In recent years, the term cultural appropriation has become a buzzword for the fashion community. As designers face greater scrutiny than ever, it seems that controversies occur more and more frequently. Is this simply the product of PC culture taken too far or does this reflect a wider and perhaps systemic problem within the fashion industry?
Kim Kardashian made a botched attempt to trademark the word ‘Kimono’
Whether it was for a blasé attitude to given traditional garments or whitewashing on the runway, I’m sure we can all think of instances where brands have faced scathing criticism surrounding race and ethnicity. In 2016, Gucci was called out for its choice of Caucasian models to showcase a line of turbans and last year had to apologise for a sweater that resembled blackface. Concerningly, these examples of a brand’s insensitivity are part of a larger overall trend. A similar scandal happened just last year as Kim Kardashian made a botched attempt to trademark the word ‘Kimono’ for her line of shapewear, an incident which epitomizes the fashion industry’s apparent insensitivity towards cultural heritage.
The latest brand which came under fire for this, Comme des Garçons, received a huge backlash on social media. It was accused of cultural appropriation after dressing Caucasian models in cornrow wigs during its autumn/winter show this year. Although social media posts from the brand show designers’ inspiration and regard for Egyptian pharaoh hair, Egyptian models weren’t considered. One twitter user (@onlykuper) expressed shock that no one on the team realized that could be construed as offensive, tweeting ‘adding insult to injury these faux braids are ill-fitted, proving it is an accessory not appreciation’.
The hairstylist, Julien d’Ys has since apologized, stating it was "never as it my intention to hurt or offend anyone."
In the debate regarding cultural appropriation, some claim that these sorts of responses, of outrage and offence, are merely a voicing of SJW sensitivity. It has been argued that with globalization it is only inevitable that different nations would express interest in each other’s cultures and that these cultures would mix. Brands often assert that they merely want to show their admiration for different heritages and by featuring cultural garments in clothing lines or on the runway they are showing their deference.
" Brands should take ownership of their mistakes "
However, the problem lies in context. It can’t be ignored that we live in a society with entrenched structural racism with a deep colonial past. It’s wrong to treat cultural artefacts as costumes to dress up in. Brands should take ownership of their mistakes and strive for positive change. Whether this involves paying homage to an item’s origins or hiring models from particular backgrounds, it doesn’t have to be difficult.
Personally, I believe the answer lies in communication. Brands should strive to engage in active conversations with the group their actions affect and listen to their opinions and this is especially important for marginalized groups. This is the only way to show a true sincerity, a sincerity that foregoes tokenism for the sake of appeasing the public.