In fashion slang, journalists, critics and trendsetters often talk about "tribes" to define groups of people who dress in the same colours, swear allegiance to a specific designer or follow a certain style. But, while we reconstitute in this way more or less cool urban tribes, we forget about the original meaning of the word that refers to a group of people united by the same language, customs, and beliefs.
In a previous post, we looked at how the fashion industry often turns to these tribes to find ideas and inspirations that can be incorporated into garments and accessories. In that post we mentioned the case of Isabel Marant who included in her Spring/Summer 2015 Étoile collection a blouse with motifs lifted from the 600-year-old traditional dress of the indigenous Mixe community living in the village of Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec, Oaxaca, southern Mexico.
The latest case revolves instead around London-based Kokon to Zai (KTZ): according to Salome Awa, a producer for CBC News in Nunavut, the brand's Autumn/Winter 2015 menswear collection incorporates garments that integrate traditional and sacred Inuit designs included without permission.
In the collection's press release, KTZ mentioned a bowler hat wearing character looking like Alex out of A Clockwork Orange travelling to meet the Inuit people in an imaginary rehab journey conjured up by the brand's founder, designer Marjan Pejoski.
Awa pointed out that one of the designs included in the collection was lifted from a picture of her great-grandfather, one of the last Shamans of the Canadian Inuit, taken by Danish explorer Knud Rasmussen in the early 1920s and featured in the volume Northern Voices: Inuit Writing in English (1989). A version of the garment also appears in Zacharias Kunuk and Norman Cohn's film The Journals of Knud Rasmussen (2006), recounting the story of the Danish explorer who met her great-grandfather. The original caribou skin parka was made to offer spiritual protection to its wearer: Awa's great-grandfather, thinking someone was going to drown him, had added to the design a safeguarding pattern of hands on his chest and a little man in the middle.
You could argue that André Courrèges' iconic 1965 slit glasses were originally inspired by the Inuit bone or wood goggles, but in that case the French designer used the goggles as a starting point to come up with what could be defined as Space Age sunglasses. KTZ took instead the original design and simply replicated it, adding to it a fetishistic droog edge. According to Awa, the Inuit sacred laws of duplicating someone else's shaman clothing were therefore broken.
KTZ has issued an apology in response to Awa's accusations, stating: "(...) Over the last 20 years KTZ has always been inspired by and paid homage to indigenous cultures and tribes around the world. It's part of KTZ's DNA to celebrate multiculturalism as a form of art and to encourage appreciation for traditions, ethnicities and religions' diversity. (...) KTZ is a very small UK based company - with a team counting less than 15 people employed across the globe and with ethnic backgrounds ranging from Macedonian, Greek, Portuguese, Polish, German, Italian, Dutch, Japanese, Nigerian, Chinese and Indonesian. Our work is never intended to offend any community or religion. We sincerely apologise to you and anyone who felt offended by our work as it certainly wasn't our intention."
Mrs Awa has demanded the fashion house donate any profits from the item to the Inuit people, but the offending garment and a sweatshirt (called "Shaman Toweling Sweatshirt" - the brand was therefore aware they were using the attire of a shaman since they employed this word to describe the garment...) with the same motifs have been removed from the brand's stores and website; Canadian retailer CNTRBND also removed the items from its website.
Considered as the most tribal of modern fashion labels, KTZ is not new to the game of appropriating ideas, looks and costumes from specific traditions: people who know their anthropology will remember how the brand's A/W 2014 meanswear collection featured garments reminiscent of the costumes in Sota Managadze's 1965 film Ballad of the Khevsurs (Xevsuruli Balada), while, in its A/W 2015-16 womenswear collection, the brand combined Navajo designs such as the sacred supernatural beings called Yeis with beadwork patterns, Plains bone breastplates, and appliqued motifs of the thunderbird (a supernatural bird of power and strength for certain American indigenous people) and was accused by Native American fashion designer Bethany Yellowtail of copying a design created by her great, great grandmother.
The current case of appropriation was noticed for the shamanistic and spiritual meanings attached to the symbols included in the designs. Yet copyright-wise this case may not be so simple to sort out: while it's easy to understand Awa's point, copyright laws change from country to country, besides her great-grandfather's design, though powerful and bearing a deeper spiritual meaning, should have been formally recognized and protected by indigenous cultural property. In a nutshell, while the symbols on KTZ's pieces may be sacred and the brand should have asked the permission of the original designer, this may not be a copyright infringement case (can Dolce & Gabbana's garments with prints borrowed from the Catholic iconography be considered as copyright infringements? Say, if D&G use a print of a holy picture on their tops, would they be infringing a copyright or would they be offending the morals of Catholics?) At the same time this could be seen as a case of appropriation.
So the dilemma remains together with further unanswered questions. There are many issues currently being discussed at the UN Climate Change Conference COP21 taking place in Paris. Growing cities, the rising of sea levels, natural disasters, desertification and wars are pushing people to move, spreading political refugees and forcing migration. As a consequence, thousands of languages are currently in danger of becoming extinct. Fashion seems to be slowly yet relentlessly becoming another factor contributing to the extinction of certain traditions: by stealing specific motifs and patterns fashion claims it is looking for a genuine and healthy transnational style that unifies people, but, by appropriating codes, symbols, patterns and prints, it's actually dividing people and opinions. Maybe the time has come for governments to start protecting in better ways indigenous cultural property, but it's also time for fashion to stop ripping off other people's cultures and traditions in the name of a fake multiculturalism, but actually in search of higher profits.
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