“Good artists borrow, great artists steal.” The question of who actually coined this phrase is up for debate — some argue it might have been T.S. Eliot, where others name Picasso or author W.H. Davenport Adams.
That quandary has also permeated the fashion industry on a multitude of levels — the maxim is finding strong pushback as it applies to fashion brands and designers. Increasingly infiltrated by amateur, consumer watchdogs empowered by social media, fashion companies are operating in a cultural backdrop of watershed movements, necessitating hyper-vigilance to avoid taboo topics and, more importantly, insulting a community.
Brand consultants and scholars note there’s no single formula or tactic that can be deployed to “fix” this issue. Cultural appropriation is a complicated topic, and observers said the best solution requires a complete change in the culture methods of a brand or company itself. But a good first step would be to start bolstering a company or brand’s awareness across the board on cultural competency — and that means being sensitive to cultural, ethnic and racial differences.
In a creative field that distills and celebrates styles from various cultures, brands and retailers are charged with installing protocols and infrastructure like diversity boards and chief diversity officers to address accusations of negative cultural appropriation — and avoid a p.r. nightmare that might result in the loss of high-profile partners, margins and profits.
“There is a fine line between cultural appropriation and appreciation. To try to maintain artificial lines between groups or protect one group’s rights over another to address or celebrate images and ideas of gender, race, ethnicity and the like is a losing battle in a day and age wherein these divisions matter less and less. The lines themselves are dissolving completely,” said Shireen Jiwan, founder and chief investigator of Sleuth Brand Consulting, a brand management firm that specializes in the intersection of fashion and technology.
That’s easier said than done — mega-brands such as H&M, Urban Outfitters, Victoria’s Secret and most recently, Gucci, have been embroiled in cultural appropriation controversies. In the case of H&M, it resulted in the loss of a high-profile partnership with The Weeknd.
H&M showed on its e-commerce site an African-American boy wearing a sweatshirt sporting the phrase: “Cutest monkey in the jungle.” The Weeknd responded, “Woke up this morning shocked and embarrassed by this photo. I’m deeply offended and will not be working with @hm anymore,” in a tweet that reached his 8.45 million Twitter followers.
“We sincerely apologize for offending people with this image of a printed hooded top. The image has been removed from all online channels and the product will not be for sale in the United States,” H&M responded. “We believe in diversity and inclusion in all that we do and will be reviewing all our internal policies accordingly to avoid any future issues.…We will now be doing everything we possibly can to prevent this from happening again in future. Racism and bias in any shape or form, conscious or unconscious, deliberate or accidental, are simply unacceptable and need to be eradicated from society.”
H&M also appointed Annie Wu as global leader for diversity and inclusiveness following the event.
Gucci’s fall collection sparked controversy with its display of turbans resembling those worn within the Sikh community – worn by white models, no less. The Sikh Coalition tweeted, “The Sikh is a sacred article of faith, @gucci, not a mere fashion accessory. #appropriation We are available for further education and consultation if you are looking for observant Sikh models.”
Gucci had “no comment” regarding the accusations. However, the show notes for the fall 2018 collection addressed the concept of identity, citing D.J. Haraway’s 1984 essay, “Cyborg Manifesto,” which theorizes that individuals can overcome the paradox of personal and socially assigned identity, according to the notes. “Gucci Cyborg is post-human,” the show notes said. “It’s a biologically indefinite and culturally aware creature. The last and extreme sign of a mongrel identity under constant transformation.”
“The challenge of the disciplinary power is to impose a precise identity on the subject. This operation is carried out placing the subject inside binary fixed categories, as the normal/abnormal one, with the specific intent of classifying, controlling and regulating the subject,” the show notes said. “Identity, though, is neither a natural matter nor a preset category, which can be imposed with violence. It’s not an immutable and fixed fact, rather a social and cultural construction and, as such, it’s a matter of choice, joining, invention.”
The topic of self-identification — especially gender — and corresponding policies has long been debated. And with the debate over human rights, political turmoil, and the permeating role of social media, these incidents are open to public scrutiny, requiring that each message, piece and purchase be heavily researched and weighed.
“When I think of access, I think of what social media has made possible. All the debacles that unfold on Instagram with accounts like diet_prada give access for Millennials and Gen Z to be at the doorstep of these designers, businesses and brands, meaning they’re now actually able to contact them directly,” said Kimberly Jenkins, lecturer at the Parsons School of Design and visiting assistant professor at Pratt Institute. Jenkins is teaching fashion history and theory.
“Because of the communications revolution, people can see and comment on things faster, so they call out things that are bad and more people see that,” echoed Valerie Steele, director and chief curator at The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology.
