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Fashion’s inspiration well. Time was, its parameters were elastic, depth and breadth confined only by the expanse of a designer’s imagination, yen for research and deftness at transforming the discoveries therein into runway-worthy stories.

This story first appeared in the November 9, 2016 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The industry’s greatest storytellers have often drawn deep and wide from that well for richly rendered shows. Two of the best, Alexander McQueen and John Galliano, traversed the globe to theatrical effect in the Nineties and Aughts. McQueen’s stunners included “The Girl Who Lived in the Tree” with its integration of Victoriana and Indian Empire-inspired imagery and a magical, eerie trek across the tundra; Galliano’s Dior wonders celebrated Egyptology, Pocahontas and Orientalism. Ralph Lauren’s legendary Southwestern persuasion, inclusive of Native American motifs, turned up most recently in his September show. In 1991, Isaac Mizrahi staged a melting-pot affair, populated by, WWD wrote, “Indians, cowboys, immigrant Jews, WASPs, homeboys and Hollywood starlets.” He later had an Eskimo moment. So did Jean Paul Gaultier — and an Hasidic one. In the mid-Eighties, designer hunk-of-the-moment David Cameron found inspiration in urban bicycle messengers. And let’s not forget the master, Yves Saint Laurent, who in 1976 delivered Peasants (albeit rich ones) into the fashion vernacular.

Most of these shows garnered high praise and little controversy (Rabbis excluded. They ruffled feathers.) And most belong to a different time, a protracted “then” that spanned from the Seventies through 2008, when sensitivities were less strident and umbrage, more selectively expressed. If any of those collections were shown today, the reaction might be very different. In our new world of “now,” driven by extreme sensitivity expressed via social-media hyperbole, designers and other creative types face unprecedented scrutiny of their creative choices that they must justify and defend.

The New York collections ended with just such a case in point: the social media brouhaha over Marc Jacobs’ pastel dreadlocks worn atop feisty, fun, rave-ready clothes. Inspired by Jacobs’ friend Lana Wachowski and realized by star hairstylist Guido Palau and dreads expert Jena Counts, the hairstyle triggered reaction that was fast and unforgiving, prompting Jacobs to respond, “I respect and am inspired by people and how they look. I don’t see color or race — I see people” — an assertion that enraged his detractors. The war of words calmed down after a reconsidered Instagram post in which Jacobs said, “I HAVE READ ALL YOUR COMMENTS…I thank you for expressing your feelings. I apologize for the lack of sensitivity unintentionally expressed by my brevity. I wholeheartedly believe in freedom of speech and freedom to express oneself though art, clothes, words, hair, music…EVERYTHING. Of course I do ‘see’ color but I DO NOT discriminate. THAT IS A FACT! Please continue to express your feelings freely but do it kindly. Nothing is gained from spreading hate by name-calling and bullying.”

Preceding Jacobs’ show by a year, Valentino designer Pierpaolo Piccioli and his then-partner Maria Grazia Chiuri showed a spring 2016 collection derived from tribal African inspiration. While much of fashion swooned (a notable exception, Robin Givhan, tweeted: “Well kids, we’re going to ‘wild, tribal Africa.'”), social media excoriated on two levels, as critics found the tone of the show notes patronizing and the casting of predominantly white models, whose hair was worked into cornrows, a display of grave insensitivity. Another recent show that caused consternation: Riccardo Tisci’s glorious fall 2015 outing for Givenchy that worked a hybrid theme, Victorian Chola, in a manner deemed beautifully provocative by some and demeaning by others.

No one can argue reasonably against respecting cultures other than one’s own. But a strong current has entered the social psyche that to draw inspiration from such cultures is somehow to demean them. The often hasty assumption of insult either ignores the intended compliment — most often, if a designer references a cultural element, he or she finds in it something compelling, whether on a purely aesthetic or other level — or questions the context and motivation of its usage, even if favorably portrayed. This extends beyond fashion to all levels of creative expression, with musical pop stars oft-chided for violations: Miley Cyrus (twerking); Katie Perry (Geisha, Egyptian and other dress-up no-nos); Taylor Swift (the wholesome “Shake It Off” video). Celebrated novelists have been similarly called out. (Digressing from the creative element, the canoe makes the list. Specifically, the Canadian canoe, which earlier this year a professor at the University of Victoria identified as representing “a narrative…of theft and genocide”).

