inappropriation – why fashion is a cultural scavenger

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.

11 thoughts on “inappropriation – why fashion is a cultural scavenger”

  1. Excellent post Danielle. The UN expert has forced them to name their source by drawing public attention to this The Rodarte sisters saying of their inspiration that “it came out of nowhere” is what could be called offensive (not the work) they should have named the artist -Benny Tjangala from Papunya Tula -paying for the license to use is not enough (blame bad PR advice?)
    Is taking the risk of offending worth it in fashion? I too think so.. Vivienne Westwood and Hussein Chalayan are great examples.
    As for mining local subcultures, you don’t have to look very far in Toronto. When I see various ethnic groups dressed for the Canadian winter.. I love the mishmash.. clothing from everywhere in the world poking out from under coats paired with winter boots.. the results can run the gamut from art to painful. . a collection showing this has great potential to offend 🙂

  2. So it’s not the usage itself, but the dismissive lack of attribution that was offensive? That makes more sense, thanks for the clarification Leah!

  3. Rodarte could have used Aboriginal models in its collection, that would have been a simple way for them to put some kind of equality into their appropriation. 

    Louis Vuitton, Burberry, Christian Louboutin are all very protective of their brands to the point of suing if they feel their high-end luxe is being misrepresented. But when I get protective about a piece of cloth that has for centuries represented a part of the world I’m from and my family’s history I’m being unreasonable, too sensitive, not understanding how fashion works.

    What fashion does time and time again is take things with an existing meaning and turn them into something new, emptied out away from those who hold them dearly. This could be interesting if the industry was interested in equality but it isn’t, the opposite is true, it goes out of its way to exclude. This isn’t merely offensive, it is hurtful and usually a way of putting ‘Other’ cultures in their place.

    Fashion isn’t genuinely interested in having an open border policy it just thinks it should be able to roam wherever it wants in its creativity. 

  4. Great point about the models, I’ve not heard that mentioned before.

    Corporate fashion may hate being appropriated, but personally, I really enjoy it. I also think that it’s instructive – even with tons of lawyers, LV STILL can’t stop people from using their logos however they want. Visual culture is almost impossible to govern, even with significant resources. I happened to meet someone last night who has a friend who works in LV’s legal department – it’s a huge department and their job is never, ever done.

    They also mentioned something that I find kinda wonderful – Louis Vuitton trash bins – apparently painting rubbish bins with LV logos is a thing – not even as an ironic thing. People just really like the logos and they want their bins to look better. I laughed and said that was amazing and my friends shook their heads. =)

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    In cases with the Navajo – they’ve trademarked the name so like the LV logo, appropriating the name is illegal. Names and logos are easier to make rules about than subject matter, but that doesn’t make controlling their usage easy.

    In Rodarte’s case, these images were made available for license by the artist, and in my opinion the artist should be able to profit from their work no matter what the subject matter of the art is, religious, decorative, political, whatever. However, religious people would probably disagree with me.

    Thanks for a great comment Slin!

  5. Agreed that fashion by its nature (like art) derives inspiration from everywhere. But some of these cases are just so egregiously ripping off artists–Urban Outfitters foremost among them, and not just Navajo artists but indie artists–that it goes beyond “inspiration” and into full-on stealing from culturally rich and visibly poor people. I don’t know how much of it is a problem of offense versus a problem of actual income–the Rodarte sisters licensed this image so I’m not terrifically concerned about it, but indigenous artists are ripped off left and right. It’s not just politically correct; it’s how native artisans survive, and then when groups with more privilege appropriate their work, the value of the real deal is diminished.

    I was horrified by the Juarez nail polish. Embuing products with sadness is one thing; culturally approved mass killings, torture, mutilation, and rape is quite another. I know the Rodarte team didn’t intend to harm but in a way that’s sort of the point: They could look at Ciudad Juarez and see its dark beauty; Mexican women don’t have that privilege. So I guess given that enormous misstep that certainly puts this collection in a different light, though I admit that’s not terribly fair of me!

