What do luxury designers Max Mara, Carolina Herrera, Christian Dior and Louis Vuitton all have in common?
They have all been accused of plagiarism — or, more specifically, cultural appropriation of intricate designs that have emerged from indigenous cultures in Mexico, Laos, Thailand, Africa, Romania and elsewhere.
Fashion and its discontents
Indigenous groups across the world, and their representatives, have become increasingly sensitive to the appropriation of traditional textile designs, without attribution.
Designs that are the collective product of centuries or more of indigenous craftwork — mostly sustained by women — are showing up on the world’s most exclusive fashion runways, but often without any benefit or even nod to the sources of inspiration.
Beyond the heady world of international fashion, cheap copies of unique indigenous designs are often sold on the streets to tourists.
In Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, this has resulted in declining demand for the original items — and the abandonment of handmade textile industry among marginalized indigenous groups.
Laws and regulation
One way to address this is through regulation.
In Mexico, the government aims to roll out a pioneering new law that will protect the cultural livelihoods of indigenous peoples.
Worldwide, however, there aren’t any border-crossing trade agreements — no copyright or trademark regulations and treaties — that protect indigenous clothing and textile designs from being pirated by major global fashion brands.
One notable turn for the better is Christian Dior, which only recently was accused of appropriating a distinct jacket design from Bihor county in Romania.
But in April, when the international mega-brand debuted a new line of travel wear in Morocco, it took extra steps to identify with local artisans to create clothing that acknowledges its origins and benefits its originators.
Young fashion designers and artists are also adding nuance to the debate about cultural appropriation.
In interviews and opinion columns, they are calling out the heedless appropriation of designs from other cultures — but celebrating more conscientious design styles and practices.
In an essay that criticizes connects the dots between cultural appropriation and blackface, Poon Singhatiraj, a student at Northeastern University, also expresses hope for real cultural exchange.
“I would be proud if people want to draw upon elements of my native Thai culture in a respectful fashion,” Singhatariaj writes, “as it promotes appreciation of the culture and expands its influence worldwide. If my culture changes and evolves from its previous form as a result, then I welcome it.”
Perhaps a post-appropriation future is possible after all.