"Fashion comes and goes and every now and again you get these inspirations from countries all over the world appearing in contemporary collections," London-based textile expert Barbie Campbell Cole told me last year during an interview I was conducting for a fashion magazine.
Trained as an architect, Campbell Cole developed an interest in textiles and jewellery from far away countries in her twenties when she visited Guatemala.
After completing her studies, she started working for the BBC, travelling to China, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Ethiopia shooting documentaries, and eventually turning into a dealer in antique textiles and jewellery from Africa and Asia.
"I do think a lot of clothes designers are genuinely interested in these pieces," she explained to me in that occasion. "At antique fairs we get a lot of different visitors, including costume and fashion designers. I sold some fabrics to costume designers for various films such as Harry Potter, for example, but fashion designers sometimes buy antique clothes in order to gain inspiration or to take an item of clothing apart and copy the pattern. Some even buy particularly unusual designs and keep them in store for future inspiration."
"From what I understood she buys things that have an interesting cut or a fascinating approach for inspiration and not to copy them directly. But things differ from designer to designer: I once had the most beautiful riding coat from Turkey, and a fashion designer bought it, completely took it apart and copied the pattern. She ended up selling a lot of them to Japan and then she very kindly gave me the coat back and said that, if I was able to sew it up again, I could keep it!"
The history of fashion is full of traditional references absorbed and transformed into modern garments: throughout his career Jean Paul Gaultier created his own cultural geography, incorporating Russian, Hebrew and Eastern alphabets and orthography into his clothing, and coming up with a very personal iconography.
In Gaultier's universe terms such as space, place and landscape do not have any boundaries: in his advertising campaign for the Spring/Summer 1998 collection, for instance, national identity was erased in favour of a transnational hybridisation that mixed Frida Kalho and Che Guevara with religious images appropriated or borrowed from Roman Catholicism.
For the Spring/Summer 2014 season Givenchy and Alexander McQueen offered to the fashion adventurer fancy trips to Africa, though the former did so with some hints at Japanese culture and the latter combined together Zulu straw skirts and Masai jewellery. But is it possible to pay a tribute to a culture without appropriating or violating it?
After all, the history of fashion is rife with controversial stories about co-option and appropriation of traditional motifs, symbols, and patterns.
Fashion fans may remember relatively recent incidents such as Dior's 2009 shoes with a heel shaped like an African Fertility Goddess, and Rodarte's A/W 2012 collection being criticised by aboriginal law professor and member of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues Megan David for using the sacred art works of Australia's indigenous people.
Then there was Chanel apologising for the Metiers d'Art 2013-2014 collection that featured symbols of Native American dress, feathered headdresses, and bead work, though it is worth remembering that, before this incident, Victoria's Secret had to remove from the broadcasting of its 17th Annual Fashion Show footage of model Karlie Kloss in a Native American-inspired feathered headdress, fringed bikini, and turquoise jewellery.
At times the cases go on for years: the Navajo Nation filed in 2012 a lawsuit in New Mexico against Urban Outfitters for products (including the "Navajo Hipster Panty" and "Navajo Hip Flask"), alleging trademark infringement and dilution, unfair competition, false advertising, violation of commercial practices law, and violation of the Indian Arts and Crafts Act, and the case was put on hold in March this year.
Other examples show instead swifter solutions to alleged plagiarism cases: last year people on social media highlighted how the design of Paul Smith's "Robert" sandal, was lifted from the chappal shoes made and sold in the markets of Peshawar. After many tweets and an online petition, the Paul Smith website removed the name of the product and highlighted in its description that it was "inspired by the Peshawari chappal".
The latest case regarding borrowing from traditions and cultures involves Isabel Marant: the designer included in her Spring/Summer 2015 Étoile collection a blouse that seems entirely lifted from the 600-year-old traditional dress of the indigenous Mixe community living in the village of Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec, Oaxaca, southern Mexico.
