Fiction in the fabric: Is cultural appropriation just a fashion statement?

Victoria Christie explores the contentious issue of cultural appropriation in fashion and how it’s impacting Indigenous communities in Canada.

The tassels on her jacket swung back and forth as she strutted down the runway to the steady beat of a drum.

The model wore crisp trousers, bedazzled high heels and a fur coat accented with a black and white Indigenous inspired print.

The show was called Eskimo Aristocrats. It was Dsquared2’s Fall 2015 collection at Milan Fashion Week, designed by Toronto-born fashion designers Dean and Dan Caten.

The runway show was sprinkled with Indigenous cultural symbols. A tassel here, some fur there. All topped off with the most extravagant jewelry. The collection also had an accompanying hashtag, #Dsquaw, which featured a derogatory term used against Indigenous women.

The designers said at the time they were paying homage to the beauty of Indigenous culture, which sparked backlash and accusations they were guilty of cultural appropriation.

The design duo apologized one year later in response to the fallout.

This controversy may have happened two years ago, but the appropriation of Indigenous culture in the fashion industry has been ongoing for hundreds of years.

Not exclusive to high fashion

Cultural appropriation is defined as the stealing of one culture’s symbols, customs, and ideas by another culture. In the fashion world, it can be an easy thing to do.

Many prominent fashion brands have been accused of cultural appropriation in recent years, including lingerie brand Victoria’s Secret, which sent its model Karlie Kloss down the runway in a Native American headdress, leopard lingerie and turquoise jewelry during its annual fashion show in 2012.

British label Kokon To Zai faced backlash in 2015 for allegedly stealing a sacred, centuries-old design from an Inuit family.

The issue of cultural appropriation is not exclusive to high fashion. It’s also prevalent in the retail industry. Brands such as Urban Outfitters have been criticised for selling Navajo-printed underwear and t-shirts, and Free People came under fire for designing feathered headdresses and medicine pouches for its 2016 festival collection, which featured predominantly white models.

Cultural appropriation has also been seen outside of the fashion world. At the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, which is held each spring in Indigo, Calif., non-Indigenous festival-goers have been known to sport headdresses, feathers, and other Indigenous prints and symbols.

Appropriation or multiculturalism?

The concept of cultural appropriation has also been hotly debated, especially on social media, where some have argued it’s a celebration of culture or a way to promote multiculturalism.

The debate surrounding cultural appropriation and appreciation raises the challenging question of how non-Indigenous designers can be inspired by Indigenous culture, without appropriating it.

“[Non-Indigenous designers] want to pretend that they are doing right by Indigenous artists,” said Summer-Harmony Twenish, who is Algonquin and studying art history and Indigenous studies at Carleton University.

“The real thing they should be doing is providing a platform and collaborating,” she said.

There is often a double standard when it comes to wearing Indigenous symbols, according to Twenish.

“When a non-Indigenous artist takes our aesthetics and puts them into their own work, they are often applauded and defended,” she said. “If I’m wearing beaded earrings on the bus, I’m stared at and ridiculed.”

Twenish said she wants people to legitimize Indigenous art and recognize that the culture is anything but static.

“Indigenous aesthetics are constantly changing,” she said. “We’re cultures that evolve with the times. We’re not stuck in the past.”

‘A mining of cultures’

According to Dorothy Grant, a fashion designer and Haida artist, non-Indigenous designers must also understand the rich histories, principles, and rules that make up these sacred Indigenous symbols.

When they don’t, cultural appropriation can happen, she said.

“Fashion doesn’t have any policing, any morals, any guidelines of what you can and can’t do,” Grant said. “You could design and make and sew anything you want.”

This stealing of culture is something that has been happening since the beginning of branding, according to the Vancouver-based designer.

“It’s a mining of cultures, I call it,” she said. “It’s disheartening.”

There has always been appropriation in fashion but not necessarily in a racialized way, said freelance writer Candice Holdsworth.

There is an outrage culture on social media, according to Holdsworth. She wrote an article for the U.K.-based online magazine Spiked that argued cultural appropriation is an appreciation of culture. Having grown up in post-apartheid South Africa, she said she has experienced first-hand the fallout of having distinct cultures, and worries society is heading down a dangerous path.

“If you’re going to take someone’s design and not credit them — yes that’s wrong,” she said. “But being inspired by another culture . . . I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.”