  6. Hi Autumn,

    I specifically did NOT include UO in this post because it’s transgressions are in a completely different category. I feel like comparing designers like Rodarte (or YSL) to UO doesn’t make any sense. I’m not defending UO’s corporate culture of rip-offers – they’ve clearly broken laws, repeatedly, and remain unapologetic. UO as an organization is gross, their products are lame, and everything they touch IS diminished. (I don’t shop there and never will).

    Fashion designers like Rodarte are nothing like mass-market retailers. They did not “rip off” anything, they interpreted source material that was ethically problematic, and which turned awful when mixed into a the corporate make-up deal. It’s clear when I read my post that my natural empathy goes out to fashion designers as creative individuals.

    The Rodarte sisters were apologetic for their Juarez transgression and clearly they’re learning a lot about what society believes is insensitive. Their mistakes, oddly, have had only had positive effects – increasing awareness of what “cultural appropriation” is, awareness of Juarez (like you said, the Mexican women don’t get to have their story told or heard, especially for this particular, privileged audience), and of course the M.A.C. charitable donation.

    They are individuals after all, who aren’t a wanton pillager of pop culture, but fashion outsiders with a naive creative style who clearly have a conscience. Sourcing material with negativity imbued in it is difficult – in some ways the sisters are successful, and in some ways they are obviously not. They are one of the few modern designers who do work in a narrative way and who do tackle more difficult subjects, and I’m pleased about that because fashion is getting boring and fearful. They are still young designers and contrary to what a lot of critics say, they are not making lots of money off the backs of their inspirations. To me, what they’ve done is not great, but it is instructive, and forgivable.

  7. What the fashion world is NOT getting is that when they take elements from another culture as their design influence they do it with a complete lack of RESPECT for the people who identify themselves, their culture, their art, etc. by the clothing they wear. And what’s worse, is that the traditional clothing that is usually used for inspiration because of it’s originality, colour, and style is their most special and prized articles of clothing that are reserved for special occasions, ceremonies and sacred events. I am a native designer from Canada and I would NEVER incorporate let’s say for example, sacred chinese symbols into a textile pattern or embroidered design or whatever as I respect those things and the people who use them. They have significant meaning and are important.

    The Rodarte sisters could have easily taken the high road and actually promoted the fact that they licensed an aboriginal artist for their collection…that would have made NEWS…instead, they probably didn’t want people to know who did the art in case someone else had the same idea…who knows? I’m sure the artist could have used the publicity and recognition. It is true that indigenous and 3rd world peoples are mined for their cultural art among other things and they are the ones who are never given credit nor see any revenue or benefit from that exploitation.

    I see this happen so often, that I’ve come to realize that there is an alarming amount of ignorance in the world about indigenous people, and culture. I think it’s time that recognition is given to the cultures, people, artists that are used as inspiration for fashion designers along with perhaps a small bit of research and education…most indigenous designs have deep meanings that may just provide some insight to the jaded and superficial crowd. Thanks for the discussion.

  8. Hi Angela, thanks for sharing your perspective, I really appreciate it! I’ve learned a lot from the reactions to this post.

    I have a question for you that’s somewhat related. I’ve been wanting to buy a pair of mukluks for quite a while, specifically these ones:

    I’m mostly interested in these for fashion (I love the way they look), practical (they’re way more beautiful than Uggs), and of course, as a Canadian girl I dig the origin story too. But ever since I’ve learned about appropriation I’m a bit concerned that as a white girl in mukluks, I’ll look tacky wearing them. How do you feel when you see people like me wearing indiginous garments for what are essentially, superficial reasons?

