It's easy to throw the term "cultural appropriation" around in fashion. Designers are constantly looking for inspiration beyond their immediate worlds, and often the results are misguided and objectively offensive — even outside the megaphone of outrage that is Twitter. But as Jenni Avins wrote for Quartz, "We have to stop guarding cultures and subcultures in efforts to preserve them. It's naïve, paternalistic and counterproductive. Plus, it's just not how culture or creativity work." That being said, designers must be careful to look beyond stereotypes and engage with the cultures that inspire them on a comprehensive level, if not going so far as to work with artists from those cultures in the production of a collection.
As we conclude 2015, let's take a look back at the culturally appropriated collections, trends and events that got us talking this year — and how both the industry and the Internet at large reacted. It's not all bad news, though we would like to request a moratorium on the word "Africa" as a a catch-all inspiration point. Africa is a giant fucking place. Be more specific.
Givenchy Fall 2015
Riccardo Tisci's "Victorian Cholas" inspired both criticism and appreciation when he presented the Givenchy fall 2015 collection in March. In addition to oversized and bejeweled faux facial piercings, the models were styled with curled, slick baby hairs along the hairline — a look lifted from Black and Latina subcultures that many also now associate with FKA Twigs and that popped up last year at DKNY. And while Givenchy's model casting wasn't as diverse as it could have been (a statement applicable to basically everything in fashion and in life) it wasn't as bad as, say, Valentino's spring 2016 show. More on that later.
DSquared2 Fall 2015
Meanwhile, DSquared2 presented a fall collection that ignited widespread outrage online. Entitled "DSquaw" — a derogatory term for a North American Indian woman or wife — the clothing incorporated indigenous shapes and materials in a superficial, stereotypical way. The brand described the collection as "an ode to America’s native tribes meets the noble spirit of Old Europe," but no Native Canadian or American artists were consulted. It appears as if no publicists were consulted, either.
Amandla Stenberg on Black Hair and Black Culture
Kylie Jenner is just one of the many famous women who have worn cornrows this year amidst online criticism of black cultural appropriation. The trend inspired actress and smart person Amandla Stenberg to post a video about the history of black hair, cornrows and why it's problematic when white women adopt black culture to gain attention and be "edgy." She says: “Appropriation occurs when a style leads to racist generalizations or stereotypes where it originated, but is deemed as high-fashioned cool or funny when the privileged take it for themselves.” Stenberg posted the video 11 months ago on Tumblr, but it really gained traction online in April as many media outlets spun it as an attack from Stenberg on Jenner directly. (It's not.)
"China: Through the Looking Glass"
The Metropolitan Museum of Art's spring 2015 Costume Institute exhibition, "China: Through the Looking Glass," was a comprehensive examination of how Western designers have been inspired by Chinese culture through art and cinema with imaginative results for centuries. Haute couture and ready-to-wear pieces were displayed alongside the Chinese costumes, paintings and porcelains that inspired Yves Saint Laurent and many others, making it clear where cultural traditions got lost in translation and distance. The resulting exhibit was spectacular and record breaking.
The Met Gala
The question of the evening at the Met Gala this year, celebrating the "China: Through the Looking Glass" exhibit, was whether any of the celebrity guests would show up in offensive attire while trying to honor the theme. It was a bit of a Catch-22, considering the exhibit was about cultural interpretations. No one made headlines with obviously bad choices — though some were up for debate — and Rihanna won the night by arriving in a dramatic, bright yellow cape gown designed by Chinese couturier Guo Pei.
Elle Canada really messed up with a tweet this summer deeming the dashiki, a traditional West African shirt, the new "it-item of note." Needless to say, readers and the Internet at large were not amused. The tweet and corresponding article were quickly removed.
Olympia Le-Tan Spring 2016
Olympia Le-Tan's spring 2016 collection was inspired by Japan and the now demolished Hotel Okura in Tokyo. According to WWD, she took inspiration from photographer Nobuyoshi Araki and director Yasujiro Ozu. Due to the designer's personal familiarity with Japan and specific reference points, the reaction to the collection was wholly positive.
Charlotte Olympia Spring 2016
Designer Charlotte Olympia Dellal picks a theme each season and runs with it, and for spring 2016 she chose travel of bygone eras — including Africa during the time when it was colonized by Europeans. (Ask Taylor Swift how well that can turn out.) Dellal, who is South African, mostly steered clear of anything questionable, though, and focused instead on wild animals without using any exotic skins (except for one non-endangered snake bag).
Dolce & Gabbana Spring 2016
In the middle of a spring 2016 collection dedicated to Italian style (Dolce & Gabbana's perennial theme), the brand sent three Asian models down the runway in distinctly Chinese-inspired outfits. It felt like an outdated and stereotypical view of Asian culture but didn't attract much controversy. Questionable levels of sensitivity are pretty par for the course at D&G.
Valentino's spring 2016 collection spurred the most discussion about the merits or faults of its chosen theme: “wild, tribal Africa." Ah yes, that Africa. The clothing itself — which featured tribal motifs, detailed knitting, embroidery, safari prints, feathers and more textures — was deemed very beautiful by most reviews while criticism focused on the casting and the cornrows. Fewer than 10 black models walked the runway and everyone wore cornrow buns. If designers Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli weren't aware of the political connotations of the hairstyle before, they definitely are now.