Cultural Exchange or Appropriation?
In recent years, there has been an increasing discourse on the integration of global cultures into fashion. Numerous fashion companies have been criticised for appropriating symbols and prints from cultures often marketed as “exotic”, and chastised for profiting from these cultures.
Just this month, fashion label Max Mara was accused of ripping off designs from ethnic Laotian minorities in their Spring/Summer 2019 collection. The fashion brand produced modern garments that featured motifs which are almost identical to embroidered symbols from a small ethnic minority in Lao, but Max Mara neglected to even credit its originators. Even worse, these garments were mass-produced in a different country; which meant zero remuneration were given to its originators, and their age-old motifs were cheapened by mass reproduction. What took weeks to embroider by the Laotian artisans can now be printed in a matter of seconds in an ethically ambiguous factory.
The Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre (TAEC) in Luang Prabang, Laos, commented, “Particularly shocking is that the original embroidered pattern has been copied as a print, taken from its original form and essentially duplicated for the collection. Sadly, this practice is not uncommon in the commercial arena as designers claim ‘inspiration’ from traditional designs of ethnic groups around the world.”
To date, Max Mara has not responded publicly, nor have they issued a public apology. A petition calling out Max Mara still fails to gain the traction it needs.
It’s important that we as consumers point out these unfair practices by larger brands, to ensure that minority cultures are not exploited. They are in the minority. Statistically, without support from those who care, redress or justice is often out of reach for these communities.
Max Mara’s incident is not isolated in itself. Guatemalan weavers have filed a lawsuit against Western brands which have stolen its traditional Mayan motifs for years without remuneration, and the Maasai tribespeople of Kenya and Tanzania have fought back against brands constantly seeking to market their culture as exotic luxury.
As an ethical business that seeks to provide artisans across the Majority World with a platform to share their craft with the world, this is a topic close to our heart. We’re not perfect, and we’re always learning how to manage the balance between de facto “cultural appropriation” and what is be mutually-beneficial, or even empowering, cultural exchange, for our artisans and for our customers.
Here’s what we think could be healthy cultural exchange that benefits its original makers.
Cultural Exchange, Not Cultural Appropriation.
First of all, fashion is not an end to itself. It is a form of art and self-expression.
Our choice of clothing have inherent significance; we wear our values, it is a reflection of our inner self and what we wish to show to the world. We believe that everyone should have the opportunity to appreciate fellow cultures, and even incorporate insights, values and practices from different cultures into their everyday lives.
Just as long as we remember to give due credit to its origins, and take into consideration the context and the permissibility. Ethnic wear reserved for spiritual occasions shouldn’t be used to “jazz” up your night out. In the case of Max Mara, the motifs appropriated were time-consuming embroidery reserved mostly for funeral rites, painstakingly crafted out of respect to their ancestry. The same motifs were transferred into modern silhouettes by Max Mara. But why would you ever want to wear ancient funeral-rites motifs on your evening gown?
Inspired Locally, Made Locally
Throughout our travels, we’ve received heartwarming responses from local artisans who have always shared their culture openly. Many parts of the world are now increasing globalized and open-minded to sharing their heritage. We believe that it is extremely important that you co-produce with the originators of these symbols and motifs. This is one vital way to ensure we can fairly share the value derived from the internationalization of their craft.
The next time you purchase an “ethnic” piece, do a quick check if the brand is engaging with the local populace of which the piece is inspired from. If it features embroidery or textiles - are these symbols mass-produced and printed? If so, it was likely made in a factory that gave no credit nor employment to its originators.
If it is hand-stitched, and made in its country of origin, there is a higher likelihood that these are made with their originators. This is the case for brands like us (Artisan & Fox), Maiyet, MATTERPrints and more.
But this privilege of producing locally is not restricted to small companies. Even juggernauts like IKEA have shown it is possible to work with artisans on a global scale, evident through their work with Indian women artisans.
P.S. Plus points for the brand if it shares the significance behind the symbols used!
At Artisan & Fox, we believe in spotlighting our extraordinary artisans and elevating their origins.
This is why we guarantee our artisans 50% of the gross profits of each item sold, and also seek to feature their stories in a way that elevates their craftsmanship. We see no reason why Kenyan, Afghan, or Mexican craftsmanship shouldn’t be regarded on the same level as Japanese or Italian craft.
We also believe that artisans should have adequate input into each collaborative product on our site. This goes back to producing products with a conscience, ensuring that each piece is well-designed with a strong regard for its cultural heritage. We seek to collaborate with artisans to produce contemporary pieces that remain true to its roots, while also staying relevant in today’s world.
Fashion is powerful. Craft is powerful.
If done right, fashion and craft has the power to change the dominant narratives surrounding those who have been under-represented, observed through the new lenses of admiration and respect, rather than sympathy or condescending exoticism.
Authors: Jaron Soh and Denise Ho