When I read about this UN expert stating that Rodarte’s Fall 2012 “Australian” inspired collection was offensive, I was… confused. The designers had licensed the images from the artist, so it wasn’t like they had done anything illegal or hateful. I couldn’t imagine the Rodarte sisters in their studio plotting to nefariously decontextualize Aboriginal art. What is cultural appropriation, anyway? And why am I so culturally insensitive that I can’t even tell when appropriation is offensive? Is there something wrong with me?
I don’t like to jump to conclusions so these questions led to a long line of online inquiry… and at the end of a long weekend reading all sides of a relatively new and controversial subject, I still feel ambivalent about it. A lot of what is written about cultural appropriation on the internet is very difficult for a new initiate to the subject to get into – much of what is available is accusatory and angry and doesn’t offer any clear directives. It seems like this kind of rhetoric builds a barrier to understanding what exactly the issue is, because it took me quite a while to find a demystifying description, and I don’t think most people would take that kind of time.
To get my problem out of the way first – I think the reason why I am culturally insensitive is twofold. One – I enjoy offensive stuff. To me, fashion needs friction to be interesting. The edges where fashion offends are where new fashions form. As such, I tend to view stuff that others perceive as offensive with detached curiousity. Two – I’m white, atheist, and have been raised with many privileges within the world’s most dominant culture. I have no experience of belonging to a distinct race, religion or culture, so my ability to truly empathize is limited. I have to be deliberate to be conscientious.
So, why are the Rodarte sisters culturally insensitive? Many critics suggested that the designers should have known better in the aftermath of the 2010 M.A.C. collaboration controversy, where the names of the cosmetic colours referenced a town in Mexico most famous for systematic violence against women. In that case, they released an official apology and retraction, and M.A.C. pulled the line and donated projected revenues to appropriate charities. Like many followers of fashion, it was the first time I learned the story of Juarez.
In all of the coverage of the controversy, I didn’t find anyone who asked why the inspiration referenced was so dark. The collection itself was, in my opinion, one of Rodarte’s career highlights – I even created a paper doll inspired by it. To me, Rodarte’s design identity belongs in the same category as artists like Lana Del Rey – let’s call it American Decay. Sadness and dissolution are part of the beauty. The sisters take a lot of their inspiration and identity (even their name) from the southwestern United States where they grew up and are still located. The Mexican border is close to home, and their natural proclivity as narrative designers towards creating sad beauty explains why they were drawn to Juarez because of, not in spite of, its tragic story. The distressed Quinceañera dresses created an indelible impression and were well received.
All of these are reasons are why Rodarte Fall 2010 was a successful collection in a creative sense – it told a story that obviously resonated with the artists – and in turn, their audience. The risk of cultural insensitivity in this case was well worth the artistic result. The makeup collaboration however, is by its very nature a commercial endeavour. This is why it diminished its source material, instead of honouring it.
So why did the Fall 2012 “Australian” collection also diminish its subject? To the critical eye, the pretty dresses with their printed motifs seem innocuous, even boring. As far as collections go, it was less successful in creative terms. Why would the sisters choose to source such distant reference points that resulted in a predictable, dull collection? Why did they choose to use the idea of Australia, rather than visiting the country itself?
Fashion designers tend to resort to appropriation once they’ve exhausted their own autobiographical resources. Yves Saint Laurent launched into a long series of appropriations in the seventies as his creative faculties were in decline. After abandoning the Dior tradition of using abstract “lines” labeled with letters of the alphabet, YSL found success culture-mining local European street style, the world of art, and his own childhood in Morocco. After that, then what? In his case, it was Orientalism.
Fashion is ever-hungry for novelty. While many designers start out using their own experiences as launching points, the ability to turn that into something new and unusual on a relentless six-month schedule is creatively exhausting for even the best and brightest. While it may seem like cultural appropriation is the lazier way out – and it is in the sense that infusing novelty from a diffuse dominant culture is near-impossible – you just wouldn’t accuse fashion designers of being lazy if you knew one or tried to be one. It is one of the most demanding creative professions both in terms of time and money. Why did the Rodarte sisters not take a trip to Australia? They probably would have loved to – what is most likely is they didn’t have the time – and if industry gossip is true, they don’t have the budget either. Fashionable appropriation just isn’t as great a money-maker as it was when Pierre Berge launched Opium in 1977.
Cultural appropriation is a risk that fashion designers take – sometimes garnering success and acclaim, and sometimes provoking offense and controversy. In either scenario, they’re staying in the game, where the rules state that boring the media means getting ignored by the media. So if designers can’t co-opt other people’s culture, what else can they do?
Tom Ford is the ultimate example of a designer who has remained true to his autobiographical antecedents. When he’s criticized, it’s for always doing the same thing regardless of what label he works at or how many seasons he’s presented riffs on the same self-centered obsessions. Because he’s Tom Ford, he doesn’t apologize. Ford is not in fashion to push it forward, it it is more important for him to trust his creative instincts. Most independent designers don’t have the sheer power to be able to get away with this kind of obstinate consistency and stay relevant.
The other option for narrative-driven first-world fashion designers is mining the many subcultures within the dominant culture rather than citing indiginous and endangered cultures. There are a vast array of examples of wild style tribes available in the margins of the mainstream – but that doesn’t mean that controversy is avoided by doing so, and the aesthetic variety is limited to post-modernism.
Perhaps these are the reasons why in the last decade, in terms of design, the major trend is towards creativity via technique rather than subject.
I like a cultural free market, because I want fashion to be as fascinating as possible. I think that it’s good for designers to risk offense. Offending people and provoking criticism has positive consequences for cultural awareness, whether indirectly by publicizing examples of oppression or directly by questioning the modern validity of traditional cultural practices. The risk of so much dismal rehashing of stereotypes is worth it for allowing the shocking possibilities of irreverence and audacity.