The delicate art of cultural appropriation in design

Do designers have the right to draw from the cultural materials of disadvantaged populations, or is this just another form of colonialism?

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 07:  Model Karlie Kloss walks the runway during the 2012 Victoria's Secret Fashion Show at the Lexington Avenue Armory on November 7, 2012 in New York City.  (Photo by Michael Stewart/FilmMagic)
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There has been a lot of discussion in recent years about the appropriation of material culture by fashion designers – brands using the cultural artefacts, often of an indigenous population, as the inspiration for a collection.

On the surface, it seems innocuous enough. What could be wrong with showing an appreciation of the design elements of another culture? But there’s more to it than that. The problem begins when it’s a big brand using an economically disadvantaged population, rich in material culture, as the means to inspire a collection for commercial sale. There’s a power imbalance in this dynamic, as referenced by Tim Blanks at the Business of Fashion Voices Forum in December, who said “the powerful appropriate the powerless”. The issue is further complicated when the meanings and codes behind the items used are not fully understood, and used in an inappropriate or disrespectful manner.

Designers have been taught they can cherry-pick inspiration from wherever they wish, that the world is a place of diversity and beauty just waiting to be used. This is a dangerous point of departure. The use and misuse of the culture of “others” has been called a number of things: cultural appropriation, cultural misappropriation and design colonialism. Colonialism, which is defined by the Collins English Dictionary as the policy and practise of a power in extending control over weaker peoples or areas, is clearly in alignment with the concept of appropriation.

There have been a number of designers found guilty of it, some historic, some recent, and while it has always been problematic, it has become a major point of contention in recent years. One early example was Yves Saint Laurent’s use of Quranic text in his 1994 collection. The inappropriate use of religious text for commercial purposes resulted in the chief executive making a personal apology to the Farsi Grand Mosque Rector, and the destruction of the dresses.

Victoria's Secret is probably the best known example for its use of the Native American feather headdress, worn by Karlie Kloss on the catwalk of the 2012 fashion extravaganza as an accessory to some of Victoria's Secret's most provocative underwear. The outcry from the Native American community resulted in the brand being forced to remove all images of Kloss wearing the headdress from all media, as well as a public apology.

Another recent example is Isabel Marant’s use of a traditional Mexican blouse design for her spring/summer 2015 collection, resulting in Marant being sued. The community of Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec accused Marant of “committing a plagiarism”, demanding the heritage of the community be recognised and the blouse removed from sale. The incident prompted a national debate on cultural appropriation.

The incident predated an appeal to Guatemala’s High Court, opposing the corporate theft of Mayan textiles, demanding that the government protect them from appropriation. Testifying at a public hearing in the Constitutional Court in Guatemala, Angelina Aspuac of the Women’s Association said: “There is a strong appropriation of our designs and textiles… without respecting… their significance in our communities.”


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Light Years IP was perhaps the first to seek legal protection of indigenous cultural heritage, when a group of Maasai elders decided to create a clear process for licensed use of tribal symbols by commercial enterprises in 2009. No tribal people have been used more for inspiration than the Maasai, with more than 1,000 companies selling a range of products from clothes to cars that use the Maasai name or symbols. Some have even asserted legal ownership by registering the name Maasai as a trademark. Collectively, they make millions of dollars from the sale of those products, all without any knowledge or rights of approval or refusal by the Maasai, a people struggling for land rights and access to clean water.

For every misstep however, there is an ethical and conscious alternative. Brother Vellies is a great example of a brand doing it right. It was founded with the goal of introducing African footwear to the world while sustaining artisanal jobs in Africa. The collection of trendy footwear is handmade in Africa and Morocco with materials sourced from farmers in Kenya and South Africa.

Oskar Metsavaht is a Unesco goodwill ambassador, and the creative director of Brazilian brand Osklen. Metsavaht's spring/summer 2016 collection was inspired by the Ashaninka tribe.  Basing everything from the colours to the materials, prints and silhouettes on the tribe, Metsavaht designed the collection with their blessing. Apart from ensuring that the collection did not use any sacred symbols, royalties went to the tribe and resulted in the building of a school. Now that is how to use cultural appropriation appropriately.

Sass Brown is a fashion designer, researcher, writer and educator. Prior to joining the Dubai Institute of Design and Innovation (DIDI) as founding dean, Brown was the interim dean for the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) School of Art and Design in New York. She is the author of two books on sustainable fashion: Eco Fashion and Refashioned