WE SHOULD TALK ABOUT CULTURAL APPROPRIATION IN ETHICAL FASHION.
When I was a kid, probably around 6 years old, my mother let me play with her big, colourful scarf.
I remember clearly the bright floral print and tiny beads it had. It was absolutely magical for me, and probably a reason why I have a slight obsession with scarves today.
Anyhow, later I learned that my mother had bought the scarf years earlier, on a market from an old Roma woman. As she recalls, she bought it because it was just what people around her wore, it was a common fashion.
This isn’t anything surprising to me. I grew up in the Balkans, where the influence of Roma cultures in fashion, but also music, theatre, literature, and other aspects of life is deep and well alive.
Yet, only after many years, I began to understand how Roma people rarely get any credits, recognition, or profit from their inventions, knowledge, or art forms. It’s not just in the Balkans, of course. The so-called Bohemian style is present in mainstream western fashion, at least from the late 1960s and 1970s, though the influence existed as early as the 18th century. Just in case you weren’t sure, Bohemia was a name of an actual place, with a very, very dark history. Original Bohemians were travellers and refugees from that area. Today, Roma and Travellers communities are the most discriminated group of people in Europe, living in a system that continues to oppress and segregate them. About 80% of Roma live below their country’s at-risk-of-poverty line.
Now, I know that the contemporary Boho isn’t a single style and to the large extent, it moved away from the original inspiration. However, we usually don’t talk about this history, especially when it comes to sustainable brands.
Ethical brands aren’t exempt from cultural appropriation. And we all should have a serious conversation about it.
Old, complex phenomenon
Let me start by saying that I realise that it isn’t up to me, as a white woman in fashion, to decide what is right or wrong here. I can’t tell you where to draw the line and call something a cultural appropriation. Only the communities from whom we are borrowing can decide on that. We should listen to them first, always.
Nevertheless, it is a conversation we all need to have. It is not just an issue for marginalised communities to take care of. Therefore, I am here to use my voice and privilege to challenge how we think. Hopefully, by the end of the article, I can do that.
The above-mentioned Bohemian style shows that cultural appropriation in fashion isn’t anything new or unusual. I’m sure you can recall at least one moment a designer or a brand used something from a minority group and claimed it as their own. Through recent years, we’ve seen too much of it: from “tribal motives”, using indigenous prints and embroidery, to incorporating Sikh turbans as a fancy accessory. Just last year, a French designer Isabel Marant apologised after being called out for using indigenous patterns from Mexico in her designs.
And while human history is full of trade, exchange, influence, and mixing of cultures, and thus, clothing styles, cultural appropriation isn’t that. In most simple terms, cultural appropriation is a phenomenon of adopting aspects of someone’s culture, without consent, usually for profit or entertainment. It’s not only fashion, of course. It can be anything, including food, rituals, beliefs, and stories. Cultural appropriation always involves an unjust relationship and power dynamic between a dominant group, that takes something, and the marginalised group(s). Usually, it means that a dominant group will take pieces of culture, with no regard to the meaning and the context, leaving the original creators out of the narrative. Such an act is disrespectful and long-term damaging for the minority group. But it gets even more problematic when the dominant group profits (in financial terms) from those cultural bits, while the marginalised group has been or still is punished for doing the same. The examples I mentioned above, like turbans or indigenous prints, show this very well: Sikhs are attacked and killed for wearing a turban, and indigenous people in Mexico are discriminated against daily.
Ethical fashion isn’t an exception
Thus, big brands or high-end designers profiting from minorities and their styles are disrespectful, unjust, and perpetuates the system of inequality, where one group has more rights than others. The same goes for any brand or creator.
What I want to say is that ethical and sustainable fashion isn’t immune to cultural appropriation. And that is the hard conversation we need to have here. Even some great brands I admire had their instances of appropriation. To give you an example, Stella McCartney, one of the pioneers in the field, used Ankara prints (originating in West Africa, notably Nigeria and Ghana) in their collections in the past, with no reference to the origin of their “inspiration”.
I don’t want to dismiss the hard work of ethical brands by any means. But their ethics must extend to where they get their inspiration from. If a community a brand is taking from isn’t benefiting directly from those creations and receiving credits for them then a brand needs to rethink its ethics. The thing is, ethical fashion today is predominantly white, which steers how we approach sustainability and ethics in the first place. Numerous activists, journalists, writers, designers, and others have been talking about this for years. The message is strong: we should make cultural sensibility and inclusion a vital part of ethical fashion.
Therefore, an ethical brand should acknowledge their inspiration and make sure that it doesn’t only benefit them. Also, as consumers, if we like particular styles, perhaps we should look for how to buy them directly from the artisans and communities first.
This brings me to the next point.
Wait, what about Mëune?
You might be thinking: but isn’t Mëune using traditional embroidery in their designs?
The answer is yes, and proudly so. The embroidery on the jackets is made by the indigenous community in the Andes. They use traditional wavering and dyeing techniques known to them for generations.
Look, it is not my role to defend Mëune. Nor can I speak in the name of the community Mëune is working with. Only the community and the artisans that are doing the embroidery can judge on this matter. Yet, I can ask questions and it’s exactly what I’ve done.
I asked Nahir, Mëune’s founder, how exactly is she working with the artisans. Here’s what she told me:
- This is direct trade and the money from embroidery goes to artisans only
- The artisans are paid what they ask for their work, Mëune doesn’t negotiate the price with them
- Artisans are co-designing the details on Mëune’s clothes and are consulted about it
- Artisans continue to use, experiment with, and pass on the techniques and knowledge, instead of selling to big corporations who aren’t interested in those
- While Mëune orders very small quantities, hopefully, this can expand in the future so that more artisans can work this way
- Artisans receive credit and recognition for the work they do
Of course, Mëune isn’t the only brand that works this way. I see more and more brands that aim to establish a mutually beneficial relationship with minority groups, as well as brands owned by people from marginalised groups.
There lies the crucial difference, and perhaps to go forward in ethical fashion.
I'm an anthropologist, activist, and ethical fashion writer based in Brussels, Belgium. I'm endlessly curious and restless, and always looking to challenge the way we think about fashion, style, and sustainability. Through my writing business, Thinking Threads, I work with small to medium ethical brands, helping them redefine the standards of the fashion industry, one word at a time.