Walking the line between Cultural Appropriation and Cultural Appreciation in Fashion
In the fast-moving world of fashion with its constant pressure for new collections, designers of both luxury and high street fashion draw inspiration from everywhere. Many lines will contain more than a nod or two towards another culture, often a minority one. But with increasing awareness around the issue, when does appreciation become appropriation and how can designers and companies ensure that they aren’t accused of appropriation? It’s a fine line, but there are some essential elements that any influencer, celebrity or designer needs to consider when incorporating other cultures into a look, campaign or fashion collection.
Appropriation or Appreciation – What’s the Difference?
At its core, calling out cultural appropriation is intended to protect vulnerable communities from exploitation, both in cultural and financial terms. As top intellectual property lawyer, Safir Anand explains:
“In the world of fashion, appropriation is often when a famous designer or fashion house in the garb of unawareness takes elements from another culture and exploits the same. On the other hand, a culturally sensitive designer/brand acknowledges the heritage behind their designs and duly credits the culture bearer, both financially and otherwise.”
Fashion has traditionally tapped into diverse cultures from around the world for inspiration for its visual designs. But when those elements are ‘borrowed’ or ‘stolen’ from a minority culture without proper recognition, inclusion or compensation for that culture, then this amounts to cultural appropriation by those who exploit them.
How Can Brands and Companies Ensure that they Appreciate and Don’t Appropriate?
With consumers becoming increasingly concerned by the ethics and principles of the businesses they buy from and support, companies and brands need to ensure that they can be trusted in to produce and promote products that don’t involve any cultural appropriation.
Look Inside Before You Look Outside
How do you foster awareness and respect within your business? What are the dynamics of your team? Is there an internal awareness around the issues of inclusion and representation? A team that is diverse and multicultural can go some way towards ensuring that all viewpoints are heard. And if you are planning a campaign or promotion that could be culturally sensitive, consult with representatives of that culture to ensure that their opinions, traditions and practices are taken into account. It’s not just a case of making a token gesture, there needs to be consistency throughout.
Take, for example, the Valentino collection that was supposedly inspired by Africa, but heavily criticised for the lack of African models and the garments that were made in Paris when it came to representing that inspiration on the runway.
Work with Indigenous Artists and Designers.
Much of the backlash against these luxury and mainstream fashion businesses stems from the fact that they display an almost ‘colonial’ attitude towards their use of aesthetics from other cultures, namely by drawing upon them for their own profit while giving virtually nothing back to the communities that have served as their sources of inspiration. As Tatiana Tora, founder of OLT Embera, a website that sells artisanal design items by indigenous cultures from her native Colombia, says, “At least employ the people [from countries like] Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, and Panama and give them your business.”
When native communities are excluded and ignored from the narrative around the very designs and concepts that they have inspired, then businesses are standing on thin ice if they try to claim cultural appreciation and instead leave themselves wide open to consumer wrath and accusations of plagiarism. By ensuring that the indigenous communities are fairly compensated, respected and supported, fashion houses can instead promote sharing and recognition of their artistry. This doesn’t only help to kindle a sense of trust between the fashion companies and indigenous communities, it also positions them as a responsible and trustworthy brand that consumers can rely on.
The Key to a Good Relationship is Communication
The timeworn adage that ‘there’s no such thing as bad publicity’ really doesn’t hold up here. Careers and reputations can de destroyed overnight or at best severely compromised with a clumsy campaign or messaging that isn’t culturally sensitive. In fact, an increasing number of cultural appropriation cases are resulting in legal action – big fashion houses and well known fashion brands have a legal department that can defend against any copyright or plagiarism claims but for independent designers, influencers and celebrities it’s important to make sure that their products, image and messaging are culturally aware from the word go. Working with a culturally aware communication agency will ensure that a brand’s ethos and values are positively represented with sensitivity and insight.
The Future of Cultural Collaboration
While it may seem that few lessons have been learnt, – with Isabel Marant recently making headlines after being accused of cultural appropriation by the Mexican government, these occurrences are being pointed out more often and there are more structures being put into place to help prevent these kinds of instances in the future. The very fact that there is so much more visibility and awareness around cultural appropriation opens up dialogue around the issue and paves the way for real, lasting changes to be made. Many luxury fashion brands have now appointed diversity officers or departments in response to the criticism levied at them in what is seen by many as a new acceptance of, and interest in, their social responsibility. And consumer power is playing an increasingly important part in applying pressure to increase cultural awareness and fairness among fashion companies. With a clear shift towards collaboration, education and cooperation, could fashion finally be moving towards a modus operandi that celebrates and elevates, rather than appropriates, indigenous cultures and communities?
picture : Taylor Hill by FRAZER HARRISON