“It’s a toxic thing,” Holdsworth said. “The humanist dream is dying and people interpret things in a very racialized way now.”

Social justice activism

While the appropriation of Indigenous culture has been happening for centuries, it’s only been discussed by mainstream media in the last five years.

One reason for this is because of the rise in social justice activism, according to Allan Ryan, an Indigenous studies professor at Carleton.

“It’s about equality,” Ryan said. “You don’t even have to be interested in native anything to say, That’s not right, that’s a human rights issue”

Non-Indigenous designers need to take the time to understand the history and traditions that go into these sacred, cultural symbols, said Ryan, who specializes in Indigenous art and culture.

“This is about closing the gap of misunderstanding,” he said. “It’s about mutual understanding.”

Fashion is a fast-paced industry, and sometimes these misunderstandings can present themselves when mainstream designers don’t have time to fully understand the significance of cultural symbols, said Riley Kucheran, an Ojibway graduate student at Ryerson and York University.

“It all boils down to laziness,” said Kucheran, who specializes in Indigenous luxury fashion. “They need the next thing right now and then as soon as they’re done, they’ll go to the next thing.”

Kucheran said the issue of cultural appropriation has become a topic of discussion in public forums because of the power of social media.

“Being able to call it out and share it instantly really makes the retailers and the fashion designers smarten up,” he said. “Bad press is death for them.”

There needs to be equal opportunities for Indigenous and non-Indigenous designers, according to Kucheran.

“True reconciliation wouldn’t be Western brands appreciating fashion. It would be Aboriginal people creating their own fashion,” he said.

Justin Holness provides that opportunity every year. He’s the organizer of Ottawa’s INDIGENIUS Art, Music and Fashion Show. He said this year’s theme was indigenizing Canada 150, which means acknowledging, learning and celebrating Indigenous peoples in Canada.

“We’re also going to inspire and celebrate the resilience, the beauty and all of the amazing things that come along with the Indigenous culture,” said Holness, who is Nakota. “Our fashion is supposed to be a reflection of the purpose you have within your community.”

Collaboration is key

Kucheran has another solution: collaboration.

“It gives some guarantee that the cultures will be respected,” Kucheran said. “It’s going to take a lot of time before we can be on an equal playing field.”

The Setsune Indigenous Fashion Incubator is a space for Indigenous designers and artists to collaborate, showcase and develop their artistic work. The Toronto-based collective describes its work as “authentic appropriation.”

Grant agrees that working together is necessary to avoid instances of cultural appropriation.

Even though there are spaces for Indigenous designers to collaborate, there is still a lack of collaboration amongst mainstream and Indigenous designers, Grant said.

“We haven’t been recognized in mainstream fashion or [with] fashion houses wanting to collaborate with us,” said Grant, who calls herself a “pioneer for native fashion.”

“I would like to see that happen,” she said.

For Métis artist Christi Belcourt that’s exactly what happened.

Italian fashion house Valentino approached Belcourt for the brand’s 2016 Resort Collection. The label was inspired by her painting ”Water Song”, which depicts floral patterns that resemble traditional beadwork. The painting was featured on jackets, dresses, tops, and shorts.

Most recently, Belcourt joined forces with the luxury accessories brand, Ela, to create two handbags for Holt Renfrew. All of the proceeds will go to The Onaman Collective, an organization that helps Indigenous communities reconnect with their culture through art.

Collaboration is the only way to incorporate Indigenous culture into fashion, Belcourt said.

“You have to work with an Indigenous designer,” the veteran artist said. “It’s just that simple.”

Belcourt, who lives in Espanola, Ont., but hails from the Métis community of Manitou Sakhigan, Alta., said she feels that Indigenous designers should be properly credited and financially compensated for their work. She said for her this includes providing artists with equal control in the collaboration process. She said her collaboration with Valentino was fair and said she is happy with the outcome.

For the artist and environmental activist, the issue of cultural appropriation from non-Indigenous designers extends beyond the fabric and to the land.

“As they’re appropriating our imagery, they aren’t standing up and supporting our fight for clean water,” she said. “What I would like to see is people actually supporting Indigenous people.”

Belcourt said she has felt the personal effects of Indigenous cultural appropriation both in and outside of the fashion industry.

“Cultural appropriation attempts to homogenize us,” Belcourt said. “It devalues our work. It erases us by implying that we no longer exist.”


Graphic by Manoj Thayalan