The Era of Appropriation


Getting that feeling of cultural design déjà vu again? Natalie Kimani argues that, yes indeed, you actually have seen it all before.

I’ve seen this before. This is not a feeling anyone should have watching Fashion Week; especially since these collections are supposed to be new, innovative, and thought provoking. They’ve got people talking, alright, but not in the ‘c’est magnifique!’ sort of way. Fashion seems to be stuck in an era of appropriation where runways seem to stick with similar or exact aesthetics for their inspiration.  Where the word ‘homage’ is a synonym for replication and the narrowing of the originality spectrum. True, history is destined to repeat herself; but in the same outfit? Perhaps in an age of limitless connectivity and in the bid to meet the need for instant gratification, designers have been forced to reduce their brands to product placement initiatives that copy ideas from other designers. This includes cultural appropriation.

The Scandal

It’s obvious why many designers may be drawn to appreciate culture, as a collection’s it’s enchanting! But there are designers that are going about it in an unacceptable way. It may have started out as pure inspiration but the outcome is misguided and offensive to the communities the inspiration originated from.

It should be common knowledge that sacred artifacts shouldn’t be used as accessories but Victoria’s Secret didn’t get the memo. They sent model Karlie Kloss down their catwalk at Paris Fashion Week 2012 with a Native-American inspired feathered headdress and a fringed-suede bikini.

The headdress alone possesses such ceremonial and spiritual significance that only certain members of the Native American community have earned the right to wear it. Various media platforms were immediately awash with backlash. Blog Native Appropriations took the forefront highlighting that Victoria’s Secret’s outfit decision not only perpetuated ongoing micro-aggressions for Native Americans, but also propelled the epidemic of the sexualisation of Native American Women. Victoria’s Secret apologised and pulled the outfit from all marketing and retail promotion avenues. Other designers such as Ralph Lauren, Nicholas K, and Karl Lagerfeld have also been criticized for blatant appropriation of Native American culture as well.


KTZ’s Fall/Winter 2015 collection at New York Fashion Week not only ‘borrowed’ from the Native American Navajo Yei weaving design influences, but they also allegedly sampled designer Bethany Yellowtail’s Crow Pop Collection. What may look like tribal inverted triangles to the masses, are actually cultural property of the Native American Crow People. As the blog Native Appropriation explains, culturally it represents the balance between the physical and spiritual world.

Things didn’t get any better in 2015. Fashion houses Givenchy and DSquared2 came under criticism for their appropriation of Black and Latina subcultures, and North American Indian culture respectively.

However it’s Valentino’s Spring 2016 collection at Paris Fashion Week that seems to be receiving the most heat. First mistake: the theme was ‘Wild Tribal Africa’. And they didn’t stop there, going as far as to describe the collection as ‘‘primitive, tribal, spiritual, yet regal.’ Once you get over the underlined word, there are other mistakes to examine (which are not ranked in any particular order). The designers failed to credit the source of origin, and chose to use the blanket term ‘Africa’ instead. You know, that small continent with over 50 countries. The collection is actually inspired by the Maasai and Kikuyu communities, featuring elements such as raffia, fringing, beaded belts and Kikuyu textiles.  Third mistake: lack of diversity on the runway, which is already pretty bad, but they also used predominantly white models in their pictorial campaign that was shot in the Amboseli National Park in Kenya! Oh, and the designers tried to pass off all the above as multicultural acceptance. Valentino designer, Pierpaolo Piccioli, told Vogue, “The message is tolerance and the beauty that comes out of cross-cultural expression.”

To be fair, they aren’t the first brand to ‘celebrate’ the Maasai culture. There are allegedly 10,000 companies using the Maasai culture to promote their products. That includes Louis Vuitton’s 2012 Spring/Summer collection, The Masai [sic] Barefoot Technology (MBT) Shoe Company, Diane von Furstenberg’s cushions, bedding by Calvin Klein… you get the drift.

