Cultural appropriation: what does it mean and why is it such a sensitive subject?

In light of recent fashion controversies, we take a look at how cultural theft affects the identity and heritage of marginialised groups

FILE - In this Feb. 21, 2018 file photo, models display items from Gucci's women's Fall/Winter 2018-2019 collection, presented during the Milan Fashion Week, in Milan, Italy. The top civil rights organization for Sikhs in the United States says Nordstrom has apologized to the community for selling an $800 turban they found offensive, but they are still waiting to hear from the Gucci brand that designed it, Saturday, May 18, 2019. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni, File)
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Images of a new Louis Vuitton logo-emblazoned keffiyeh stole went viral last week, with Instagram users across the globe quick to point out the scarf's culturally rooted symbolism of Palestinian resistance.

“‘Stole’ is appropriate. Read the room LV. Tone deaf,” commented Dubai fashion influencer Dina Zahran on an image posted by popular fashion watchdog social media account Diet Prada.

The timing, considering the situation in Palestine, is both uncanny and unfortunate, but this certainly isn’t the first time a western brand has come under fire for “copying” a minority culture’s aesthetic.

What is cultural appropriation?

Christian Allaire, author of Power of Style: How Fashion and Beauty are Being Used to Reclaim Cultures, defines it in his book: "Cultural appropriation is when members of one culture adopt elements of another culture without their consent. This happens often in the fashion world: indigenous design motifs have been long copied or replicated by non-indigenous fashion brands, who often misuse traditional elements or ignore a piece's original purpose."

Allaire, who hails from Canada's First Nations Ojibwe tribe, tells The National why cultural appropriation is so dismissive and discriminatory to indigenous communities. "I always feel angered when I see a non-indigenous brand appropriate our culture.

"There are so many authentic artists out there who are thoughtfully carrying on their traditions, and it is so disheartening to see mainstream brands come in and just copy their work,” he says.

“For years, our people were told that our cultural practices were savage or not beautiful, and it is now ironic that so many brands want to replicate what we are creating. It undermines their hard work and knowledge when they take from them and make a cheaper version.”

An age-old controversy

In May, Mexico's Ministry of Culture accused Zara and Anthropologie of using "the collective property" of indigenous Mexican communities, shortly after it blasted Isabel Marant for also exploiting Mexican motifs.

Hermes has sold silk scarves depicting a Native American chief, Tory Burch has designed a sweatshirt suspiciously similar to Portuguese Baja designs – the list goes on.

Shoppers walk past a Zara store at Sambil Shopping Center in Caracas, Venezuela, on Saturday, May 22, 2021. The franchise operator of Zara and two other popular apparel chains will close all of its stores in Venezuela in the next few weeks. Photographer: Manaure Quintero/Bloomberg

“Cultural appropriation has been a mainstay in the fashion industry for decades,” says Reina Lewis, professor of cultural studies at the London College of Fashion.

“For too long I think parts of the fashion industry have treated the term ‘inspiration’ as an alibi. But, there’s increasing public and consumer awareness that it’s not simply OK to take inspiration from fashion and textile traditions without some recognition of or recompense to the communities from which those aesthetics derive.”