Fashion Bytes — Appropriation vs Collaboration

Artists take their inspiration from many places, especially when those artists are the Mulleavy sisters.  Their recent LACMA installation took its inspiration from the murals of Fra Angelico and the sculpture of Bernini. The Rodarte Spring 2012 collection took its inspiration from the Australian Outback, which has drawn criticism from Megan Davis, a UN Expert on Aboriginal and Indigenous rights, who called the entire collection “offensive”. However, as the editorial explains, the Mulleavy sisters legally licensed the artworks which inspired their prints, meaning that the original artists will be sharing in the profits from the collection.

This incident arose at the same time that the New York Times ran an article entitled “An Uneasy Cultural Exchange” about the relationship between the Navajo Nation (which recently won its lawsuit again Urban Outfitters), and fashion. A contentious relationship which was best summarized by Minh Ha Pham (of Threadbared) for The American Prospect in November. Fashion Bytes has recently explored the “casual racism” that can be found in fashion, and explored the potentially racist attitudes behind France’s burqa ban, but the Rodarte collection is not an appropriation. The licensing and receiving of permission to use the native artwork instead makes it a collaboration. A very important distinction. The Mulleavy sisters will not be profiting from indigenous artforms, but with indigenous artists.

The Washington Post article which reported Megan Davis’s anger over the Rodarte collection ended by stating that those involved on both sides need to do their homework before they either denounce a collection as racist, or decide to use a particular artwork or aesthetic in their own work. As the Rodarte Spring 2012 collection has shown it is possible to be both culturally sensitive and not hamper your own creative vision. These seem to be the same issues that arose during the recent Richard Prince copyright trial, as discussed here in January.

Where does inspiration end, and appropriation or intellectual property theft begin? It is a fact that inspiration can come from everywhere, but should artists or fashion designers be held responsible for “citing” their sources? How would such a citation be done? The Navajo Nation lawsuit is based on United States law which states that products can not be licensed under a First Nation’s name unless it is made by that people, Urban Outfitters and Proenza Schouler therefore were not simply insensitive, they violated the law with their collections. Is this due to ignorance or arrogance? What other examples of casual appropriation or racism have you encountered in fashion? What other examples of over-reaction before the facts were known? How can we teach the next generation of fashion designers and historians to be more culturally sensitive? Since these issues are being more openly and widely discussed, is it possible that we are becoming more culturally sensitive through these debates? Do these debates raise any awareness at all?

Please share your thoughts.

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  • Sarah Lorraine April 17, 2012 03.58 pm

    I’m a little sad that no one has commented on this excellent post so far! And here I was feeling all tardy to the party… 😉

    I have to fess up that cultural appropriation as it pertains to fashion is one of my absolutely personal favorite issues in clothing history. I’ve been buried under a lot of school work this term, so I only now came across your post, Brenna, but it inspired me to dust off a paper I wrote a year or so ago for a critical theory seminar on cultural appropriation and art history, in yet another attempt to wrap my brain around my feelings in regards to the complexities of this issue. When I taught fashion design, it was especially difficult to convey the idea to my students that simply cherry picking from various cultures and throwing them together into one big “cultural mash-up” on a dress form wasn’t exactly avant garde but could be considered more than a little insensitive (and rather tired, to boot). I did get a lot of arguing and if I had a nickel for every time I heard something like “Well, I’m 1/32nd Cherokee, so it’s ok if I use this Navajo blanket design on this lingerie!” I could pay off my graduate school loans… LOL! But the fact remains that it IS an extremely nuanced discussion and it’s very hard to have it with your students when you’re not even sure where you stand on the issue your self!

    Anyway, here’s part one to my two part article based on the paper, if you’re interested in reading it: (part two is scheduled to post tomorrow, noon Pacific)


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