Hey, Quick Question: Could the U.N. Succeed in Making Cultural Appropriation Illegal?

The global body is legitimately trying to.
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DSquared2's problematic "Squaw" Fall 2015 collection. Photo: Imaxtree

DSquared2's problematic "Squaw" Fall 2015 collection. Photo: Imaxtree

Welcome to our column, "Hey, Quick Question," where we investigate seemingly random happenings in the fashion and beauty industries. Enjoy!

Cultural appropriation — in which members of one culture "borrow" from another culture in ways perceived as offensive or problematic — has been a much-talked-about problem in the fashion industry for years now. From Urban Outfitters being sued by Navajo Nation for so-called "Navajo" underwear and flasks to Karlie Kloss's yellowface Vogue editorial to the likes of Valentino, Marc Jacobs and more putting traditionally black hairstyles on almost exclusively white models, fashion news has been chock-full of headlines about brands whose ideas of cultural exchange leave something to be desired. 

And while it often feels like designers and mainstream glossies are simply not paying attention to the significant backlash that comes about as a result of these decisions, it turns out that the United Nations apparently has been. This week, delegates from almost 200 countries gathered for the meeting of the U.N.'s World Intellectual Property Organization. The goal, reported Fusion, was to lay down potential legal ramifications for those who "borrow" aesthetically from indigenous cultures without those cultures benefitting. 

In short: The UN is trying to make it illegal to culturally appropriate from indigenous cultures.

According to James Anaya, Dean of Law at the University of Colorado, who addressed the U.N. committee on Monday, the document the committee is putting together ought to "obligate states to create effective criminal and civil enforcement procedures to recognize and prevent the non-consensual taking and illegitimate possession, sale and export of traditional cultural expressions."

It's gratifying to see an international group that theoretically should have the power to shift practices in the industry taking action, since bad press has clearly not been enough to change the minds of many designers. Still, we're left with a few questions: How would the often gray areas occupied by cultural appropriation be defined in black-and-white in enough terms to be prosecutable? What would be the repercussions for brands or designers that transgressed those terms? And most significantly, could it actually mean that cultural appropriation in the fashion industry might come to a halt?

It's too soon to tell, as nothing final has been released from the U.N. yet — and considering that it has been working on a document intended to protect indigenous intellectual property for 16 years, who knows how long it'll be before we see any concrete results. But hey, it's nice to know there's a group of powerful people actually trying to do something about a problem that's shown no signs of disappearing on its own.

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