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Cultural Lines: When Appreciation Is Appropriation In Disguise

The fashion industry has long been plagued by accusations of cultural appropriation - particularly by indigenous designers and designers of colour. Sonny Arifien investigates the issue, and asks: when does cultural appreciation become appropriation?

By Sonny Arifien


We’ve scrolled through statements and open apologies. We’ve listened to vague promises to do better. And yet, just a couple of months into 2021, here we are again: with accusations of cultural appropriation being levied at a global brand by an indigenous designer. It’s no secret that the fashion industry still has a long way to go until it can plant both feet firmly upon a level and ethical playing field, but had we ever anticipated the journey to be this bumpy?

Shortly after luxury womenswear brand Zimmermann had announced the arrival of its ‘21 collection of beach and swimwear in January, the Australian label was making waves across the globe – for all the wrong reasons. The company’s social media accounts were promptly bombarded by a tide of negative criticism, flagging the embroidery of one of its panelled tunic dresses as cultural plagiarism. The design of the summer mini in question (featuring short ruffled sleeves and a peacock and floral motif) was alleged to have been lifted from Mexican artisans native to the Oaxaca region, without permission. With a history of craftsmanship that dates back centuries, in the Oaxaca region these patterns have long appeared on traditional costumes worn for local festivals and ceremonies – with every colour, trimming and cross-stitching of deep ancestral or cultural significance.

Barely three months prior to this, Mexico’s cultural minister Alejandra Frausto had requested a formal explanation from French designer Isabel Marant, after it was claimed designs from her Spring-Summer show had unlawfully used elements of the Purepecha people, who hail from Mexico’s Michoacán State. Flip the calendar back yet another year, and this time the minister was calling out designer Carolina Herrera and fashion house Louis Vuitton for profiting off traditional native artisans. In response, many of these high profile designs and fashion houses have used their social media platforms to distance themselves from accusations of unethical practices, instead equating similarities in design to their fond admiration for the traditional cultures instead.

So, the question remains: where do we draw the line between paying tribute or homage, and outright cultural theft or plagiarism? Undoubtedly, this debate lands us into a grey area. Isn’t art itself a form of cultural exchange, and historically, hasn’t fashion always drawn from other cultures in some way or another? This is certainly true – but it is an argument that ignores the social, political and economic implications of fashion’s traditional power-holders. Indeed, it is imperative that we recognise the exploitation that comes from profiting off indigenous cultures without offering respectful acknowledgment or remuneration.

Dr Jane Tynan, Assistant Professor of Design History and Theory at VU Amsterdam, suggests that this culture of ‘borrowing’ from indigenous peoples can be traced back to the time of colonialism, which saw the West plunder local cultures for one-sided gain. Dr Tynan argues that this appropriation has been ingrained and normalised into society so deeply that we struggle to recognise it: 

“The problem is that cultural ‘exchange’ within colonialism was always uneven, concerned as it was with exploitation for profit, rather than fair exchange or dialogue,” she says. “The movement to decolonize science, art, design and education is ongoing, and involves struggle and conflict; we now see that playing out in fashion in particular.”

Lore by Shannon Brett - Studio Magazine
​Lore​ is the Australian textiles brand by Aboriginal artist Shannon Brett

For minority cultures, the legality of protecting and preserving their traditions and customs has often proven difficult. To date, there is no record of any labels or designers facing courtroom penalties for cultural appropriation or plagiarism. Largely, this is because most of these cases fall under the category of collective intellectual property, and as such are not protected by copyright or industrial property laws that only seek to cover individuals. However, more recent claims of cultural appropriation within luxury fashion have prompted local councilors and politicians to debate the existing amendments of copyright laws in the hope of providing greater protection to indigenous artists.

Shannon Brett, the Aboriginal artist behind Australian textiles manufacturer ​Lore​, ​is of the belief that a level of accountability is imperative for major labels who take from traditional cultural design. She says that a lack of transparency around design ideas and concepts has negative impacts on both the designer and consumer: ​“Indigenous artists (like all true artists) put their heart and soul into their ideas and their creations, something which is lost when they’re taken by big, commercial brands. It is exhausting to witness plagiarism of indigenous design – especially when it’s of your own work.”

The creative force behind ​Jamie Gentry Designs​ echoes this sentiment. A proud descendent of the Kwakwaka’wakw nation in British Columbia, Gentry’s custom made moccasins are cut, beaded and sewn to order. She is passionate in her belief that whilst shopping for authentic indigenous products helps support both the artist and the community at a grassroots level, it’s also an opportunity to become better educated. Bypassing this removes consumers’ connection to the indigenous culture and community from which it stems: “Appropriation turns culture into a trend, and devalues the true meaning behind our art forms,” she says.

London stylists ​Kolade Ladipo​ and ​Josh Gilzeane​ share the belief that appreciation turns quickly to appropriation when cultures and traditions being referenced are minimised or ignored entirely. Ladipo suggests that more diversity and representation within the industry would help big brands to navigate more confidently through the creative exchange of culture and ideas: “So long as brands have the right people working beside them, then being sensitive to the cultures of minorities shouldn’t stifle creativity, but rather enhance it.”​

Gilzeane​ goes on to reiterate this notion, adding that in order for positive change, the industry needs to do its homework: ​“I believe the only way cultural exchange can take place in a respectable way is by western designers doing the correct research into the different cultural backgrounds and diasporas of minority groups of people.”

With the rise and rise of social media, the fashion world is globalised like never before, and the exchange of opinions and ideas is no longer restricted to the old hierarchies once enjoyed by fashion and magazine executives. Smartphones now serve as modern-day billboards, showrooms and catwalks – with brands being able to launch their campaigns to an international audience at the push of a button. With this comes increased accountability. While local parliamentarians debate on whether or not to roll out more red tape when it comes to cultural appropriation and plagiarism, social media has become the new courtroom: trials play out across the world at blinding speed, with the public taking on the role as judge and jury, and in some cases, even executioner.

“We have seen a big shift in the industry in terms of transparency, purpose and intentions” says Sianna Catullo, ​Head of Brand and Marketing ​for Australian indigenous label ​Clothing the Gap:​ ​​“Consumers are now looking for this. During the pandemic, whilst a lot of clothing brands have struggled, brands with purpose – such as social enterprises – have thrived.”

So what does all this spell for the future of design within the industry, and can there ever be a fair or respectful manner in which big fashion brands and houses can derive influence from other cultures without being exploitive?

Jamie Gentry Designs - Cultural Appropriation - Studio Magazine
Moccasins by Jamie Gentry Designs are cut, beaded and sewn to order

For the most part, Dr Tynan seems to think that the issue is not beyond a resolution. Yet, as it stands she is dubious that the industry will take the necessary time to educate and learn from the mistakes of the past unless real changes are implemented from the top-down: ​The pace of the industry in its current form mitigates against deep research and meaningful dialogue with people from indigenous cultures, making it difficult for designers to do the cultural work that they need to do”.

But as high fashion labels like Zimmermann are finding out, the ramifications of not investing in serious cultural groundwork only serve to hurt the brand image as well as the pocket. Restoring consumers’ trust can be a precarious – even impossible – process. That being said, what the industry is in need of are brands that encourage, rather than shying away from, dialogue or debate; those that possess a willingness to learn and grow from constructive criticism, and who seek to reciprocate a fair and respectful exchange with the cultures they take inspiration from.