But here’s where they fall short when they try to sugar coat it all as cultural celebration. A panel called “Appropriate? Or Appropriation?: Native American Fashion and Identity” at Duke University best articulated it by highlighting how cultural appropriation of distinct textiles and patterns reduces divergent identities to a single stereotype. These are then renamed in tribal names without the consent or input of the community. Author of the blog, Beyond Buckskin, told the panel that this in turn reduces the ability of these indigenous communities to represent their own cultures in the way they deem fit.

 From Appropriation to Appreciation

So does this mean that if you aren’t part of a certain community you aren’t allowed to wear their fashion productions? No. Most communities do want people to engage with their cultures; in a respectful way of course. Customers are encouraged to purchase clothes or accessories designed by the community such as MaXhosa by Laduma. South African designer, Laduma Ngxokolo, has captured his Xhosa culture in his knitwear designs since 2011. His motivation comes from the Amakrwala’s (Xhosa Initiates) need to change their attire to a more formal and dignified appearance for six months post initiation. Having gone through that rite of passage, Laduma felt that he had to create a modern knitwear collection that still celebrated the traditional Xhosa aesthetics. In an interview published in City Press Laduma explains that, “The idea was to give my interpretation of how I think Xhosa people would be dressing if they were never colonised. The Western influence would be there, but they would have largely kept their own unique aesthetic.”

With his main aim of heritage and tradition preservation, he uses locally sourced textiles such as Mohair from his hometown Port Elizabeth and merino wool, as well as, traditional Xhosa Beadwork patterns, symbols, colours and crafts.

The ‘My Heritage, My Inheritance’ collection was a special dedication to his late mother, Lindelwa Ngxokolo, who passed down the skill of hand-machine knitting he uses today. He expanded his brand to include a women’s line known as ‘Buyele’mbo’ and used his ‘Mntanom’gquba’ collection to celebrate colour diversity. His creations are already available as far as France and the Netherlands but he hopes to eventually open retail stores in Tokyo, London, Paris and New York.

victorias secret

Alternatively, one can opt for brands that acknowledge the cultural origins and pay homage to artistry and ideas. One way it is thought designers can achieve this is through co-branded collaborations. A situation where the designer and cluster systems within the community become business partners of sorts. This is the case with popular Brazilian sportswear brand Osklen’s Spring 2016 collection. The creative founder and director, Oskar Metsavaht worked with the Ashaninka community of Brazil to create the collection that took into account its traditional knowledge.

An interview featured in Quartz noted that the arrangement will not only increase the awareness of the community’s bid to protect their land against illegal environmental degradation such as logging, but that they will also receive royalties from the collection.

In return the brand was able to adapt tattoos and traditional fabrics in the collection that was aptly called Ashaninka. In an interview with Huffington Post, Metsavaht also encourages other designers to ensure the production conditions such as the labour laws, natural resources managements and social impact are monitored and respected. Projects such as TRACES can be utilised to trace a product from origin to the stores.

In truth cultural appropriation isn’t a new conversation. It’s been around probably for as long as fashion has been a part of culture. Perhaps it’s louder now because the communities didn’t have the means to respond before. While social media plays a part in keeping designers in check, change will not happen until designers alter their understanding of cultural appreciation. Designers from around the world must also take every opportunity to celebrate and share their stories through their collections. As Omoyemi Akerele, Founder and Creative director at Lagos Fashion & Design Week, mentioned at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) and the Ethical Fashion Initiative’s The Hand of Fashion lecture series “If you don’t tell your stories, people will borrow influences from your culture and they are going to attempt to story tell. If you don’t tell the world the real process of how it’s done, someone else will attempt to tell the story and you won’t be happy with the presentation.”

Natalie Kimani is the beauty and Fashion Editor of Healthy Woman magazine, Kenya. She is also
a writer and stylist. Taken from her article on – “The Designers Studio.”

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