Jiwan agreed: “As customers, we vote with our dollars, contentedly scooping up ideology and conviction with every pair of yoga tights, pack of gum or new car. Brands invest in long-term consumer relationships by walking the walk.”
Social media has served as the primary venue for consumers not only to discover new brands and product, but also to unload their frustrations. “Socially conscious consumers who use their voices and purchasing power to end questionable business practices are powerful. Particularly through social media, consumers can influence business attitudes and force companies to act more responsibly,” said Sara Ziff, founding director of the Model Alliance.
But consumers aren’t entirely blameless. Though perhaps not as relevant as flower crowns or dad hats, one only need to look at street-style photographs of music festivals like Coachella or Bonnaroo to see cultural appropriation to the extreme — Native American-inspired moccasins and headdresses, for example, are still worn in abundance. The brands might produce potentially offensive products, but shoppers are buying the pieces — regardless of what they might voice on social media.
They very well might be taking a page out of some of the largest magazines. Publications like Vogue have come under fire with photo shoots like those that depicted Karlie Kloss as a geisha in its “diversity” March 2017 issue. Kloss tweeted an apology in light of the allegations.
The speed of fashion also plays a role. “The fact that people tend to be producing more fashion faster makes it, perhaps, more likely that people are going to be not thinking very clearly about what they’re doing if they’re scrambling to finish the collection,” Steele explained.
And while the industry has worked to create a more diverse work environment, critics stressed that much more can be done — especially in regard to spotting offensive products and designs before they are released into the market. True diversity starts at the top with positions of power and influence.
“Until we have people of color also in these positions of power like as an editor in chief, or chief buyer, real heads of company in these organizations, it’s going to be difficult to see the change that we want to see,” Jenkins echoed. In the meantime, retailers and brands will likely continue to make missteps.
But within most companies, there are those who have been receptive and agile in responding when mistakes do occur.
“After years of criticism over what critics said was the depiction of only Caucasian women in its advertising, Pantene created a mandate to bring diversity to its product innovation, communications and internal practices,” said Jiwan. “Pantene invested in new product development, internal culture and more before ultimately releasing its #StrongIsBeautiful campaign featuring African-American women wearing traditionally African-American hairstyles in a respectful, celebratory, authentic way. The brand was applauded for creating real, meaningful change versus just appropriating for profit.”
To Jenkins, investing in a diverse c-suite is the result of successful education. Timid professors who step around the exploration of formerly untapped cultures and historical references are part of the problem — graduates are unversed in hot-button backgrounds and topics.
“What if fashion students don’t have knowledge on the cultural or religious significance of why a sweatshirt saying ‘Coolest monkey in the jungle’ worn by a boy in a black body is offensive in many countries of the world?” Jenkins said. “These things slide right through and get the green light and then [retailers or brands] end up in a debacle of having to get a diversity officer because there’s just not enough diversity and knowledge on the team.”
Jiwan suggested that fashion companies “start with ensuring that the changes reflect an end-to-end shift in company behavior. If the changes manifest in advertising, but the company’s hiring or production practices still offend, you’re not ready to say anything to [consumers].”
This dovetails with the issue of students of color encountering challenges getting hired fresh out of university. The more trouble getting in the door, the less diverse future executives will be, perpetuating negative cultural appropriation.
“We’re lacking education. Once these students come out [of design school], there’s a crucial transition that’s a bridge from school or training to industry. Many students of color are marginalized or racialized,” Jenkins said. “It becomes precarious because many of them don’t have the right connection, or someone willing to take a chance on them. It’s this critical passage where some of the classmates are white or just have privilege because I know white students have that privilege.”
Curbing that privilege and fostering talent of all backgrounds is key to ensuring future c-suites and boards are diverse and progressive.
But that’s for future change. In order to address mistakes, transparent communication and apologies go a long way — but don’t anticipate a full recovery. “Immediacy, clarity and transparency are key. It’s a high-pace, low-peace life we’re all living and today’s news can feel like ancient history by tomorrow. While it might be tempting for an offending brand to lie low and let a sensitive issue blow over, they’re unlikely to get away with it,” Jiwan said.
“Social media puts brand behavior on full display, amplified for all the world to see and judge in real time. Like people, even the best-meaning brand is liable to make a wrong turn at some point and when it does, it’s critical that it responds immediately — especially if it’s hurt or offended its community,” she continued.
With the accelerated oscillation of fashion trends, production demands and ongoing brand loyalty that’s fleeting, brands and designers are now under a growing social spotlight. This requires c-level reinforcement to promote a diverse set of emerging talent, stern examination of current products, and vocal transparency when — and if — mistakes occur.
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