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Cultural Appropriation could soon be Illegal

Representatives of over 180 different indigenous cultures recently called upon the United Nations (UN) to outlaw cultural appropriation in fashion at a meeting in Geneva. Should their calls be heard, the fashion industry will need to start thinking twice about its use of designs from around the world as it has traditionally been perceived as public enemy number one when it comes to misuse of others’ cultural property.

The World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), a United Nations agency, is being asked by a special committee to bring in "effective criminal and civil enforcement procedures" to stop companies commercializing others’ cultures.

Cultural Appropriation could soon be Illegal

The Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge and Folklore has been working since 2001 to bring about such protection for cultures. The recent 34th Session has resulted in a draft document which they hope will be adopted and would mean backing for any culture/community wanting to take legal action against or needing help in matters of intellectual property rights.

Cultural Appropriation – What’s all the Fuss About?

Cultural appropriation has become a bit of a hot topic over the past few years. When you have the likes of Katie Perry and Pharrell Williams being publicly lambasted for it, you know that it has some gravitas in the public eye.

Opinions are divided. On one side of the extreme, some say we should all be able to use, borrow, be inspired by and take from other cultures as we like. At the other end, some voices say we should never ever use anything from a culture, not of our own. In the middle, the recognition is that when talking about ‘cultural appropriation’ it is very specific in that it refers to taking from another culture, using it for your own gain, slapping your own interpretation on that culture and commercializing it without any tip of a hat or financial contribution to the culture.

It is the latter interpretation that the committee is trying to protect cultures from.

Fashion and Cultural Appropriation – Public Enemy Number One

Although there are plenty of examples from outside of fashion, such as ripping off Hindu holy festivals or stereotyping of Asian culture by food bloggers, it is, without a doubt, the fashion industry that tops the charts when it comes to examples of cultural appropriation. High-street fashion retailer Top Shop recently caused outrage for using the Palestinian black and white scarf design for a new summer dress. The “keffiyeh” has very strong associations with Palestinian history, culture, and politics. Seeing their identity turned into a pretty dress drew extremely harsh criticism which led to Top Shop pulling the item.

Then there is luxury fashion house Chanel, who included a boomerang in their spring-summer 2017 catalog. The ‘luxury’ boomerang priced at 2,000 dollars quickly resulted in a backlash from Aboriginal groups in Australia who were angered over their cultural property being branded and sold with no recognition of their rights. The company defended the continued sale of the boomerang arguing it had sold them since 2006.

Designer Roberto Cavalli found himself dealing with protestors at fashion events and an organized social media campaign against him when he used a little known sacred symbol from a group of Muslim mystics. Some 500,000 students of the Maktab Tarighat Oveyssi (MTO) Shahmaghsoudi School of Islamic Sufism realized he had pilfered the symbol and made sure the world knew about it.

Kokon to Zai (KTZ) a UK-based label was called out for blatant cultural appropriation by the great-granddaughter of the one of the last Shaman of the Canadian Inuit. Salome Awe noticed her grandfather’s garments from 1922, captured in a photo, had essentially been copied by the designers. The company defended its actions as “appreciation”.

“Appreciation” or “Appropriation”?

The massive gray areas that exist in the cultural appropriation debate at present leads to an inconsistent response where it is called out. Some companies defend their actions, others backtrack, others don’t know what to do. The reason being that no clear lines exist in law or statute.

It may be that this is about to change in the future. Should this be the case then the fashion industry needs to start thinking about how to work with the cultures they are inspired by, how to share benefits and how to promote a sustainable future for all.

Can the fashion industry perhaps agree on a best practice when it comes to 'cultural appreciation'? One aligned with potential new international laws as well as with, it seems growing public opinion on what is acceptable when it comes to commercializing others' cultures.

Written by Neil Payne, an expert in cross-cultural communication at Commisceo Global – a training company specialising in culture and business. When he isn’t working you can find him in the greenhouse.

Homepage Photo: Valentino Spring/Summer 2016 ad campaign, by Steve McCurry