Fashion faux pas: The thin line between tribute and theft

The stakes in the current debate around fashion, cultural appropriation and racism, in which a variety of brands from Gucci to H&M have been called out and publicly flayed for making products that display striking historical ignorance or may exploit the work of others, have just been raised.

Last week, Mexico's Minister of Culture Alejandra Frausto wrote a letter to Carolina Herrera, the New York fashion brand, accusing it of using, for its own ends, embroidery techniques and patterns specific to certain Mexican indigenous communities in the resort 2020 collection.

On the one hand, this is simply the latest example in a series of fashion wake-up calls, but in recent months the charges have begun to pick up steam, facilitated by social media, which allows voices that may have previously been unheard to demand their due and have their say.

For years, the "inspiration trip" to a far-flung location in search of new materials, shades and shapes to expand a repertoire was a basic practice of most fashion houses.

Indeed, in many ways, that has been the designer formula: Take a smidgen of silhouette from here, a dash of decoration from there, sprinkle with a touch of art or architecture and, voila, new collection.

That is certainly what happened at Herrera, where creative director Wes Gordon took the signature vocabulary of the house - its uptown, gala-on-the-lawn essentials - and mixed those up with more unexpected designs to give it new life.

It is just that now, because of the increasingly connected world, those who provide the "inspiration" are more aware of it than ever and have begun to think of the result less as a tribute than as stealing - and to call it such. Those unexpected other designs happen to be someone else's signature. Just because that signature does not belong to a particular designer does not mean it is fair game.

When it comes to appropriation, most of the designer borrowing is not done with malice, though in its blithe usage, it is clearly a hangover of an old colonial mentality. Ignorance is not an excuse; nor is history.

Fashion, more than most industries, was founded on the principle of cultural cross-pollination. Like most cross-pollination, it has produced astonishing, illuminating results. That it did so in a way that ill-served some of those involved is unquestionable. That it needs to rethink its practices and systems so everyone has a seat at the table is also not in doubt.

"The opportunity lies in the chance to work with the people of these communities," Mr Steven Kolb, chief executive of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, said - rather than simply borrow from them.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 21, 2019, with the headline 'Fashion faux pas: The thin line between tribute and theft'. Print Edition | Subscribe