This is a sensitive subject that generates two strong camps of opinions. Cultural appropriation has called into question some designers’ creative decisions.
For a few weeks, I have been thinking a lot about the issue of cultural appropriation, for two reasons. First, regarding the recent launch of Kendall Jenner’s 818 tequila and her ad campaign. Secondly, because of our Haute Couture history classes, in which we learned how Saint Laurent was inspired by Asian cultures to create some of his most important and successful collections.
The problem of cultural appropriation has always existed, but in recent years more cases have been brought to light due to a greater sense of awareness among viewers. Previously, people found it difficult to make these types of connections, but today, we have greater access to information, thanks to the Internet.
In his first collections, Yves Saint Laurent sought inspiration in India and China; we can see this influence is his famous Opium perfume. And, today, we see designers like Alessandro Michele at Gucci using turbans inspired by Sikh culture (Fall 2018) or jackets inspired by the designs of Dapper Dan (Cruise 2018). We can also call to mind those Valentino catwalks in which models wore African-style braids in September 15 or the models in the Marc Jacobs Spring 17 show that wore dreadlocks.
Appropriation or Inspiration?
Cultural appropriation is pretty deeply-rooted in the fashion industry. Many will argue that their work is not culturally appropriative but instead a tribute to the cultures that gave inspiration for it. They say that it is impossible to not be inspired by others when creating, which is inherent in the process of any designer.
This type of thinking views cultural appropriation as something natural in the industry—the idea that in such a globalized world it is inevitable that we will reference pre-existing designs, and that, if we consider it appropriative to do so, we could end up limiting creativity and stalling the evolution of fashion.
Respect and credit
On the other hand, there are people who will say, it’s not about what inspires you from other cultures, it’s about how you decide to use it. “Collaboration is a good thing, but the most important thing is to respect communities,” said Senator Susana Harp, one of the most avid defenders of the movement against appropriation in Mexico, in an interview with El Economista.
It is important involve the communities who own these cultural elements in the design process, and listen to their point of view, understanding the meaning behind each element and respecting that.
This is a case where we can really see the difference between inspiration and cultural appropriation. In colonialism, a person external to a culture comes in to appropriate these foreign elements without consulting or giving credit or money back to whomever is the rightful owner of them. People who belong to the cultures responsible for these designs must be recognized for their talent and valued through fair pay.
There are endless cases in Mexico. For example, in 2015 Isabel Marant launched a blouse inspired by the Tlahui women’s huipil, and then again in Fall 2020, she did a poncho inspired by those of from Michoacán. Carolina Herrera’s Resort 20 collection was also accused of cultural appropriation because it included garments that were clearly inspired by the textiles of the “Sarapes de Saltillo” or the “Tenangos de Doria.” Louis Vuitton’s Dolls by Raw Edges chair was also critiqued for the use of traditional Mexican fabrics. And then, there was that Michael Kors hoodie that is very similar to a handmade “jerga” sweatshirt characteristic of Mexican culture.
And while it might be impossible not to reference an idea or image we have in our memory, it is time to stop romanticizing the idea of the almighty designer. Five years ago, during #BoFVOICES, Dries Van Noten said that the creative process consists of incorporating different elements as layers that result in a new, unique and different creations. “For me, other cultures have always been a starting point. But I never took things very literal,” said the Belgian designer.
It is important to have these kinds of conversations in society. We need to decide for our ourselves what is inspiration and what is appropriation. But the opinions we form must come from an informed point of view. We have access to information, and we must value reason over emotional responses on these topics.
And, while we all must form our own opinions, it is important continue to question the ideas established by society because it is the only way to continue evolving and moving towards a better future.
Fashion is a reflection of society, so its inspiration will always come from within it.