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We should talk about cultural appropriation in ethical fashion

The original article was written for and published on Meüne’s blog. They gave me full permission to adapt and post it here.

I know the exact moment when my ever-present obsession with scarves began.

Tena wearing a big gray scarf, wrapped around the sholders, looking and slightly smiling to the camera
I always have a scrarf with me, regardless of the weather outside

It was when my mother let me wear and play with her big, colourful scarf. I remember clearly the bright floral print and tiny beads it had. That scarf was absolutely magical for 5 or 6-year old me. Later I learned that my mother has 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.

At the same time, Boho fashion, Gypsy style, and similar are a big part of ethical fashion.

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.

A chair with a long gray-silver scarf over it
Sit down comfortably, we're about to discuss some uncomfortable stuff.

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, and 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 exactly 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. In 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, believes, 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.

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.

So, I talked to one brand that I know is using pieces of cultural heritage in their designs. I chatted with Nahir from Meüne about how they work with indigenous arts.

Working with indigenous art

I have met Nahir months ago and have followed her brand’s journey since. Early on, I started asking her a lot of questions about how and where is she producing her first design, the Magda jacket.

I sat down with her again and specifically ask about her work with the artisans in Peru. I decided to sum up her answers to demonstrate how ethical brands can approach and honour cultures that are not their own.

So here it is!

The embroidery on the jackets is made by the indigenous community in the Andes. The community uses traditional wavering and dyeing techniques known to them for generations. They profit from working with Meüne in the following ways:

  • This is direct trade and the money from embroidery goes to artisans only

  • The artisans are paid what they ask for their work, Meüne doesn’t negotiate the price with them

  • The artisans gave a full and free consent for Meüne to use their creations

  • Artisans are co-designing the details on Meüne’s clothes and are consulted about their use

  • 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 Meüne orders very small quantities, hopefully, this can expand in the future so that more artisans can work this way

  • Artisans are credited and recognised for the work they do

Of course, Meüne 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 group

There lies the crucial difference.

Magda jacket with indigineus embroidery on the pockets and cuffs. By Meüne.
The Magda jacket with artisinal embroidery. Courtesy of Meüne.

I’d love to continue the conversation around cultural appropriation in fashion and how can ethical brands change this. If you have an example or practice to share, please get in touch!


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