High-end fashion appropriates indigenous communities
Luxury brands continue to generate controversy for appropriating the culture of indigenous communities, reducing designs and symbols that have significant socio-cultural significance to mere fashion statements. Experts weigh in on this debate with TRT World.
It’s one thing for fashion brands to draw inspiration from different cultures, but appropriating or plagiarizing designs can have legal and ethical consequences around the world.
Just last week, Ralph Lauren apologized after Beatriz Gutierrez Muller, wife of the Mexican president, accused the luxury clothing brand of plagiarizing indigenous designs by Contla and Saltillo.
“I hope you compensate for the damage done to the home communities who do this work with love and without profit,” she said, calling the use of indigenous designs “illegal and immoral.”
But that’s nothing new because “Ralph Lauren’s entire empire was built on appropriation,” says Sariah Park, an artist of indigenous descent. World TRT.
Cultural appropriation is copying or misrepresenting another culture and profiting from it. It is considered a form of erasure which often means that Indigenous designers were not credited, consulted or compensated in the creation of a garment.
And this “cultural theft” from Indigenous communities has been going on “since first contact” in the United States, according to Park.
“In fashion, this manifests when designers and brands use cultural traditions of dress and expression, ways of knowing and being, symbolic techniques, sacred practices and meaningful iconography,” she says. “And then they exploit these practices for profit.”
While this form of appropriation isn’t new, Park says seeing Muller use his platform to speak out against the injustice of cultural appropriation is.
“Often, cultural appropriation is not seen as a significant or issue worth fighting for, but cultural theft has real and serious consequences that affect Indigenous communities around the world every day,” Park adds.
The Mexican government has filed similar complaints against Chinese fashion retailer Shein, French Louis Vuitton, Venezuelan designer Carolina Herrera, Spanish Zara and US retailer Anthopologie.
Traditional Native clothing — along with practices, languages, ceremonies, and dances — was banned in the United States from the 1830s until 1978, when the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed.
So when fashion brands appropriate Indigenous culture, they may overlook the painful historical traumas suffered by these communities, continue to reinforce stereotypes about them, or contribute to oppression.
This is usually due to a lack of understanding of these cultures, says Shanti Amalanathan, a luxury retail expert with more than 15 years of experience at Hermès. World TRT.
“Luxury fashion brands have long appropriated indigenous designs and don’t really understand the historical and cultural significance of the designs, nor their significance and values to cultural communities,” says Amalanathan.
“These communities have passed down designs from generations that can take weeks, months, years to create. By appropriating them, the brand is disrespecting these communities and saying ‘you can have the privilege of having me represented'” , she adds.
And there are countless examples of this, like a Victoria’s Secret fashion show in 2012 where angels paraded to represent the holidays.
One depicted Thanksgiving with Indigenous headgear and leopard-print lingerie, outraging communities who said the outfit glorified the genocide of Indigenous peoples.
“This fashion show shows how the history of Thanksgiving has been misinterpreted and that misinterpretation is so ingrained in our culture at a very young age,” Amalanathan said.
“Brands don’t represent multiple facets of history, they just create fantasies, and fantasies don’t represent the reality of our lives.”
Another example of cultural appropriation that was “particularly egregious” for Park and his own cultural heritage was Nicholas K’s 2014 Spring/Summer collection, titled “Apache Shamanistic Journey.”
“Using an Indigenous community as inspiration in this way, as a trope to plunder and plagiarize, or even to go so far as to draw inspiration from traditional ceremonies and sacred practices for one’s own benefit, is beyond hurtful,” says Park.
Trendy and relevant
Park and Amalanathan teach at several institutes, including the Parsons School of Design in New York, with classes that explore Indigenous fashion and fashion business.
“Perhaps if more fashion designers were educated beyond the Eurocentric lens of fashion history, they could understand why cultural appropriation is so harmful,” Park says of her course.
Echo Malleo, a 31-year-old master’s candidate at Kent State University’s School of Fashion, is writing her thesis on museum exhibits of Indigenous clothing and fashions.
She says World TRT that taking patterns and symbols from Indigenous artwork and using them out of context is a common example of appropriation she’s observed, but sometimes brands even combine styles from different Indigenous groups into one piece of clothing.
“There are hundreds of different Indigenous communities in the United States, but when brands make their designs their own, they often don’t recognize this diversity,” says Malleo.
“When brands admit something is ‘natively inspired’, they often use the descriptor ‘native’ rather than associating it with a specific community.”
Amalanathan thinks this happens because “brands work in silos and try too hard to be relevant, diverse and inclusive, they lose sight of the big picture of brand image and what they want. represent for their consumer”.
“You just have to put a label on it to seem relevant. Often they can’t properly credit or market the design because they don’t understand it. But today’s consumer is moving away from mainstream social cultural ideas for more authentic and relevant products and marketing,” she says.
So how can brands meet the evolving diversity needs of their consumers without outright offending marginalized communities?
Ownership vs Appreciation
Cultural intellectual property lawyer Monica Boța Moisin coined “The Three Cs Rules of Consent, Credit, and Indemnification,” which Amalanathan says would be an appropriate way to appreciate cultural conceptions without appropriating them.
“Whether it’s luxury fashion or fast fashion brands like H&M or Zara, they have major bargaining power in the industry, so they need to use their voice to drive change,” says Amalanathan.
“By collaborating, partnering and acknowledging these cultural communities, you are giving a voice to designers who may not have the means to do it themselves and to marginalized communities.”
Park also expresses this sentiment, saying that “cultural appreciation would be about supporting Indigenous designers and working directly with Indigenous communities to support and preserve Indigenous crafts and knowledge.”
Emerging Indigenous fashion designers are asserting their voices and breaking long-held stereotypes that Indigenous fashion is not frozen in the past. They take ownership of their designers rather than let a luxury fashion brand do it.
“If a buyer is interested in certain styles or designs, but doesn’t want to buy from brands that have appropriated Indigenous communities, they can buy directly from Indigenous designers. There are so many when you start looking online,” says Malleo. .
Source: World TRT