Let's Talk About Cultural Appropriation In Fashion

Fashion – An industry that demonstrates what is possible for oneself, be it clothing, footwear, jewelry, headwear and more.  It is an industry that prides itself on setting trends and inspiring the masses but over time we see styles and trends be repeated and “old” styles revamped, so the question becomes – Where do these ideas originate from and should it matter? 

It is one thing to be inspired by others, but it is another thing to completely and unapologetically colonize other people’s culture for the benefit of the fashion industry and one’s business.  Without any type of collaboration, research, permission, accreditation, or economic security for the ones whom which it is stolen from, this my friends, is where fashion becomes cultural appropriation, rather than cultural appreciation. 

From Cultural Appreciation to Cultural Appropriation. 
What is cultural appropriation you ask? As defined by the Cambridge Dictionary, Cultural Appropriation is said to be “The act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture.”
Essentially, when someone adopts another culture and includes it into their operation or in this case, fashion design, and repurposes an aspect of culture in a way that is not from its original use, this becomes offensive. 
This could be happening due to lack of education or understanding during and after the design process – regardless of how we got here, sis we are here, and it is not looking good for the culture.
The Breakdown 
 Kim Kardashian West, launched a shapewear line for women that is known as SKIMS Solutionwear but did you know it was originally called Kimono Intimates? You know, like the Japanese traditional garment? The Kimono has a full and rich history with many evolutions from where it first originated from to now. While Kardashian – West and her team thought trademarking this name would be witty, it sparked well deserved outrage. Many people called it culturally offensive resulting in the Mayor of Kyoto, Japan, Daisaku Kadokawa, writing a letter of complaint urging a name change.   
Jessica Chiha is the founder of ‘The Little Homie’ and monopolizes on Hip Hop and African American Culture for her children’s clothing line. This has landed the Australian Mother in a lawsuit with one of the Hip Hop artists she claims to idolise, Jay Z. After writing an alphabet book that uses Hip Hop artists for each letter, she went on to profit from not only those artists but more problematically, from Jay Z’s name and lyrical content.
Not only are the clothes inspired by Hip Hop culture, she uses slang and lingo from African American Culture on her Instagram to engage with consumers which not only stereotypes African American people, but is not her natural dialogue. 
Many people have had concerns about this brand because it is not Black owned. Don’t get me wrong, liking hip hop is fine, even celebrating it in a children’s clothing line is fine but generalizing and taking on a culture as if it is yours and having no cultural boundaries is not okay, and we'll discuss why below. 
Another example of appropriation in fashion would be when Gucci celebrated a “new” design on the runway in 2018 for the Fall collection with a turban that was worn by Caucasian models. The “Indy Full Turban”, was priced over $700 USD. Well let us be honest, the Turban idea was completely stolen from a community of people who use this not as fashion but as a sign of equality in their religion. This rightfully created huge outrage within the Sikh community and Gucci ended up changing the name to the “Indy full head wrap” which is not the answer to economically benefiting off someone’s culture and or religious practices.  Essentially this was a band-aid for a bullet-wound.  

In a lot of these cases not only should the brands and designers be held accountable for making culturally offensive garments but what baffles me is the lack of cultural sensitivity. How did these brands get to market without not one person speaking up and saying this isn’t a good look? Maybe someone did but the masses disagreed? Maybe they all knew what they were doing and wanted to do it anyway to see if they could get away with it? 
Either way 2020 has been a rough year and I think the masses are sick and tired of being sick and tired of seeing this shit. 

It’s time for us to do better as consumers, no longer can we sit and watch this systemic racism fly. It’s time to ask ourselves the hard questions:
Do I know enough?
If you do not know enough about a garment or word for example, you run the risk of degrading a culture or sacred parts of that culture by making a mockery of something or someone important. The thing is, it’s ok to not know, but it’s not ok to sit in that space and continue your project without learning.
Where has this idea come from?
Why do I feel the need to incorporate or emulate someone else’s culture? If I am not collaborating am I being tokenistic? Whose lens is this idea seen through?
Is it appropriate?
This is a big one because what you might think is appropriate, may not be to someone else or a group of people. The more we can learn about ourselves, others, and history that has shaped our future, the more we can avoid stepping back into parts of history that has caused pain and oppression and we can break negative cycles of our ancestors. 
Have I researched and asked for opinions outside of myself and or my team?
Ignorance is no longer bliss, we can not hide behind the fact that we “didn’t know” something was offensive, especially when we are in such an informed world. However, having a team around you that is diverse in thinking and diverse in nature can eliminate these issues. Hear their opinions, work together to make policies within your design space that takes on culturally diverse training and awareness workshops and decrease the ways of these errors. 
Where does the idea come from? Does the group/ culture I wish to utilize have a history of slavery, genocide, or exploitation? 
If so, be mindful of the fact that the group/culture most likely has been used, abused and their culture suppressed and does not need a modern-day version of that again. 
Does the use of certain culture aspects benefit me and my business or does it benefit the group in which the culture comes from? 
When/if we collab with a group we must ensure they are economically compensated or are included in the process and have given you permission to incorporate their culture.
Practices to incorporate from a business perspective
Hire Diverse Staff
Educate yourself on where the idea originates from, what does the word means,  ask people outside of your team or people who may associate themselves with the culture you are pinching from and check in to see if it is a good idea or will it leave people screaming culture vulture!
Advocate, celebrate, work with, and PAY diverse artists, designers, stylists, models, photographers, graphic designers etc. They are out there and not only are they skilled, but they know what is culturally acceptable. This also opens doors for diverse creatives to express themselves, work on projects that culturally align with them and push forward their voices so that they can be proud of their art in a way that is led by them and not stolen from them. 
Redirect The Funds
Purchase from brands who are producing quality, ethical garments or accessories that are from their own culture.  An example would be ‘The Koori Circle’ an Aboriginal run jewelry business. Laura creates Jewelry from sustainable sourced timber and the designs tell stories, express Aboriginal art, culture and empower First Nation women. Instead of buying from a brand that appropriates culture, why not just appreciate culture and purchase from someone who is ACTUALLY OF THE CULTURE THEY ARE PROFITING FROM!? 

