‘Tribal,’‘Boho,’ ‘Mexican-Inspired,’ And ‘Exotic’ Are Fashion Cues For Cultural Appropriation—Here Are Some Examples
Taking inspiration from other cultures has been a trend in the fashion world since time immemorial. Cultural elements can often be found on the runway, “re-interpreted” by the fashion designer’s understanding of the culture she or he’s drawing inspiration from. From Geisha-inspired makeup and kimonos, to “tribal” and Navajo-esque designs, every fashion house has taken images or elements from other cultures to let their creativity run amok.
Taking or wearing things from a culture that is not your own —especially without crediting or showing respect to the people it belongs to, is appropriation, not appreciation.
The simplification of a culture and even the violation of a minority group’s intellectual property rights are among some of the serious issues involved around cultural appropriation —not to mention the perpetuation of stereotypes and just the plain disrespect. We went ahead and put together a list of instances in which the dominant cultures in the fashion industry have taken the liberty of “re-imagining” and drawing inspiration from minority cultures for their own gain, just to set a “trend.”
1. Victoria’s Secret misusing War Bonnets —apologizing for it, then doing it again. SMH.
In 2017, Victoria’s Secret sent a white model down the runway in their version of an American Indian War Bonnet. The incident happened 5 years after top model Karlie Kloss famously wore another insensitive “headdress” during the televised show. The company gave a weak apology after the first faux-pas and then proceeded to do it again.
This account of cultural appropriation was especially problematic given that the context hyper sexualized indigenous women. And given that more than 4 in 5 American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence, and more than 1 in 2 have experienced sexual violence, the stereotype is a problematic and unhealthy one.
2. Carolina Herrera using the traditional ‘Zarape’ print
Founded, and formerly helmed by the Latina Carolina Herrera herself, this instance of cultural appropriation was a true shock to Latinos everywhere. The new creative director of the brand, Wes Gordon “took inspiration” from the Serape print originally from Saltillo, Mexico. The collection featured the colorful print and copies of Indigenous Mexican embroidery. Needless to say the people who have created this aesthetic for centuries went uncredited.
3. Isabel Marant blatantly COPIED a traditional Oaxacan garment —and went as far as to patent it.
Ok, so this one is especially wild. The French designer known for her “boho-chic” aesthetic was under fire in 2015 for literally COPYING a traditionally indigenous design, typical of Oaxaca. It was reported that the French government had issued a patent document to the authority of Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec, Oaxaca, to prevent the inhabitants of the municipality from selling their indigenous designs —THEIR own designs, which have belonged to their peoples for centuries.
The document was said to suggest that Isabel Marant and another French company, Antik Batik, owned the patent to the embroidered blouses —and that the Mexican community of Oaxaca would need to pay copyright fees in order to sell them, which understandably enraged the local people. The two French companies were accused of plagiarism in respect of the embroidered blouses which took inspiration from the country’s artisanal designs.
4. Navajo or “tribal” prints appropriated by Urban Outfitters —and fashion in general.
In 2016 Urban Outfitters won a trademark case filed against them by the Navajo Nation. New Mexico Federal Judge Bruce D. Black accepted the hipster retailer’s trademark fair use defense, thus approving the company’s decision to brand panties, flasks, and other products as “Navajo.” As the basis to their argument, Urban Outfitter’s explained that the term has “acquired a descriptive meaning within the fashion and accessory market…the fashion industry has adopted ‘Navajo’ to describe a type of style or print.”
The Navajo Nation is a tribe rich with history and tradition, not to mention they function under their own government, and run a college and a museum on the reservation. Yet somehow, our legal system permits an entire culture to be reduced to a style of print.
5. Chanel’s grossly expensive boomerang
The boomerang is a tool used by Native Australians, and it dates back to 50,000 years ago. As aboriginal activist, Nayuka Gorrie eloquently put it: “Having a luxury brand swoop in, appropriate, sell our technologies and profit from our cultures for an absurd amount of money is ridiculous and hurtful,” she explained. “If Chanel truly want to respect Aboriginal cultures, the first place they should start is discontinue this product and issue an apology. Perhaps the next step would be supporting existing black designers.” Chanel slapped its logo on it and sold the boomerang for a whopping $1325 dollars.
