Last Thursday, I attended four New York Fashion Week shows. I covered my conflicted feelings on that here and this post was meant to just describe the ethics of each of the brands I saw. But instead, I fell into the internet and emerged with a greater understanding of cultural appropriation. This topic is indeed connected with conscious consumerism and this particular story begins at the first show of the day, Nicholas K.
As drum beats thumped and models moved down the runway wearing feather headdresses, Jes Kast-Keat and I shifted in our seats uncomfortably. Not being familiar with the designers, I quickly wondered if they were Native American. That would make it okay, right? A Google search disappointingly led me only to this:
Sister-and-brother design team Nicholas and Christopher Kunz grew up in Tucson, Arizona, near an Apache reservation where they spent time as children, fishing and just being outdoors. Christopher still visits two or three times each year, and this Spring shamanism is a main source of inspiration for the duo.
Their relationship to Native culture is adjacent at best. In reality, it is cultural appropriation. The issue with this type of cultural "inspiration" is it reduces a diverse culture into a stereotype. This is the only version of Native people we see; it's reductive and it contributes to their continued marginalization. The site Native Appropriations certainly did not view it positively and, in a related post, explains why it's inappropriate for people who are not Native to wear headdresses.
Cultural appropriation is an ongoing issue in the fashion industry. Julia of à l'allure garçonnière breaks the issues down in her fantastic post, the critical fashion lover's (basic) guide to cultural appropriation:
i don't think the issue of institutional racism and discrimination can be completely divorced from the question of cultural appropriation. they feed into one another. one would not exist (at least not in the same way) without the other. if we lived in a culture that acknowledged the fact that most of us live on stolen land in north america and that recognized native people as complex, diverse, intelligent people without romanticizing or glamourizing them, i'd like to think that it would put an end to these sorts of reductive stereotypes popping up in fashion, film, music scenes. reducing an entire culture to a simple "inspiration" for your outfit, art project, fashion collection, or photoshoot is disrespectful and unhelpful, especially when we look at the bigger picture [sic].
Does this mean we can never wear an item that could be construed as being from another culture? Julia urges us to question our motives for wearing the item, its origin, how it's marketed, and whether it's contributing to a stereotype. This echoes the advice on Native Appropriations to simply buy from Native artists and craftspeople and not make your choices into a costume. The à l'allure garçonnière piece also ends on a more positive note:
"my favourite aspect of cultural appropriation is that it can help us begin to deconstruct our sartorial choices and acknowledges the power of clothing as a means of shaping (racial, national, sexual, gender) identity. the exact same piece of clothing can mean very different things to different people (take any politically charged piece of clothing: the hijab, high-heel shoes, doc martens, the keffiyeh, etc) and acknowledging this fact is a very important first step. the very basis of cultural appropriation gets people thinking about questions like, can one piece of clothing "belong" to one culture? what do certain pieces of clothing signify? it moves us away from basic discussions of colour palettes and cuts and styles and trends and moves us towards a more complex theorizing of fashion [sic]."
A collection by David Tlale was the second show we saw. A native South African, Tlale works closely with organizations helping to improve his country. According to his brand page, he was "chosen to be an ambassador for the Change-4-Ever campaign that aims to alleviate poverty in Southern Africa." In an interview last year, he said that all of his clothes are made in South Africa. And in 2011, Tlale created his Climate Change Couture Collection, a collaboration with the South African Mint. This event was the first of the South African Mint’s initiatives which will focus on climate change and Antarctica. More recently, he has designed an extraordinary fashion collection on food security for the Southern African Trust that will show in Johannesburg on October 2nd. Further, "Mr. Tlale proudly supports United Colors of Fashion, Incorporated and its HIV/AIDS program at the Soweto Hospice in South Africa." This is the kind of ethical participation I hope to see from brands. I'm so glad I was able to witness the work of this conscientious designer.
The next show was BGBGMAXAZRIA. I had to do quite a bit of searching to find much on the ethical policies of this brand. Back in 1999, he was sued buy three workers in Los Angeles over sweatshop conditions. I hope that this type of situation has not continued. This page about California's Transparency in Supply Chains Act of 2010 states the company "has a zero-tolerance policy for both forced labor and child labor and we are committed to ensuring that our supply chain reflects our respect for human rights." It goes on to say they expect their suppliers to obey the laws that require them to treat workers fairly, and provide a safe and healthy work environment (meaning the onus is on them). Slightly better is this statement: "We also reserve the right to make periodic, unannounced inspections of our suppliers’ facilities to verify each supplier’s compliance with our sourcing guidelines and other requirements. Such on-site inspections are conducted by either our internal team or by a third party company, and we reserve the right to terminate the relationship with any supplier who fails to comply with our requirements."
I'm glad that they state their policies and "reserve the right" to make inspections. I don't like this kind of vague policy statement because it smacks of corporate bullshit, but I truly hope that they work with their suppliers to ensure fair and safe conditions. There is really no way for me to know.
They also have a Be Chic By Giving event: For every apparel purchase made in boutiques over the three days, they will give one item to charities supporting women's empowerment.
And finally we have Richard Chai. Beautiful clothes, but are they ethically made? After much Googling, I still don't know. The best I could do is this randomness. His brand site lacks any information about policies or manufacturing. This is the frustrating part of this journey: lack of transparency.
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