Fashion design is a creative process. A lot of designers take inspiration from cultures while designing collections. However, there is a fine line between taking inspiration and disrespecting a culture. When the latter happens, that is when it sparks a massive debate on cultural appropriation. It can become an issue if the design is proved offensive to that certain community or culture. Off-late, many fashion houses have been in the news for all the wrong reasons, mainly for cultural misappropriation.

So, what is cultural appropriation in fashion?

According to,

Cultural appropriation is the act of adopting elements of an outside, often minority culture, including knowledge, practices, and symbols, without understanding or respecting the original culture and context.

For instance, Gucci is one of the latest fashion brands to be called out for cultural appropriation when they had white models walk with turbans as headgears at the 2018/19 Milan Fashion Week. This caused a lot of backlashes. A turban is a sacred adornment worn by the Sikh community to represent their identity. Had the fashion house hired models from the Sikh community to showcase the designs, things would have probably turned out differently for them.

What other brands faced similar accusations?

Apart from Gucci, there are a lot of big names in the fashion industry that have made questionable errors in their designs. Back in 2011, an Australian label, Lisa Blue by designer Lisa Burke sparked outrage among Hindu nationalists in India. The swimsuit brand had an Indian-looking model sport a swimsuit with our Indian goddess, Lakshmi as a print on the front and rear of it. Lakshmi is the Goddess of wealth, fortune and prosperity. This was seen as a highly disrespectful act by Hindu devotees as there was inappropriate usage of religious deities for commercial purposes.

Very recently, renowned designer Stella McCartney was criticized when she showcased Ankara prints on the runway. The Ankara print is traditional to the African community. People were upset as she used these prints without giving credit to the African designers, only had one African model represent it on the runway and also stole a traditional print to sell it as hers.

Similarly, Carolina Herrera blatantly copied patterns and designs for the Resort 2020 collection. The designs were specific to certain regions in Mexico and are only done by the native people living there. The Mexican government called the Creative Directot, Wes Gordon out immediately once her collection was out. The culture secretary of Mexico, Alejandra Frausto questioned the brand and asked what benefits the people from the Mexican community were going to receive after they reportedly used their designs. This gives us a hint on how designers don’t do thorough research about a culture before incorporating it in their designs.

There were other instances where popular brands’ products had designs synonymous with blackface, a racist character created in the 1800s by white people to mock black people. The character has a black face with red exaggerated lips. Gucci had released a black turtleneck with a red-lined cutout for customer’s mouths. While the brand claimed it was inspired by vintage ski-masks, people thought it was inspired by blackface, sparking major outbreak on the internet. Gucci released a statement apologizing for their insensitivity and later added that the company would hire more people from diverse backgrounds. Similarly, Prada had displayed dolls in their store and Katy Perry’s shoe collection had designs that were reminiscent of blackface, which caused both brands to come under negative limelight.

Why is research more important than ‘inspiration’?

All these examples only point out how oblivious brands are when they are designing their collections. Also, if the same brand is called out for it more than once, are they really making any changes from within the company? As I said, designing is a creative process. However, every creative process involves in-depth research about a topic. Taking inspiration from a culture to represent its beauty and significance is very different from stealing it and calling it your own. However, the moment you start misinterpreting the word “inspiration” for imitating, you probably go down the wrong path of misappropriating a culture too.

How has social media played its part?

With news spreading on social media like wildfire, designers should be very careful about what they post or write. Most of the outbreaks started on Twitter and Instagram. Many people from different cultures who were hurt by what was showcased at such big fashion weeks, expressed their sentiments on social media. And, that’s how a lot of people are aware about it. Social media has also become a fast-paced source of information. People who probably weren’t aware about certain cultures now know about it and are able to identify cultural misappropriation.

What can the existing fashion brands do?

Solution | Image Source: Shutterstock
Solution | Image Source: Shutterstock

Apart from being more thoughtful and sensitive, if brands and designers are taking inspiration from a certain culture for their collection, here are a few essential things they could keep in mind.

  1. Carrying out extensive research on cultural elements is a must, right from its origin to its significance to its use. They can also find out why certain details like the color, print, fabric, print or texture have been used in a culture.
  2. Have a model from that particular culture represent it on the runway in order to showcase its beauty and significance.
  3. Hire artisans who are responsible or the sole innovators of these designs and give them due credit.
  4. Include or hire more diverse people from different backgrounds in all their teams to make sure their designs aren’t deemed as culturally misappropriate.

I hope designers become more conscious of people’s sentiments when designing and showcasing their collections. However, the major question still remains- where should designers draw the line between appropriating and appreciating a culture?

What are your thoughts on cultural appropriation in fashion and how do you think it can be curbed. Let us know in the comments below.

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