What was once perceived as inspired creation has become cultural appropriation — at face value, an accurate term with a ring of neutrality. Only now, those two words mean cultural theft rooted in any number of maladies of the human condition — ignorance, disrespect, animosity, false superiority, greed.

How did this happen? Susan Scafidi is the academic director of the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham and an early voice on cultural appropriation, with her 2005 “Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law.” “To me, ‘cultural appropriation’ is a description,” Scafidi says. “You’re taking something, a cultural artifact, without permission, from someone else’s culture. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s misappropriation. There’s also cultural borrowing and inspiration which can be very positive. We wouldn’t have California rolls or Tex-Mex cuisine without cultural appropriation.”

Scafidi favors extreme caution when navigating the appropriation waters, particularly when drawing from “an historically oppressed culture.” She notes that some elements may be off-limits, those with deep sacred significance, for example, and that the element of inspiration should be somehow transformed rather than merely stolen. “Absolutely admire, be inspired by, participate in, but observe a few cultural norms at the same time,” she says. “Or at least, if you’re going to violate those cultural norms, don’t make it accidentally; know that you are crossing lines if you are one of the bad boys of fashion.”

But these days, observance of “cultural norms” is anything but easy. Scafidi’s definition of cultural appropriation as using material “without permission” implies that someone or some entity retains the right to grand permission. But who? As for not crossing lines “accidentally” — at a time of thin skin, social-media frenzy and parameters of acceptability that are nebulous at best, good luck with that one.

The emergent sartorial sensitivity extends beyond the runway. Halloween used to be a fun night on campus; now it’s such a minefield that in the weeks leading up to last month’s celebrations, college administrations and student groups across the country issued advisory guidelines for acceptable costumery. In a relatively short time, it has become verboten for non-indigenous people to don Native American regalia, particularly headdresses, packed as they are with religious and ceremonial significance. While many schools noted such garb as particularly egregious, (along with that suggestive of virtually any ethnicity — as well as such former favorites as the hobo and anything in the sexy hoe range) one went further, suggesting that students refrain from dressing not only as American Indians but as cowboys. That school: the University of Texas at Austin.

Discomfort with potentially loaded fashion motifs didn’t start with the explosion of social media. Chanel’s spring 1994 couture collection featured inscriptions from the Koran embroidered on dress bodices; Karl Lagerfeld said he mistook the verses for a secular poem inspired by the Taj Mahal. The fall 1995 Comme des Garçons men’s collection, shown on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, included striped pajama pants that critics thought referenced concentration camp uniforms. Rei Kawakubo denied such intent and pulled the pants off the market. Those shows garnered a well of negative reaction at the time. Not so Viktor & Rolf’s fall 2001 effort, dubbed “Black Hole,” in which the designers sought to achieve the look of a two-dimensional shadow by working in all black — including face for the models. Apart from a piece in WWD, the show somehow escaped critical commentary beyond the clothes.

Most famous (or perhaps infamous): John Galliano’s spring 2000 haute couture collection for Dior, inspired by the homeless women and men of Paris, many of whom lived along the Seine. Swept up in the show’s lyrical beauty, I remember feeling a little stupid after the fact for not having anticipated the outcry over the juxtaposition of homelessness with couture.

Given the current mood of sensitivity, it shocks to consider that the most distant of those shows happened little more than 20 years ago; it’s a near certainty none would get past in-house protocol today, and rightly so. On the other hand, McQueen’s Tree Girl and Saint Laurent’s Peasants would, though the designers might be called out for appropriation, despite referencing the foreign cultures from a place of obvious admiration and fascination. That’s not only how creativity works, but how civilizations work. It’s human nature to be intrigued by that which seems exotic to us, a reality born out from Marco Polo to the frenzy across creative disciplines that occurred after the discovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1922. Yet would Galliano’s Egyptian masks fly today? Doubtful.

