Cultural awareness is a key virtue to maintain, whether as a private individual, a professional practitioner or a brand with a multi-national presence and appeal. The world in which we live is a diverse one, and one which has continued to grow smaller with revolutions in travel, communication, and technology. Not only are we closer together by seamless transport between countries and continents, but also milliseconds from one another via the internet.
None of this is news, of course. But the impacts of a multicultural society are often ignored, mischaracterised, or wrongfully maligned altogether. The meeting of diverse cultures in contemporary society is inarguably a good thing, and yet often handled poorly – particularly by businesses attempting to engage with other cultures without having done their due diligence.
Diversity, inclusivity, and equality indeed form the bedrock of a respectful society, and the blending of different cultural influences is seen as a positive step toward building a truly multicultural world. However, there are instances when the utilization of cultural aesthetics or symbols skews towards a darker, ignorant, or even intolerant perspective. This inappropriate use or exploitation of another culture’s elements for personal or commercial gain, often without understanding or respect, is referred to as ‘cultural appropriation.’
Cultural appropriation typically involves borrowing and misusing aspects from culture to mirror or imitate its aesthetics, often reducing them to mere trends or exotic novelties. This misappropriation may encompass taking a symbolic image, design, or traditional practice, and employing it in a context that misrepresents or trivialises its original meaning or cultural significance. For instance, using random Japanese kanji characters in a design to exude an ‘Eastern’ vibe without understanding their cultural or linguistic implications, or donning religious attire from another culture as a costume, are classic examples of cultural appropriation. These instances showcase a disregard for the cultures being appropriated, often reducing their rich histories and meanings to surface-level aesthetics or exotic ‘otherness.’
Cultural Appropriation in the Fashion Industry
Indeed, the fashion industry often serves as a potent microscope to scrutinize and understand the damaging effects of cultural appropriation. Fast fashion outlets and luxury designer brands alike have been implicated in controversies related to cultural appropriation. These controversies usually stem from the design and sale of clothing items that borrow heavily from different cultures but fail to pay due respect or acknowledge the cultural heritage from which they derive their inspiration.
One incident that particularly struck a chord was when Karl Lagerfeld, the then-creative director of Chanel, designed three dresses in 1994, each emblazoned with verses from the Quran. This act of cultural appropriation was widely regarded as exceptionally disrespectful and offensive to the Muslim community, with sacred religious scripture being inappropriately used for fashion aesthetic.
Sadly, the fashion industry’s brushes with cultural appropriation are not solely confined to historical events. In the present day, a significant proportion of such appropriation blunders surface in the form of fancy dress or costume designs. Here, cultures are stereotyped and simplified to the point of caricature. One such instance is the reductive portrayal of East Asian culture through garments featuring the qipao or parasols. This reductionist approach fails to understand or respect the profound cultural symbolism and historical context these items hold within their original culture. This underlines the importance of mindfulness in embracing cultural inspiration while avoiding disrespect or appropriation.
The Risks and Consequences
There are numerous ethical and socially responsible reasons why a fashion enterprise should avoid cultural appropriation in design and product launches. However, there are also legal risks and consequences to fashion businesses, which are often more effective motivators.
While there may be right-minded designers, marketers and even executives aiming to steer the ship away from legal trouble, the existence of specific intellectual copyright and trademark laws enshrining the rights of certain minority groups create a more compelling line in the sand.
There is also the matter of public opinion and the potential for controversy. While major media outlets in the UK commonly assert that the UK is a polarised nation, divided by ‘culture wars’ and unable to fall on either side of complex debates relating to race and diversity, the truth is that the public is fairly well-united on equality, diversity, and inclusion outside of specific buzzwords. Where cultures are unfairly and unflatteringly appropriated, public opinion on a business can shift massively – with consequences for profit, reputation, and longevity.