuse.

One of the most recent examples is Isabel Marant. In 2020, she was contacted directly by the Mexican Cultural Minister, Alejandra Frausto Guerrero, who accused her of having used decorative motifs from the culture of Mexican natives without having requested permission, whilst earning profit from their activities. In the past, visionaries and innovators such as Paul Poiret or Madeline Vionnet, were remembered for having given exposure to the influences of Africa, Japan, India and America within their creations.

Contemporary brands such as Dolce&Gabbana, Jean Paul Gaultier and Donna Karan, have never given credit for the work of African artisans who without a doubt receive less success and recognition than their collections. An episode also remembered Gucci’s production of a turban, a traditional clothing item traditionally used by the Sikh community. The uninformed usage and disproportionate price of this religious and cultural symbol, often a reason for discrimination for those who wear it, offended the communities that expressed their dissent against the brand, which in this case did not take action or issue an apology.

Definition and studies of cultural appropriation

The definition given by Oxford Reference on the phenomenon of cultural appropriation is as follows: «A term used to describe the taking over of creative or artistic forms, themes, or practices by one cultural group from another. It is in general used to describe Western appropriations of non‐Western or non‐white forms and carries connotations of exploitation and dominance». At the end of the twentieth century, the term cultural appropriation was used to refer to Western colonization. Kenneth Coutts‐Smith was one of the first to discuss this issue.

The original meaning was connected to the concept that appropriation was done primarily by the dominant class, a theme analyzed by Marx’s philosophy. This was derived from a sort of caricature, particularly damaging the African American community, of the population and its attitudes, the culture and traditions. The fashion system has always been inspired by the ideation and production of clothing, an evident example being the street style phenomenon.

Commercial trade started as the exchange of materials, but also traditions among different countries and cultures. There is a limit between the celebration and the exploitation of another culture to create garments and collections, something which has been passed by fashion houses several times. The respectful usage of inspiration would almost certainly include the involvement and attestation of the use of a certain distinctive feature, embroidery, design or fabric of the culture to which the collection refers to and approaches.

Roots of the problem starting from the kimono appropriation

Cultural appropriation, or culture borrowing, is not a new phenomenon. Yuniya Kawamura, sociologist and researcher, recalls that this act was first defined through the fascination which the West had with Eastern ideas, particularly Japanese culture. This was commonly seen with paintings and designs. The adoption of anything foreign was a status symbol in the past. As Simmel explains in his studies of 1906 about fashion, it gave the perception of belonging to the higher culture, a manner which started with export and commerce spreading.

«The kimono garment and geisha style are very different from fashion Western clothing: if you look at the silhouette it uses strict line, if you put on a table it is really flat and became tridimensional when a person wears it, and then you cut pieces into rectangular shapes and stitch them together and it becomes a kimono, so the structure seem very simple but the way in which it should be worn is complex», explains Kawamura. The design is also keen to popular themes such as cherry blossom or chrysanthemums, something which is taken advantage of by many designers and couturiers.

Fans and accessories are part of the Geisha style, with the kimono being a traditional uniform. The fascination of this form of expression by the West can be noticed by the presence of different exhibitions dedicated to the theme. Kawamura talks about different examples of cultural appropriation from previous years: in the Diversity issue of Vogue 2017, model Karlie Kloss is dressed like a Geisha, wearing a kimono and having a hairdo which follows this particular tradition.

Kawamura explains that this act is similar to the phenomenon of black face: a white model used to pretend to behave like a Geisha. In 2007, John Galliano used Geisha style in the designing of the Dior Haute Couture collection. Even if at that time there was no awareness of cultural appropriation being an issue, it represents a clear example, Kawamura states. Discussing the lingerie collection, she states how in this case it reduces Japanese culture to a stereotype of exotic sexuality.

A look from Gucci’s Fall 2018 show. Photography Imaxtree

Legal frameworks and regulations

Manon Baur, a lawyer specializing in the field of fashion, states in one of her articles that it is ke to consider the existence of legal frameworks that are in place which could be useful in the fight against cultural appropriation. «These legal instruments range from national intellectual property statutes (on copyright or trademarks, for example) to specific acts on the protection of indigenous art and traditional expressions. In addition, there are multiple local or international declarations that reaffirm the existence of indigenous rights over their arts and crafts», explains Baur.

She recalls that in practice, since cultural appropriation is a heterogeneous phenomenon that must be evaluated on the basis of its ethical, historical, social and moral components, the law in recent years has not been sufficient. «In the past 20 years, only very few cultural appropriation cases have ended up in court (although those that have shown promising results, in terms of damages or injunctions granted). In fact, even if some disputes are resolved confidentially, the vast majority seem to make headlines before falling into oblivion, rendering too many indigenous tribes and communities invisible once again».

Legal fees are often unaffordable for distressed communities who need to defend themselves against disrespectful attacks from fashion houses. This is why there is a tendency to call attention to it publicly so that the brand reacts and corrects its behaviors. As effective as focusing attention on misbehavior can be, it has no ability to create an effective ethical and supportive environment, and often results in a recall of the offending items from the market.

For this reason, the growing focus on a creative and inclusive process is being overseen by new figures working within the company to foster a culturally ethical environment and production, Baur reasons, avoiding the appropriation phenomenon a priori. «All things considered, in order to exchange ideas and keep inspiring one another, which is one of the tenets of a modern multicultural society and of the fashion industry, cultures should always be respected. Although the law can help, indigenizing our legal systems or westernizing theirs will never be sufficient», states Baur.

Lampoon reporting: cultural appropriation in the fashion sector

The phenomenon of cultural appropriation is not the sole element which demonstrates how much the fashion industry is lacking is in terms of cultural awareness. This concept becomes fundamental for working within an intercultural team and therefore for marketing the products abroad without denigrating a different culture. An example which happened a few years ago was the Dolce&Gabbana commercial created for the Chinese market, which generated various controversies and a collapse in the popularity of the brand in the Asian community.

What is acceptable or unacceptable depends on who you are addressing and in which context the images of a determinate culture are used, explains Kawamura. «All these debates and discussions that we are hearing coming out of the industry is now expanding to the general public, to the consumer level», states Kawamura. A paper formulated by researcher, Benedetta Morsiani, focuses on the representations of the Congolese race and ethnicity in London, challenging ideas of cultural appropriation through the commodity culture of  the headwrap.

In concluding the paper, the term cultural appropriation is understood, described as a bilateral act of ‘creative borrowing’ from both the West and the non-West. The paper argues that the commodity culture of the headwrap, in this case used as an example, represents a material process through which the racial and ethnic boundaries that define Black/African/Congolese cultures are transcended, fostering a transcultural phenomenon. Clothing and dresses are part of specific identities, a fact which is the first point that needs to be clear when creating something inspired by another culture: understanding and respecting the history behind it.

The Globally Connected program

Produced by the Fashion Institute of Technology, it consists of a series of virtual discussions led by students, faculty and alumni to promote global education. Topics covered include fashion, art, sustainability, racial equity and living during a global pandemic.

Chiara Narciso

The writer does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article.

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check and buy on Prototipo Store
item collections in limited edition
crafted according to our editorial search

Hemp / made in Italy
Lampoon is working to restore
Hemp production in Italy
as hemp is the one and only
natural vegetal fiber sourceable in the country
for more info, please email us at [email protected]

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