John McWhorter, a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia, has written extensively on the topic — including a piece for Time.com on Jacobs’ dreadlocks. “Human history is all about groups living together and therefore, inevitably, sharing one another’s good ideas,” McWhorter offers via e-mail.

Yet among long-oppressed societies — primary among them, the African-American culture, of which, he writes on Time.com, “logic and morality are different for one and only one human group in the history of Homo sapiens: the descendants of African slaves in a country called the United States of America” — the mind-set of what he calls the “noble victim,” can take hold, registering such “sharing,” no matter how benign, as an affront.

“It is a hallmark of educated American society today, unfortunately, that many think of being a victim of oppression as, itself, something to found a sense of legitimacy upon,” he writes in our exchange. “Given black people’s history in this country, it isn’t surprising that this tendency is strong among black people — if life tells you you aren’t quite enough, what more tempting status than that of the noble victim? However, understandable though this may be, it has gone beyond coherence or fairness.”

Asked about the ramifications for creativity, he says, “Creativity will be constrained, and nothing will be gained, because the people seeking things to call ‘appropriation’ have a fundamental need to be feel offended — it helps them feel whole — and thus they will direct their anger in some other direction. We also shouldn’t underestimate how creative those calling ‘appropriation’ can be — we haven’t seen yet how counterintuitive these claims can get. There’s a way to hate on almost anything if you work at it.”

Scafidi on the other hand, places the onus firmly on the creator to prove that the cultural borrowing “doesn’t come from a place of hatred or fear or derision, it comes from a place of love and admiration.” And that that admiration is informed. Jacobs, she suggests, might have helped himself on the front end by explaining his use of the dreads, and his respect for black culture, in show notes. (If it seems odd that a designer who doesn’t do show notes would suddenly write up a graph on his hair look, so be it.) Conversely, Piccioli and Chiuri got the show notes wrong, perhaps, Scafidi muses, victims of their press office (along with a too-literal hairdresser and a not-literal-enough casting agent.) “I felt sorry for them,” she says. “Their copywriters who made reference to ‘wild tribal Africa,’ and to images that were ‘primitive yet regal.’ Those kinds of notes undermined any claim to admiration by sounding a little bit condescending. The verbiage made it worse.”

No show notes — no good. Awkward show notes — worse. If it sounds damned-if-they-do-or-damned-if-they-don’t, in some ways, it is. So what are designers to do? At what point do they start to compromise their creativity, determining that freedom of expression isn’t worth the hassle — or the heartache — of weathering accusations of, at best cultural ignorance or theft and at worst, racism?

At the recent WWD CEO Summit, Jacobs sat on a panel that discussed “The Future of Clothes.” I asked about the dreadlocks fallout, and how he negotiates the design process in this PC world. “There’s a lot to learn,” he acknowledged. “…[You’re] ignorant if you’re not sort of aware of everything and everyone and you’re not respectful and if you don’t ask all the questions and do all the homework. So I’m not sure that jibes with my idea of creativity, which is something instinctive and fluid, and it’s sort of about what could be if we let our minds go rather than, ‘Can I? Should I? Is it OK?’ It goes against my thing. But to others, that’s coming from a place of privilege, you’re a privileged fashion designer or you’re a privileged whatever. So I don’t know. It’s a really hard conversation to have.”

Norma Kamali was also on the panel. “When you get an idea or you’re inspired and you feel something, you don’t think about anything except making that become real,” she offered. “To think that you’re going to course correct it because of something just is out of the question. And I think that we all have a moral compass, too; there is a line that obviously we don’t cross and that’s our individual moral compass. So that’s all we have to hope we have. And either the people who like what we do feel comfortable with it or they don’t.”

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