Let me calm down.. the only alternative is transparent non BIPOC businesses who direct profits of their collaborative work to BIPOC creatives. This is the right way to fund and celebrate your first nations people ethically and non-offensively while also embracing beautiful cultural art. An example of this type of collaborative partnership is Magpie Goose. This label is owned and operated by non-BIPOC but it's sole purpose is to bring First Nations designers to mainstream consumers. To date the brand has generated over $300,000 in royalty payments to Aboriginal Australian artists whose designs were printed on the garments and the brand has always been transparent about their collaborative work.
See! It is possible to own fashion pieces that you can be proud of rather than feel you have been swindled by culture vultures. You just need to do the work. 

Call it out! 
Picture this…..
You see something on someone else so that means you have “discovered it” for yourself. You take the idea and change it slightly, then you destroy traces of the style idea prior to your “discovery”. Now work hard on a name and in the meantime give yourself credit for the idea. Wait for the world to applaud you and watch the dollars roll into the bank, your chic new do over is a hit don’t worry about those who feel insulted or left out because they are just jealous they didn’t market their traditional dress, religious headwear, or culturally rich painting style the way you did… They should be grateful right? You're celebrating and honouring a culture you love so much and are inspired by and in turn economically benefiting from it. What does that sound like to you? Modern Day Colonization in the form of fashion.
You cannot pick and choose what you will take from someone else’s culture, rename it and put a high price tag on it with a “chic” name and ignore where it came from or whom it was stolen from. 
When you see cultural appropriation either something you have done or someone else, call it out, educate yourself and move on.

Big corporations have for centuries, lined their pockets by appropriating cultural aspects from people around the world. Many of those people have been told to ignore, remove, forget, and have been shamed by those cultural aspects but when it is “revamped” and called “fashion” on a runway somewhere , all of a sudden it is acceptable. What you forget is all the people who cannot change who they are and what comes with their culture and what they have to live with every day, being torn apart for those cultural aspects they should be able to feel proud of. People should not have to see in the media the masses lining up to buy turbans for $700USD, the same Turbans people have been called a terrorist for wearing or ridiculed in the workplace or at school. 
The idea of “borrowing” culture for trends has left many feeling like the norm for them is permanently  stamped as a stereotype but when shown on a runway or magazine it is praised and exploited in the name of fashion. The Irony of it all is exhausting. 
And it can be hard, uncomfortable even for us to learn these things. No one is perfect, we are all learning sis. I myself, have learnt a very meaningful lesson when I thought it was cute to call myself a Gypsy like it was some free spirited, hippy girl trend. My curiosity made me google what a Gypsy was or where that name came from and I was horrified with the information I found, instantly deleting my Instagram story that featured that more terrible than trendy word!
After falling into a black hole of content I found copious amounts of information stating that to Romani or Roma people the term Gypsy is a racial slur. Roma people are Europe’s largest minority group today and sadly like most minority groups, they have been subjected to oppression, violence and discrimination for a long time.
In the past, Roma people had to travel constantly and relocate due to violence. In the 13th century Romani people migrated to Europe from northern India. Europeans originally called Roma people “Gypsies” , treated them horribly and assumed they came from Egypt due to their “dark” skin. The word ‘gypped’ also comes from this word, and is used toward people who were wrongfully called ‘Gypsy’s’ as they were given a negative stereotype to be fraudulent or criminals and women over sexualized. This stereotype is still present in media today. 
What really blew my mind was that in 1935 Roma people were the first to be targeted by the Nazis and it has been estimated by historians that half a million Roma people were murdered during a time that is now known by Roma people as ‘The Devouring’. After finding all of this out I not only reflected on the information I read, I found more information to further educate myself and will never use that word again. I don’t know everything but I will ensure to keep learning everyday and correct myself when there is an error in my ways.
I use Instagram a lot so I found people who identify as Romani and @Jezmina.vonthiele has wonderful information that can get you up to speed and decrease chances of looking ignorant like I did. This is also an opportunity to spread this information to educate others.
For more info - https://jezminavonthiele.com/ 

The thing is, you can do this too. We can all do this, and start appreciating instead of appropriating because real people are the ones being affected by this. The best way for us to make change as consumers is to be compassionate, be alert, ask questions, push back when you see something not right and educate yourself continuously and others. 
My favourite quote of all time is from African American Civil rights activist, poet and actress, Maya Angelou.

- Words by Jenae Tien -
Jenae is a journalist, co-owner of Lightning Boy Clothing and podcaster on You Good? podcast. Get in touch at any of the following insta handles:
@jenaetien / @lightningboyclothing / @podcastyougood