A Danish fashion brand accused of cultural appropriation over its keffiyeh designs has promised to credit the pattern appropriately, after facing public criticism.
The woven geometric keffiyeh, also known as a ghutra or shemagh, refers to the traditional Arabian headdress often worn by Arab men. It’s also regarded as a symbol of Palestinian nationalism, and solidarity with the Palestinian cause.
So, when a recent tweet drew attention to the fact that a European brand was producing this pattern in silhouettes like dresses, ruffled skirts, shorts and crop tops, without crediting the culture it was derived from, Arabs took to social media to protest.
The designs are by cult Danish label Cecilie Copenhagen – a brand that launched in 2012 after fashion student Cecilie Jorgensen crafted a top out of her mother's keffiyeh scarves. It was an instant hit, and by age 21, she was running a successful fashion brand centered around this historically-rooted textile.
I actually have one of the brand's tops hanging in my wardrobe. It's navy-blue, with a high neck, long sleeves and distinctive keffiyeh pattern, reminiscent of a traditional Arabian headdress. To me, it seemed like a chic marriage of Middle Eastern culture and mainstream style when I bought it six years ago, and I’ve remained a follower of the brand ever since.
Its latest designs had even tempted me into making another purchase, as they feature the keffiyeh pattern in trending shades of lilac and millennial pink, in an array of drop-waist dresses, shorts-and-tee ensembles, and even scrunchies. Now I'm not so sure about it.
In a tweet that has since gone viral, Amman-based graphic designer Rund Al Dwaik, suggested the brand was culturally appropriating Arab culture by using the keffiyeh pattern in its designs.
"It is unacceptable that this person has been capitalizing on these designs for the past 9 years,” tweeted Al Dwaik, before calling on her followers, bloggers and influencers to spread the word and “spam her pages with comments".
In less than 48 hours, there were around 2,000 retweets and 3,000 likes from across the globe, and Cecilie Copenhagen’s Instagram comments were flooded with icons of the Palestinian flag coupled with words like “disgrace” and “cultural theft”.
But the brand doesn't necessarily make the connection between culture and the keffiyeh pattern. On its website, it describes the print as “our handloom signature pattern” – and therein lies the main problem, claim critics.
"The keffiyeh holds many cultural, historical and political connotations to Arabs in general – it has been part of our heritage and ancestry for a very long time," Al Dwaik tells The National.
“In Palestine it has become a symbol of resistance, and when a Western designer with no background on Middle Eastern culture decides to build her entire brand around this print, and use it on items that would be considered inappropriate by many in the Middle East, with no mention of the origins of the print whatsoever, then she is very clearly culturally appropriating us and capitalising on that appropriation.”
Some comments claim that the silhouettes used by the brand are disrespectful, and even offensive – since a pattern symbolising the resilience of an oppressed Muslim community, is being utilised on bikinis and shorts.
While the usage of the keffiyeh doesn’t anger Dubai-based Arab-Mexican fashion designer Safiya Abdallah, she points out that the brand could help improve its narrative.
“I think if brands used their voices, platforms and brand identities to bring awareness to people who are oppressed, it would be different. But when they just use the print, don’t even acknowledge it and just act like they came up with it on their own, that’s when it becomes an issue.”
So, can one culture “own” a pattern or fabric? That is the question at the very heart of the cultural appropriation debate – and are Cecile Copenhagen’s designs instances of cultural appropriation?
“It depends on whether they acknowledge the history of the print and if any Palestinians benefit monetarily from the production of these items,” explains Dr Sofia Rehman, who founded the Islam and Feminism Critical Reading Group in Leeds.
“If not, then in this case not only it is appropriation but would feed into the cultural arm of settler-colonialist objectives of Israel – another attempt at erasing Palestinian heritage, culture and history.”
The brand’s website makes no mention of Palestinians or of charitable initiatives pertaining to Arab communities. But Jorgensen is not the only fashion designer to have been inspired by keffiyeh scarves – they’ve been in and out of fashion for years, with recent versions by Giorgio Armani (Dh950) and Fendi (Dh2,390) selling online on e-commerce website Ounass. Many homegrown brands in the Gulf use the pattern for dresses, beach cover-ups and bags – like Dubai-based Keenbags, for instance, which is known for its beach totes produced from keffiyeh scarves. It has even become a popular textile for designers dabbling in protective fashion face masks amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
But Al Dwaik would argue that this print, loaded with historical significance and suffering, is off-limits to Western brands. “I would urge Cecilie to take responsibility, apologize, educate herself on the origin of the print and its significance for us, and stop calling it her ‘signature print’… she should give credit where credit is due and most importantly stop using the print in any future designs.”
While it’s unlikely that Cecilie Copenhagen will put a halt on production as a result of the comments and messages sent to the brand after Al Dwaik’s tweet, it has since posted an apology on social media:
“Cecilie Copenhagen is deeply sorry for any harm we have caused…we have taken a step back to understand the situation. We acknowledge the keffiyeh’s origins in the Middle East…Cecilie Copenhagen admires the keffiyeh print, so much that we have created designs inspired by the historic pattern in various combinations…going forward, we will credit the keffiyeh pattern on our social platforms…” The brand also added the word “keffiyeh” to its Instagram bio, and #keffiyeh to its recent posts.
Fashion has long appropriated different textiles from across the globe, and with current world events shining light on the longstanding unjust treatment and oppression and of minority groups, brands and businesses are “waking up” to the accountability and responsibility being demanded of them.
“Oppression exists in many different forms, whether be it through aggression or appropriation,” says Al Dwaik. “Minorities are always taken advantage of whenever it suits the more powerful and I think it’s time for us to come together, and say, ‘enough is enough.’”