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In the wake of yet another accusation of a major fashion brand copying an indigenous community’s traditional designs without credit or benefit (this time it was Zara), we spoke to several industry experts about why cultural appropriation keeps happening

Below are some practical insights and tips for designers who may be wondering if it’s still OK to be inspired by another culture, and how they can ethically incorporate traditional motifs in their collections. 

On accepting that some things are off limits

“We don’t understand what is a strong ritual symbol, and what is not. For example, traditional tattooing patterns are often linked to really deep rituals, and they pop up in textiles and makeup for all different cultural reasons. So it’s more than just going, ‘Wow, that’s a really cool tattoo design, that would look awesome as a print in my next collection.’ We need to recognise that there are actually things we don’t understand before we become magpies and bowerbirds, just collecting all this pretty stuff and taking it back to our nest.

“We also need to accept that some things just aren’t ours to take. If a garment or a pattern or design is telling a story, it might not be my story to tell. It might belong to someone else, and that’s something to be very mindful of.” – Dr Emily Brayshaw, honorary research fellow, UTS

On looking for inspiration elsewhere

“We’re not trying to be the fun police. It’s about being more mindful about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, and about working with people to give back.

“It doesn’t mean we can’t engage with people. It doesn’t mean we can’t get inspiration from other areas. It doesn’t mean we can’t adapt from nature. There’s a world of really amazing stuff out there. It’s about being a little bit thoughtful.” – Brayshaw

On the importance of cultural exchange

“I think labelling [things] cultural appropriation can be quite dangerous, because it can cause designers in particular to become extremely fearful of engaging with other cultures at all for fear of recrimination or being kind of criticised for it.

“We live in an increasingly global world, where people increasingly live in [cultures] they didn’t grow up in. I think it’s important for the fashion industry to be able to reflect those hybridised identities.

“It’s about educating designers and the industry as to how to do it ethically. How to practice cultural exchange and collaboration ethically and with respect, rather than culturally appropriating.” – Dr Alexandra Sherlock, lecturer, bachelor of fashion (design), RMIT

On the benefits of collaboration

“Make it a dialogue, make it a two-way street, that’s far more powerful than just being ‘inspired’ by something when you haven’t actually thought about it really.” – Brayshaw

“Being ethical and respectful is time consuming and expensive, and it affects the bottom line. Having said that, in a culture where consumers are a lot more conscious of social and cultural inequality, and are a lot less forgiving when they see these mistakes, I actually don’t think brands can afford not to start engaging meaningfully with the cultures they’re taking inspiration from.” – Sherlock

On the problem with fast fashion 

“We educate [students] right from the first day to recognise their privilege, and to be able to identify situations where there may be a power imbalance, but ultimately, if they’re working for a company that doesn’t give them the time or the freedom to do that, then that obviously can be really disenchanting.

“I think we’re just going to continue to see disrespectful cultural appropriation until there is a fundamental change to the fast fashion system.” – Sherlock

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