It’s that time of year again, Mercedes Benz Fashion Week in NYC. One trend on the runways for the past few seasons has been designers’ use of culturally identifying prints and themes. Nicholas K used the tribal warriors theme in his Spring 2014 collection, as well as Marni using African inspired prints in their Spring 2012 collection for H&M. Sure, a designer can find inspiration from many places, people, and cultures. Is there ever a point when “inspired by” can lead to “infringement on” when it comes to cultural appropriation?
First, What is Cultural Appropriation? It is turning the heritage, social, and intellectual achievements of a society and making it one’s own. It is the use of the prints, artifacts, and culturally identifiable objects of indigenous people for commercial gain. Culture defines a group of people by their language, beliefs, cuisine, fashion, music, and art. It is something that makes you proud, that distinguishes one group of people from the general population. It molds their character, point of view, and ideologies.
One does not expect someone who is not affiliated with the culture to use it for his or her own personal gain. The fact that someone can take cultural aspects of a group of people, without any recognition or association to it, is insulting. It appears inauthentic and can be so harmful to the image and reputation of a group to the point that it becomes a gimmick. It can be used to discriminate, perpetuate a stereotype, exploit, and mock the people. The fashion industry constantly deals with this problem. Retailers and fashion designers often do not know where to draw the line between inspiration and appropriation. In the recent past, several retailers, such as Victoria’s Secret, Urban Outfitters, and Forever 21 have come under fire for their use of culturally sensitive fashions.
Native Americans, whose culture and traditions have been severely undermined by mainstream America, want to protect whatever it is that they have left and preserve it for future generations. Intellectual property law may not protect every aspect of a culture that a group wants to preserve, but it may protect some elements like the name or some products. This was the case for the Navajo tribe when it sued Urban Outfitters for trademark infringement for use of its name on clothing and accessories. An Attorney with the Navajo Department of Justice, Brian Lewis notes, “People who buy products with the name and trademark ‘Navajo’ expect that those products will have valid association with the Navajo Nation and Navajo people.”
Regardless of whether it is protected by law or not, companies have a social responsibility to refrain from using materials that have religious and cultural significance beyond aesthetics and monetary value. So, what do you think? Should designers be able to take culturally significant elements of a group of people and blend it into mainstream society?
Images courtesy of www.nydailynews.com, www.vogue.it, www.stellajean.it.