Tackling Cultural Appropriation in the Fashion Industry

4 min read

Authenticity has become a popular metric to gauge the artistic merit of modern fashion designs. According to Miuccia Prada, “all our culture derives from other cultures, but authenticity is when you can add something of your own [to something already in existence] and push things forward.” In line with that way of thinking, fashion designers strive to create authentic garments and accessories that resonate with the consumers of today by refashioning traditional cultural expressions (TCEs), which are design elements embedded in traditional works of art.

TCEs are the creative products of indigenous communities. For indigenous peoples, TCEs are a reflection of their community’s cultural heritage and social identity. In addition, they can hold spiritual meaning, religious significance, or links to political notions such as self-determination. Although TCEs are passed down from generation to generation, they are subject to an infinite number of evolutionary adaptations, imitations, revitalizations, revivals, and recreations along the way. When fashion designers incorporate TCEs in their designs and add their own artistic touches to them, they are contributing to the cultural evolution of TCEs and broadening the context in which they are used.

Australian Aboriginal TCE. Image by Mint Images.

The issue of cultural appropriation arises when fashion designers use TCEs without acknowledging, receiving authorization from, and/or compensating source communities. Cultural appropriation has been described as the “colonial occupation of indigenous art and design” because it can perpetuate inaccurate stereotypes, marginalize indigenous peoples, and enable corporations to profit at the expense of TCE holders.

Figure 1: Appropriation of the Mixe Huipil. As part of her Spring/Summer 2015 Étoile collection, Isabel Marant integrated embroidery elements in her collection (left) that are stylistically identical to those that the Mixe people apply on their huipil (right), a traditional blouse with a rich cultural heritage. Since Isabel did not ask the Mixe people for permission to use their TCE, compensate them, or acknowledge the community as a source of inspiration, she was rightly accused of appropriating Mixe culture. Images sourced from Vogue (left) and Remezcla (right).

Leveraging the Legal System

To combat cultural appropriation, indigenous peoples need to seek intellectual property (IP) protection for their TCEs. IP tools—such as trademarks, copyrights, geographical indications, and patents—can provide indigenous communities the legal leverage that they may need to oversee who can use their TCEs and how they can use them.

Indigenous communities need to invest in an IP strategy that will enable them to achieve their objectives, whatever they may be. In any case, indigenous communities must realize that IP-centric business models (i.e. royalty agreements, trademark licensing, etc.) hold tremendous potential to generate an export income for them and restructure profit sharing for garments and accessories that use TCEs. If indigenous communities fail to do so, fashion brands can absorb all the financial proceeds from the sale of culturally-inspired products.

Figure 2: Revenue Potential of the Maasai’s IP. Indigenous to the Nile Valley, the Maasai people live in Kenya and Tanzania in present-day. Per Light Years IP, about 1000 companies have used the Maasai people’s TCEs, such as the red and blue checkered designs shown above, often times without compensating them. In an effort to tap into the income potential of their cultural IP—capable of generating $150 million per year in revenue—the Maasai are applying for trademark protection for their TCEs and developing a process for commercial users to apply for trademark licenses. Image by Christopher Wilson.

Unfortunately, there are many gaps in existing IP laws that prevent indigenous peoples from receiving the IP protection that they so desire. These gaps range from specific technical limitations, such as the limited term of protection in copyright, to general conceptual and operational divides, such as the financial expenses associated with acquiring IP rights. As a result, indigenous communities need to make sure that their approach to curb cultural appropriation is not solely centered around IP management.

Launching an Enterprise

Whether they have IP rights or not, indigenous communities can market themselves as the undisputed owners of TCEs. If they are able to do so effectively, they will be able to influence the consumer perception and market value of fashion products with TCEs; the more sway they have in final market countries, the easier it can be for them to earn the credit and recognition that they deserve for their contributions to culturally-inspired products. Although TCE holders do not necessarily need IP rights to develop compelling marketing collateral, branding efforts that exploit IP assets are especially effective.