Oaxacan singer Susana Harp actually brought the issue to attention in January by tweeting a picture of the blouse and the Oaxacan people recently organised a press conference to explain their views and asked to remove the blouse from the collection and pay damages as well.
In the meantime, Marant is apparently fighting another court case against label Antik Batik currently stating they own the copyright on the blouse (Antik Batik in this case sounds like those rather clueless people who send claims to YouTube to say they have the right of this or that oscure silent film...).
To defend herself against this accusation before the district court of Paris, Isabel Marant actually pointed out that the blouse design comes from Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec and that she is therefore not the author of the garment.
But what about all the other pieces that Marant has included so far in her collections, including a mini-dress "inspired" by Mexican embroideries from the S/S 2009 collection (View this photo) or the knitwear and cardigans with motifs borrowed from the Peruvian tradition?
Further links with traditional embroideries from South America or displaying some connections with Native American designs can actually be spotted in Valentino's Spring/Summer 2016 menswear collection.
Showcased yesterday in Paris, the collection features coats and tops covered in intricately colourful embroideries or with delicate decorative motifs around the sleeves and the back of the garments.
Most times modern designs borrowed from specific traditions do not display any kind of innovation and they are not there to challenge a culture's classification system.
During the Boston Tea Party, white colonists dressed in the apparel of Native American Indians and raided the cargo on British-owned sea vessels docked in Boston Harbour. Donning the Native American dress allowed the colonists to establish a new identity, challenging England and an entire categorisation system, it was therefore an act that allowed them to leave behind a status and become something - or rather someone - else. This is not the case with modern fashion.
Besides, many cultures value their traditional textiles, garments, embroideries techniques and adornments as symbols of their identities and quite often these decorative motifs also have special meanings. Fashion kills the symbolism behind these items in the name of profit with copied garments and accessories stripped of their essential meanings and sold at extremely high prices on the luxury market (Paul Smith's "Robert" sandals retailed at £300).
Fashion designers and critics dub as "transnational" or "multinational" these mixes that make the world sound and look like a vast flat area with no borders. Yet, while borrowing from foreign lands and national dress is nothing new, there are different ways of doing it.
A good way to solve the cultural appropriation problem would be for designers to actually develop projects with traditional craftspeople or visit the communities where specific designs are made and learn more about their heritage.
As seen in a previous post, London-based brand Superfertile developed a while back a collection of beaded accessories with an indigenous minority, the Huichol or Wixárika people, a native American ethnic group living in Wirikuta. The highly symbolic motifs covering the accessories were a way to bring awareness about the pressures the natives have been going through at the hands of mining companies.
Designers not interested in honest and aptly-rewarded collaborations (as much as these two adjectives may sound utopian in the fashion industry...) may have to be careful in future if they want to avoid having to face well-prepared fashion lawyers.
Starting from this Autumn the New York-based Fordham University of Law will indeed be offering the world's first degrees in fashion law - a Master of Law in Fashion (L.L.M.; for lawyers), and a Master of Studies in Law (M.S.L.; for nonlawyers). The courses are approved by the American Bar Association and cover issues such as fashion financing and licensing and fashion modelling law.
Supported by program backer and part-financier Diane von Furstenberg, a long-time campaigner for copyright protection in the States, the course has been launched by Professor Susan Scafidi - who established in 2010 the school's Fashion Law Institute.
In the meantime, as you wait for the courses to start, you may want to get more informed about textiles, their histories and meanings and, if you want to do so, don't miss next week the Hellens Manor Textile Bazaar (Hellens Manor, Much Marcle, Herefordshire, UK; 1st and 2nd July 2015). The event features world textiles, craft demonstrations and textile expert John Gillow who will be lecturing on Textiles of the Islamic World (Wednesday 1st July, 6.00 p.m.; £4 per person). You can bet that, apart from avoiding legal issues, getting more knowledgeable will also offer better chances to introduce innovation via tradition.
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