Cultural appropriation has consistently plagued the fashion industry. Year after year, designers look to other cultures for “inspiration,” without actually taking the time to invest in the cultural, political, and historical connotations of those they are inspired by. They sends pieces down the runway that warrant backlash and a public relations clean-up — one that often consists of a tone-deaf apology from the designer and credit to the creator(s)...after the fact. But to describe these faux pas as anything but intentional is lazy.
In her book Art On My Mind: Visual Politics, author, feminist, and social activist bell hooks writes: “Appropriating — taking something for one’s own use — need not be synonymous with exploitation. This is especially true of cultural appropriation. The 'use' one makes of what is appropriated is the crucial factor.” In fashion, this manifests most often with 1) collections inspired by Africa (disregarding the fact that Africa is a continent and its inhabitants do not share one single culture); 2) runways full of only white models in dreadlocks; and 3) using native patterns and weaving techniques acknowledging the people who originated the craft.
If you’re inspired by an African or indigenous tribe — but you can’t name which specific country in Africa or what tribe — should you really be making the garment? For spring 2018, Valentino showed clothing inspired by "wild, tribal Africa," and then proceeded to have a cast of predominantly white models (8 out of 87 were Black women) wearing cornrows. And who can forget DSquared2’s fall 2015 collection inspired by "Canadian Indian tribes," and titled “Squaw” — a derogatory term for Native American women. Since neither are monoliths, why not take the time to get to know the meaning behind your inspiration? Instead, get permission from those communities, provide proper credit, and, most importantly, consider collaboration for compensation.
If you’re inspired by a hair or clothing trend popular within black or brown communities, but hesitate to speak out against police brutality and institutionalized racism — or fail to even cast women of color to walk your show — then you should reconsider what statement you are truly making. In recent years, Marc Jacobs and Givenchy have been struggled with this: For spring '17, the former sent women down the runway with colorful dreadlocks inspired by Lana Wachowski and club kids, without noting their Black culture origins; the latter came under fire for its use of face jewels and baby hairs, oddly dubbed "Chola Victorian." And just this May, Gucci’s menswear show recreated a look from Dapper Dan, a designer who became notorious for his streetwear designs in the '80s after high-fashion brands wouldn’t sell to his Harlem shop; he created his own versions using their logos. The label responded that it was an "homage" to the "legendary tailor" — but only after it received criticism for copying one of his most famous looks.
But, this isn't just about the designers, either. To the journalists and critics who write about these collections: Take care of how you reference fashion and beauty trends. When you call cornrows the new It hairstyle because young white women have started wearing it, you are ignoring how women of color’s perceptions have been altered by that same hairstyle. What has been deemed ‘unprofessional’ or ‘ghetto’ when they wear it, cannot suddenly be ‘chic’ and ‘trendy.’
When it comes to defending cultural appropriation, people often miss what stands at the crux of the issue. In a recent article on Business of Fashion, writer Osman Ahmed argues that fashion needs cultural appropriation because "without the freedom to embrace fantasy, curiosity and interpretation, borders remain closed and the codes of stereotypes remain intact — and what could be more regressive than that?”
The thing is: You can’t actually “walk in someone else’s shoes,” by simply putting on their clothes. No one who calls out designers for cultural appropriation is attempting to kill their creative freedom — they're questioning what expense comes with the erasure of that culture and community. Why should designers be able to borrow the look and ignore the significance? How can you be genuinely inspired by something without fully engaging with the ideals behind it? And at what point does it become fetishization instead of appreciation?
Bottom line: If your inspiration offends the group you’re attempting to ‘appreciate,’ you need to heed the lesson. And the best thing for you to do as a designer, consumer, or editor is to listen, not offer a counter argument. Because if you can’t borrow without consideration, crediting, compensation or collaboration, it’s straight up stealing. And who can really trust a knock-off?