Figure 3: The Inuit People’s Success with Branding. In 2015, Salome Awa, a woman of Inuit descent, accused KTZ of appropriating a sacred Inuit design. To substantiate her allegations and brand the TCEs featured on KTZ’s Inuit-inspired garment (right) as Inuit property, Salome was able to reference Northern Voices: Inuit Writing in English, a book that has a photo of Salome Awa’s great-grandfather wearing the garment with the TCEs of interest (left), and The Journals of Knud Rasmussen, an Isuma-produced film with scenes that show Inuit actors wearing a replica of Salome’s great-grandfather’s garment. Salome’s efforts sparked consumer backlash and led KTZ to remove their Inuit-inspired garments from sale online and in stores. Image sourced from Dazed.

As they build brands and more and more fashion companies begin to recognize them as legitimate stakeholders for culturally-inspired products, indigenous communities need to begin expanding their corporate ties through an involvement in joint ventures, strategic alliances, and other collaborative efforts. By doing so, they can earn special benefits, such as the ability to negotiate specific design details with fashion designers, and address cultural appropriation before the fact.

Figure 4: What is in it for Fashion Companies. The figure above shows just how influential intangible assets, such as brand image, have become in shaping the final retail price for ties and points to an overarching shift in what informs consumer taste in fashion at large. By partnering with indigenous communities, fashion brands can earn a stamp of authenticity, enjoy competitive advantages, and address the wants of a growing number of conscious consumers who are willing to pay extra for products from brands that commit to positive social impact—thereby appreciating their intangible capital. Image sourced from Light Years IP.

Putting It All Together

The issue of cultural appropriation in fashion revolves around the inability of TCE holders to retain control over their TCEs in final market countries. In resolve, this article advises TCE holders to design a strategy geared to maximize their legal leverage and strengthen their market presence in final market countries, in tandem.

Although their vision should be to become self-sustaining, indigenous communities may initially need to seek outside assistance to act on the recommendations provided in this article. Fortunately, there are many intergovernmental organizations, nonprofits, and national governments that are willing to help them tackle cultural appropriation in fashion by provisioning political support and investing in capacity-building initiatives, such as the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), Light Years IP, and Roots Studio.

Hardik Mittal Hardik Mittal is a business strategist, writer, lobbyist, and global citizen. Through his involvement as a Product Marketer for a Fortune 500 semiconductor firm, Hardik has experience managing a business that stretches across 6 continents and technologies that are applied in a wide variety of industries, including automotive, medical, and consumer electronics. He graduated with a B.S. in Electrical Engineering from UCLA and credits his technical background for spawning a passion to tackle seemingly unsolvable problems. In the 20+ countries he has traveled to, Hardik has always found himself far removed from the well-trodden path and in search of the realities of life in those countries. By teaching English in Vietnam, lobbying for social causes in California, and writing to address global issues, Hardik has proven that he is driven to make a global impact.

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3 Replies to “Tackling Cultural Appropriation in the Fashion Industry”

  1. Hardik, interesting article! How did you get interested in this issue? Your call to action for indigenous peoples shows a commitment to making things better. It would be interesting to know more about how you got involved.

    1. Hi Brent,

      I became interested in this issue upon meeting with non-profit leaders that are working to create a revenue stream for tribes with cultural IP. I was actually unaware of the true meaning of cultural appropriation before I took on this project. Writing this article was definitely a rewarding experience because it was great to broadcast information aimed at spreading awareness for a serious issue and strategic insights backed by public service organizations.

      Fun fact: I coincidentally saw a member of the Maasai tribe at an airport in Silicon Valley, a couple weeks after I finished writing this article.

  2. It’s rather hard to see how the West judges other developing countries from a western point of view. They try to create monopolies over the world market and pave very little chance for traders from other countries to excel. I agree how the indigenous people need intellectual property (IP) protection to protect their work from falling in the wrong hands. If and only if they fail to do so, in no time will their work be reproduced by someone else by an act of plagiarism and make it their biggest cash cow.

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