  9. Hi Danielle, while I completely understand your question and personal dilemma, rest assured that it is more than ok to buy & wear ‘authentic’ native footwear such as produced by Manitobah Mukluks. You would be honoring our culture as well as supporting a native owned business which is also struggling with the same issue we’ve been discussing here…well, mostly it’s a ‘knock off’ issue, but once again it’s larger companies that see something unique & original that has become a ‘trend’ & not understanding or respecting the history & cultural significance of traditional footwear. That said, it’s been to the benefit of MM that models & celebs like Kate Hudson have put them on the map but they bought them (I’m assuming) because they WERE authentic. It’s when others see a market opportunity & copy a design or item, mass produces it which then waters down the ‘specialness’ of the item & confuses the public. It then forces the smaller & original designer/producer to launch a major marketing effort to educate the market & brand themselves as the ‘original’. By that time, they may have already lost a huge share of revenue. Personally, I design with a global market in mind & it is my hope that they feel comfortable wearing just a little piece of my native culture which perhaps may bring them to understand us or at least appreciate the beauty of our art & culture a little more.

  10. I think the Rodarte collection would have been less offensive if the sisters had defended their work and explained their intentions. They could have shown that they were aware of how the collection is problematic – that they present it within a context of privilege and exploitation, as well as owning up to their own privilege – but that they felt so strongly about their work that it was worth the risk. However, their response, unless there was more to it than what was published in the linked post, suggests either a staggering level of ignorance or entitlement, or both. (Self entitlement being one the most pernicious hallmarks of privilege. I say pernicious because I find it is the sense of entitlement that often creates barriers in these types of discussions.) Should the sisters have to explain themselves? Well, if it is to a representative for the aboriginal group they have engaged with, it’s a sign of white privilege and entitlement to not to have to.

    While I agree that the sisters didn’t have to live in the outback and that they are probably too busy running their business for that, I would like to point out that with the internet and access to a decent public library system, it would not have taken much effort at all to have educated themselves and I would hope that in learning about the history of Australian aboriginals, they would have at least been aware of how their collection could be deemed offensive. It appears they were also in touch with an aboriginal artist agency – a possible connection to pursue. Perhaps they were aware of the issues – but simply didn’t care to engage with them?

    I wouldn’t be surprized if it was simply ignorance. Ignorance about race relations, social privilege and colonial history is a privilege. For other people, colonial history weighs on them to varying degrees in their everyday lives – they may face discrimination on personal, professional and social levels as well as systemic and bureaucratic levels that remain largely invisible to the privileged. It’s no accident that the average middle class Canadian, including non-whites and university grads, know precious little about aboriginal groups in Canada (could a random Canadian on the street tell me about the Indian Act?) and may still subscribe to many falsities, stereotypes, etc. And they suffer no direct consequences for this ignorance while aboriginal communities struggle with that legacy – and the resulting legislation – on a daily basis.

    I think there is something particularly problematic about choosing art from Australian aboriginals. Cultural appropriation is not simply about white vs “ethnic”. It is also about power dynamics, class and economic domination, cultural imperialism, privilege, entitlement, hegemony, etc. (If this seems very exhausting and fraught with contentiousness, imagine all the Canadians who are always weighed down by these things, who must fight against it daily.) So while it may have been very annoying for my brown girlfriends to have seen my white gfs donning bindis in the 90s and then quickly discarding them, after brown girls had been mocked and othered for doing the same thing, and while there is a history of British colonialism in India, that’s not the same as the Rodarte collection. The treatment of Australian aboriginals, for those who are not aware of it, well it’s arguably worse than the situation in Canada, so you can extrapolate from that. What I’m saying is that it is more problematic to take from many aboriginal groups because there is often a long history of exploitation and extraction (of resources, knowledge, even their own children) so taking from that Australian aboriginal culture is not comparable to taking from other cultures. There’s a much greater potential for offense with the former.

    I would love for all artists to be truly free to traffic in whatever images they choose to pursue their own visions without fear of reprisal. But it’s like imaging a world where race or class or history doesn’t exist and where that doesn’t result in the subjugation of one group by another. Fashion is deeply embedded into a greater context, and I think being embedded, is ultimately, what makes fashion interesting, meaningful and human.

    Anyways, I’m glad I found your blog and the alagarconniere link is great. I appreciate your broaching the topic!

    p.s. I never judge white people for wearing “ethnic” clothes (unless it’s something obviously offensive e.g. N. American war bonnet); it’s presumptuous. I’d rather that people, instead of worrying about offending others, continue learning about, questioning, discussing and engaging with these issues.

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