Luxury brands continue to draw controversy for appropriation of Indigenous communities’ culture, reducing motifs and symbols that carry important sociocultural significance to mere fashion statements. Experts weigh in on this debate with TRT World.
It’s one thing for fashion brands to draw inspiration from different cultures but to appropriate or plagiarise designs can have legal and ethical consequences worldwide.
Just last week, Ralph Lauren apologised after Beatriz Gutierrez Muller, the wife of Mexico’s president, accused the luxury clothing brand of plagiarising Indigenous designs from Contla and Saltillo.
"I hope you compensate the damage to the original communities that do this work with love and not for profit," she said, calling the use of Indigenous motifs as "illegal and immoral".
But this is nothing new as "Ralph Lauren’s entire empire was built off of appropriation," Sariah Park, an artist of indigenous descent tells TRT World.
Cultural appropriation is copying from or misrepresenting another culture and capitalising off of it. It is seen as a form of erasure that often means Indigenous designers were not credited, consulted or compensated in the creation of a garment.
And this "cultural theft" of Indigenous communities has been going on "since first contact" in the United States, according to Park.
"In fashion, this manifests when designers and brands use cultural traditions of dress and expression, ways of knowing and being, symbolic techniques, sacred practices and significant iconography," she says. "And then, they exploit these practices for profit."
While this form of appropriation isn’t new, Park says seeing Muller use her platform to call out the injustice of cultural appropriation is.
"A lot of times cultural appropriation gets brushed off as not an important issue or one worth fighting, but cultural theft has real and serious consequences that affect Indigenous communities all over the world every day," Park adds.
The Mexican government has made similar complaints against Chinese fashion retailer Shein, France’s Louis Vuitton, Venezuelan designer Carolina Herrera, Spain’s Zara and US retailer Anthopologie.
Indigenous traditional clothing – alongside practices, languages, ceremonies and dances – were banned in the US from the 1830s up until 1978 when the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed.
So when fashion brands appropriate Indigenous culture, they can brush over painful historical trauma that was suffered by these communities, continue to reinforce stereotypes about them or contribute to oppression.
This is typically due to a lack of understanding of these cultures, Shanti Amalanathan, an expert in luxury retail with over 15 years of experience at Hermes, tells TRT World.
"Luxury fashion brands have long appropriated native designs and don’t really understand the historical and cultural meaning of the designs, or their significance and values to the cultural communities,” Amalanathan says.
"These communities passed down designs from generations that can take weeks, months, years to create. By appropriating them, the brand is disrespecting these communities and saying 'you can have the privilege of having me represent you'," she adds.
And there are countless examples of this, such as a Victoria’s Secret show in 2012 where angels walked the runway to represent holidays.
One represented Thanksgiving with a Native headpiece and leopard-print lingerie, outraging communities that said the outfit glorified the genocide of Indigenous people.
"This fashion show shows how Thanksgiving's story has been misinterpreted and that misinterpretation is so ingrained in our culture at a very young age,” Amalanathan says.
"Brands are not representing multiple sides of the story, they're just creating fantasies and fantasies do not represent the reality of our lived lives."
Another example of cultural appropriation that was "particularly egregious" to Park and her own cultural heritage was Nicholas K’s Spring/Summer collection in 2014, titled 'Apache Shamanistic Journey'.
"Using a native community as inspiration in this way, as some trope to be pillaged and plagiarised, even to go as far as to be inspired by traditional ceremony and sacred practices for one’s own profit, is beyond hurtful," says Park.
Trendy and relevant
Both Park and Amalanathan teach at several institutes, including the Parsons School of Design in New York City with courses that explore Indigenous fashion and fashion business.
"Perhaps, if more fashion designers were educated beyond the Eurocentric lens of fashion history, they might come to understand why cultural appropriation is so harmful," Park says of her course.
Echo Malleo, a 31-year-old Masters candidate at Kent State University’s School of Fashion, is in the process of writing her thesis on museum displays of Indigenous clothing and fashion objects.
She tells TRT World that taking motifs and symbols from Indigenous artwork and using them out of context is a common example of appropriation that she has observed, but sometimes brands will even combine styles from different Indigenous groups into one garment.
"There are hundreds of different Indigenous communities just within the US, but when brands appropriate their designs, they often don’t acknowledge that diversity," Malleo says.
"When brands admit that something is 'Native inspired' they often just use the descriptor 'native' rather than associating it with a specific community."
Amalanathan believes this occurs because "brands are working in silos and trying too hard to be relevant, diverse and inclusive, they're losing sight of the bigger picture of the brand's image and what they want to represent to their consumer."
"It's just slapping a label on it to appear relevant. Oftentimes, they can't appropriately credit or market the design because they don't understand it. But today's consumer is shifting away from dominant social cultural ideas to more relatable and authentic products and marketing," she says.
So how can brands cater to their consumer’s evolving needs of diversity without outright offending marginalised communities?
Appropriation vs appreciation
Cultural intellectual property lawyer Monica Boța Moisin coined "The Three C Rules of Consent, Credit and Compensation", which Amalanathan says would be an appropriate way to appreciate cultural designs without appropriating them.
"Whether you're talking about luxury fashion brands or fast fashion such as H&M or Zara, they have major bargaining power in the industry. So they need to use their voice to perpetuate change," Amalanathan says.
"By collaborating, partnering and acknowledging these cultural communities, you're giving a voice to designers who may not have the means to do so themselves and marginalised communities."
Park also expresses this sentiment saying, "cultural appreciation would be supporting native designers and working with Indigenous communities directly to support and preserve Indigenous craft and knowledge."
Emerging Indigenous fashion designers are asserting their voices and breaking long-held stereotypes that Native fashion is not stuck in the past. They are taking ownership of their designers rather than having a luxury fashion brand do so.
“If a buyer is interested in certain styles or designs, but doesn’t want to purchase from brands that have appropriated from Indigenous communities, then they can purchase directly from Indigenous designers - there are so many when you start looking online," Malleo says.