In fashion, cultural appropriation concerns the use of components of a non-dominant culture to an extent that disrespects their original meaning, or that gives no credit to their origin. When executed respectfully, cultural appreciation can be a celebration of life, people, and religion. However, as some high fashion brands have come to realise the hard way, it can also be minefield for those who make mistakes.
Whether it be on the runway, TV, social media, or just everyday life, cultural appropriation can be seen with hairstyles, makeup, religious symbols, and different types of clothing. Fashion has always originated from culture and embraced it, but in some cases, designers have exploited it, and contributed to the cultural appropriation seen in the fashion industry today.
Marc Jacobs Spring/Summer 2017 runway
While Marc Jacobs did not cause any retaliation over his clothing or designs, during the Spring/Summer 2017 show, the mainly all-white models including Karlie Kloss, Kendal Jenner, Gigi and Bella Hadid crowded the runway wearing faux rainbow dreadlock hairstyles. The designer said that the show was dedicated to club kids, such as Boy George, and responded to the criticism stating that he "Doesn’t see colour or race." He later posted an apology “For the lack of sensitivity unintentionally expressed” by his words and actions, and doubled down on the claims that he does not discriminate.
Gucci Autumn/Winter 2018 runway
Gucci has faced criticism over cultural appropriation numerous times, most infamously regarding two of their most talked about pieces came during their Autumn/Winter 2018 collection. The first was a wool balaclava jumper, in description, a black turtleneck sweater that featured a cut out mouth section lined with extra red panels to present exaggerated lips. Almost immediately, this product received backlash due to its resounding resemblance to blackface. The fashion brand quickly constructed an apology, and removed the product from its site.
The second product was released just three months after this event, when they listed Indy Full Turban on their luxury website for $790. This product also appeared on the Autumn/Winter 2018 runway, worn by multiple white models, which rightly caused outrage with members of the Sikh Community.
The Sikh Coalition expressed their frustration explaining that a silk turban is "Not a hot new accessory for sale" but an article of faith that millions of Sikh's view as sacred and not just a product to monetise. The product was later pulled from the site and an apology was given to the Sikh Community.
Dolce and Gabbana advertising campaign 2018
During November 2018, luxury Italian fashion brand Dolce and Gabbana released three short videos on Chinese social media to promote and advertise its upcoming runway show in Shanghai. The three videos featured an Asian woman in a luxurious Dolce and Gabbana dress trying to eat classic Italian food such as, pizza, spaghetti and cannoli, situated in Chinese market with Chinese folk music playing in the background.
This was met with immediate retaliation from the public and D&G removed the viral videos from the Chinese social media within 24 hours of uploading them. However, the saga did not stop there. Just hours before the runway extravaganza, screenshots of a chat between Stefano Gabbana and an Instagram user were leaked, which revealed the fashion designer making racist remarks against China. This lead to a boycott of the brand, and multiple Chinese actors and models that were meant to be staring in the Runway show that evening withdrew.
Dolce and Gabbana’s Chinese Brand Ambassador, Wang Junkai, also terminated his deal with the brand and the show was cancelled. An official apology was posted on D&G’s website stating that all accounts had been hacked and that they have "Nothing but respect for China and the people of China." This excuse was met with scepticism, and Chinese people living in Italy flocked D&G’s flagship store in Milan, protesting and demanding refunds.
Accountable by design
Fashion is about creativity, experiences, and celebrating all ways of life, nevertheless designers need to show more responsibility in their choices in order to increase cultural awareness and be held more accountable for their choices.
As the fashion industry becomes increasingly more diverse and inclusive, we can hope to see designers learn from their past mistakes and show more compassion to understanding sensitive topics, including faith, religion, and culture.