6. Mara Hoffman’s “Otomi-inspired” swim collection
credit poppies and ice cream blog
The American swim and beachwear designer “designed” and entire collection —bikinis, coverups and dresses included— using Mexican Otomi embroidery and turning it into a print. The website described the design as a “colorful exotic animal print,” with no mention of the indigenous people who own and have made these designs for centuries. WTF !!! Where is the credit?
The traditional embroidery is handmade by the Otomi people in Tenango de Doria, Hidalgo, and the designs are referred to colloquially as “Tenangos.”
7. KTZ copying an Inuit design.
The London-based streetwear brand has been accused of stealing and copying indigenous designs more than once. In this occasion, it was a design from a sacred Canadian Inuit garment worn by a shaman. The design was reproduced, altered ever so slightly and released as a part of the brand’s Fall Winter collection of 2015. The famous shaman’s granddaughter complained about the appropriation resulting in the company’s half-assed apology and discontinuation of the product.
8. Nike “Huaraches”
I for one, was surprised that the general mainstream wasn’t screaming cultural appropriation at this, when people didn’t even know how to pronounce the word “huarache” smh.
Nike’s “Huarache” sneakers first of all, look nothing like the pre-Columbian indigenous shoe. The sports brand just stole the name and took Tarahumara runners as inspiration for their shoes —might’ve been nice if they had at least gifted a few pairs to the indigenous runners. You know, after Nike “took inspiration” from their culture, and all.
9. Michael Kors’ Mexican hoodie copy-cat
Some outlets reported that the black and grey hoodie “closely resembled” a Mexican sweater. Um, no, it was pretty identical. The issue was first brought to light when Santiago Perez Grovas, a photographer and architect from Mexico City, posted an image on Twitter which showed him in a sweater that looked just like the Michael Kors one.
“New collection by MichaelKors that probably costs thousands of pesos…-Sweatshirt that I bought in the market of Coyoacan two years ago for 200 pesos,” he wrote, sharing two images.
10. Everyone at Coachella
Every year at the festival we see an array of war bonnets, bindis, corn rows and many other cultural references trivialized and used as fashion props. In an attempt at looking “bohemian,” “earthy” or “vintage” —this one’s especially terrible— attendees just end up stealing other peoples sacred elements and identities to parade around while drunk. Don’t be that person.
11. Dsquared2’s “DSquaw” collection
So, twin designers Dean and Dan, originally from Canada, decided to rip-off Native American designs and send them down the runway. It doesn’t end there though. the title of the collection, “DSquaw,” drew on a derogatory term for Native American women, and the equally offensive description of the runway show’s aesthetic—”the enchantment of Canadian Indian tribes” and “the confident attitude of the British aristocracy”—was posted to the fashion brand’s Facebook.
Dsquared2’s glamorization of colonialism feels particularly off-key considering the headlines about violence against Aboriginal women and girls in Canada. As Canadians themselves, how can two people —and their entire teams— be so tone-deaf?
12. Ralph Lauren’s Native American Ads
The clothing brand released an online campaign in 2015 featuring imagery harked back to the Old West. In faded sepia tones, the ad showed a Native American sporting a feathered “headdress” and holding a rifle across his lap. The page read “Western Style” —and our eyes are rolling to the back of our heads rn.
The tone-deaf ads reduced people, actually no, entire cultures, to mere marketing props. Many called for a boycott. Dr. Adrienne Keene, a postdoctoral researcher and citizen of the Cherokee Nation, wrote in a post for Indian Country Today Media Network that Ralph Lauren had reached a “new low.”
“Ralph Lauren has been doing this my whole life,” Ruth Hopkins, a writer in her 30s who lives on the Spirit Lake Tribe reservation in North Dakota, told The Huffington Post. “He is a repeat offender. Cultural appropriation is apparently his thing.”