The fashion industry is a business built on taking existing designs and reinterpreting them into new looks, but there may be an allowable limit to the similarity between designs. Many countries, including the United States, have laws on style piracy and copyright infringement that protect trademarks, copyrighted details, patents, and certain product categories. For example, Christian Louboutin is known for red soles on his shoes and has fought in courts to protect this trademark design. Legal protection may also be for design patents, like those held by Nike. The registered trademark of interlocking, mirror image Cs on Chanel products is also protected by law. While many students understand the importance of protecting intellectual property rights on merchandise, cultural appreciation and appropriation are more difficult concepts to grasp. These concepts deal with emotional property and symbolism of cultural icons that belong to minorities.
One of the hallmarks of cultural appreciation is to respect the context of another culture’s artifacts. Cultural appreciation is marked by a desire to understand an artifact’s cultural meaning as it was originally intended by the minority culture for which the symbol has importance. By contrast, cultural appropriation is considered disrespectful, demeaning, mocking, or downright theft of a minority’s cultural icons and ideas. It has been defined as “the taking over of creative or artistic forms, themes, or practices by one cultural group from another. It is generally used to describe Western appropriations of non‐Western or non‐white forms, and carries connotations of exploitation and dominance.”
When fashion companies sell products that are closely or loosely based on cultural artifacts from minorities and historically exploited cultures, the companies may be accused of stealing the icons from the cultural meaning associated with the icon. For example, when an item is removed from its original context for the sake of fashion, the item may be considered “edgy,” especially when worn by celebrities or fashion models, and later adopted by the mainstream population. However, the edgy fashion aspect ignores the cultural or religious significance and therefore dilutes the culture or religion of origin. When the item is monetized, the culture may be trivialized. Historic issues of cultural abuses or cultural stereotypes are largely ignored in cases of cultural appropriation.
Given these explanations of cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation, you will weigh the options of this case study and determine the best course of action. Be thoughtful and proactive. As you will learn from this case study, before proceeding to mass production, a fashion company must identify and mitigate any potential risks and threats. Otherwise, this fictional case study may parallel a very real scenario that you could experience in the future.
Students may be asked to write a response to the questions. This case study would be enriched with a one-hour debate. The debate can be organized independently of the individual write-up required for the case study, which requires a solution that has the best interests of the fashion company’s management team. By contrast, the debate can simply address the degree to which cultural appropriation exists in the fashion industry. Choose one of the following questions for the debate.
- Is the fashion industry culturally insensitive?
- How prevalent is cultural appropriation in the fashion industry?
- When a fashion company borrows a minority’s cultural symbols, is it cultural appropriation?
At the conclusion of the debate, each team can write a bulleted list of key arguments on their half of the white board. The instructor can use this opportunity to show the validity of opposing viewpoints and teach the principles of tolerance, empathy, and understanding, because there is no right or wrong.
In lieu of a debate, alternative questions for group discussion follow.
Cultural appropriation is a difficult concept to grasp. In order to better understand its meaning, identify several non-fashion examples of cultural appropriation in history.
Provide several contemporary examples of cultural appropriation in the fashion, clothing, and textiles industries that might be offensive to minorities. Explain why each might be considered offensive.
Sketch, render, or create a possible design for this piece of offending jewelry to use as a visual reminder while your team analyzes the case study.
Explain why the accessory company’s use of Native American symbols in its jewelry might be considered cultural appropriation.
Explain why the accessory company’s use of Native American symbols in its jewelry might be considered cultural appreciation.
How should Reflections respond to the public criticism?
Should Reflections defend cultural appreciation or admit to cultural appropriation? Why?
Should they continue to produce the line and why/why not?
How likely would changes to production or marketing serve to appease the Native American tribes? What actions would you recommend?
What three or four things could the company have done to prevent this negative backlash?