Sunday, June 23, 2019

Which is Which: Innovation or Imitation?

Wes Gordon (R), the artistic director of the New York label founded by Venezuelan designer Carolina Herrera (L), found himself accused of cultural appropriation. Image credit: Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images

The embroiderers of a remote Mexican mountain village made headlines this month when their government went to war with an American designer for "plagiarising" their patterns.

Wes Gordon, the artistic director of the New York label founded by Venezuelan designer Carolina Herrera, found himself accused of cultural appropriation.

The indigenous women in the east of the country claimed that one long white dress patterned with bright animals, colours and flowers was derived from the culture of the Tenango de Doria community in Hidalgo state, Mexico “where each piece of embroidery tells the story of the community and each element has a personal, family or community meaning”.

Mexican artisan of the Otomi ethnic group Oliver Teodoro Lopez, shows one of his designs at his workshop in San Nicolas Village, in Tenango de Doria, Hidalgo state, on June 18, 2019. Image credit: AFP

It wasn't this one case only – the Mexican government had also complained of two other dresses from the Carolina Herrera New York Resort 2020 collection that had incorporated elements from the famous traditional shawls of Saltillo in Coahuila state, Mexico.

A dress that copied the traditional shawls of Saltillo in Coahuila state. Image credit: Carolina Herrera

In a statement, Carolina Herrera said the collection had been conceived as a “tribute to the richness of Mexican culture” and its craft techniques.

“There’s an undeniable Mexican presence in this collection”, said Gordon.

“It’s something that jumps out at you and I always intended it to be something latent as a way of showing my love for this country and for all the incredible work I’ve seen there”.

It is the latest in a long line of controversies where multinational brands stand accused of ransacking the cultural heritage of communities all around the world.

On March 24, 2019, Christian Louboutin's Instagram page put up a picture of footwear from their new collection. Reportedly the shoes were a reinvented version of Pakistan’s humble sandal – and Louboutin's version was named after the country’s famed contemporary artist and friend of the designer, Imran Qureshi.

The "Imran" – a flamboyant sandal complete with metal studs along with splashes of orange and silver – was inspired by the country's traditional Peshawari chappal, according to the fashion house. In fact, the chappal has long been a staple for ethnic Pashtuns – from ordinary laborers to the country's political elite – in Pakistan's northwest.

France’s Christian Louboutin, famed for their luxury red-soled stilettos, sparked a social media frenzy in Pakistan, with fans praising the latest homage to the country's rich artisan traditions – and critics jeering at the thought of paying designer prices for them. Louboutins often retail for upwards of $500 (about R7,100) – for the ubiquitous sandals, they can cost as little as $5.50 (about R79) in Pakistan.

And not to forget mentioning, those who also loudly screamed that the Parisian brand was a perpetrator of cultural appropriation.

From left: MSock 3.1 by Maxhosa by Laduma, and men's socks from Zara. Image credit: @thebeikalafeng/Instagram

In April last year, Thebe Ikalafeng, founder of award-winning brand advisory firm, Brand Leadership, had called fashion retailer Zara out on social media for what he says was "intellectual property theft" of a print by local label MaXhosa by Laduma.

Laduma Ngxokolo, the designer behind MaXhosa by Laduma, is hailed as one of South Africa's brightest sartorial stars. He's famed for his contemporary knitwear creations, which feature vibrant prints inspired by traditional Xhosa beadwork.

In an Instagram post, Ikalafeng said that Zara had "shamelessly copied the design" of the pattern that appears on MaXhosa by Laduma's Khanyisa cardigan and MSOCK3.1 socks on one of their products.

He called for the local designer to take action, saying: "As a global #African I understand that inspiration is global and no one has universal rights, but theft on the other hand should be universally condemned.

We appreciate that Africa’s rich culture is now ‘en vogue’ but not at all costs. But our protected intellectual property rights should be respected as much as we respect that of other global brands”.

Business Insider South Africa did report that the local fashion brand was pursuing legal action against Zara for copyright infringement.

The pictures that were tweeted by Oaxacan musician Susana Harp in January 2015. (L) Harp, with the women of Tlahuitoltepec; (R), the blouse from Marant’s collection. Image credit: Susana Harp

Four years ago, an indigenous community in Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec in Oaxaca state, southern Mexico had complained that the French designer Isabel Marant had lifted a 600-year-old Tlahuitoltepec blouse design that symbolizes the Mixe people for one of her collections.

The fashionista had described her designs as “tribal without being too literal” – but for these Mexican women, Marant’s designs were more literal than they’d like.

An image of the two designs went viral with #miblusadetlahui trending on Twitter, and prompted a national debate surrounding the issue of cultural appropriation in the fashion industry.

FYI, the dress is on sale on fashion site Net-A-Porter for £200, the equivalent of 4,500 Mexican pesos. The original blouse costs around 300 pesos in Tlahuitoltepec itself.

Mexico has previously protested about Zara, Mango and Michael Kors designs.

Some of the country’s leaders now want to toughen a copyright law that protects traditional patterns to punish “plagiarism that different indigenous peoples have suffered”.

It is a suggestion that will surely send a chill down the spines of many designers.

Berluti’s artistic director Kris van Assche, who headed Dior’s menswear line for 11 years had told AFP that “when I was at fashion school, we learned that there was nothing shameful about taking inspiration from other cultures".

Rising young Spanish star Alejandro Gomez Palomo too joined in the debate.

“Cultural appropriation is something we should all forget”, said the designer, who refuses to leave his own Andalusian village where his Palomo Spain label is based.

“Culture belongs to everyone. Rather than harming us, (referencing indigenous styles) brings us all a little closer and Mexico to the world”, he maintained, stoutly defending Gordon and the veteran Herrera, who stepped back from designing last year.

“It’s like people accused me of cultural appropriation for having a frilly (gypsy) dress”, he declared.

British designer Kim Jones, who took over last year from Van Assche at Dior Homme, has a more nuanced view, insisting a huge amount of sensitivity... has to be put into place.

“You have to treat everyone with a great deal of respect. I grew up all over the world so you see how things are very particular. In Africa if you go even from village to village you see a different styling", he had said. "But as long as you speak to the people, work with them and listen to them and celebrate what they do it is fine”.

Jones, however, learned the hard way during his long reign at Louis Vuitton just how fine the line between homage and appropriation can be.

Having grown up in Kenya and Tanzania, he referenced the shuka (left), the famous red and blue checked robe of the Maasai people, in a 2012 Vuitton menswear show.

It sparked protests from some, particularly as the cloth was woven in Scotland.

But in a twist which shows how complex these issues can become, the shuka actually had its origins in the tartan (right) that Scottish traders and missionaries brought to East Africa’s Great Rift Valley in the nineteenth century.

The Maasai have since hired lawyers to wring cash and credit from companies like Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Jaguar Land Rover and other multinationals who have used Maasai iconography.

For Jones the thorny issue boils down to two choices, “whether it is cultural appreciation or cultural appropriation”.

Designers can get carried away with themselves “trying to make stories out of things but sometimes they do not know the backstory, the history.

“But if someone has made the things with the people who actually create them in the first place, that is something that is actually positive”, he added.

“When I worked with things that have been culturally referenced, we either asked permission of the people that worked with it and they get a royalty, or we work with them to make the things, so you are actually helping them, which is really essential”.

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