Diversity and inclusion are important factors to consider in the process of creating ads or launching new products. More brands are trying to portray a fair representation of society and of course there’s nothing wrong with reaching out to new target groups. However, when trying to profit from products inspired by culture, religion or traditions it’s a necessity to be well informed about any possible sensitivities. High end brands often don’t seem do their homework and have been accused of cultural appropriation. When ones’ heritage is adopted by someone in a more privileged position, for fun or fashion or maybe even out of ignorance this can be very hurtful. This is called cultural appropriation. Typically it’s the more dominant culture that copies cultural aspects from a minority culture that is often being discriminated or marginalized. It could be a hairstyle, a piece of clothing, the manner of speaking.
“Appropriation has everything to do with power structures, and little to do with valuing cultural practices and attributing credit to original sources” – Hoda Katebi
Gucci and cultural appropriation
Let’s start with Gucci’s cultural insensitivities. Last year the brand faced a backlash for selling a “wool balaclava jumper” looking like the model had exaggerated red lips on a black background, associated with a blackface character. The brand apologized in a tweet, but they don’t get away with it that easy. Many amongst racist exposer Tariq Nasheed question why the Italian brand wouldn’t recognize the mistake in the first place as it’s pretty obvious and especially during Black History Week.
Recently Gucci’s runway show included a (white) model wearing a turban that looks identical to the traditional headdress of Sikhs. The question is how a brand like Gucci doesn’t have the realization that people have been discriminated and even murdered for wearing the dastaar. Besides that it has a religious significance as stated in a tweet from the Sikh Coalition. The turban with a price tag of $ 790 was pulled from the shelves by Nordstrom after the backlash.
Are Victoria’s Secret themes appropriating culture?
At the Victoria’s Secret runway show 2017 in China models were dressed up with feathers, indigenous looking head-dresses, and beaded jewellery. The theme was “Nomadic Adventure,” inspired by Native American culture and tradition. This wasn’t received too well at the time. It wasn’t their first rodeo, in 2012 Karlie Kloss wore a Native American-like headdress, meant to be indicative of Thanksgiving of all things. Last minute the decision was made that it wouldn’t make the final edit of the show’s tv broadcast. At the Victoria’s Secret runway show 2017 in China models were dressed up with feathers, indigenous looking head-dresses, and beaded jewellery. The theme was “Nomadic Adventure,” inspired by Native American culture and tradition. This wasn’t received too well at the time as headdresses have been worn by the most powerful and influential members among Native American tribes historically. Last year Victoria’s Secret created some questionable costumes that appropriated Chinese culture, including a dragon look.
A few days ago model Shanina Shaik leaked that the show is cancelled this year during an interview with The Daily Telegraph. A few months ago company stated it would no longer televise the fashion show. “We are taking a fresh look at every aspect of our business – from merchandising, marketing and brand positioning, to our real estate portfolio, digital business and cost structure … literally everything,” a press release from Victoria’s Secret read. Well maybe it’s about time!
Cultural appropriation versus appreciation
Fragrance brand Pinrose thought it was an easy way to benefit off the increasing popularity of witchcraft and revealed its Starter Witch Kit which was to be sold at Sephora.
The brand must have seen it like an opportunity to target young girls with an interest in Wicca and Witchcraft, but didn’t consider how practicing witches would feel about them using their beliefs for the purpose of aesthetics. The Starter Witch Kit included a set of tarot cards, a rose quartz, sage and their own perfume of course. The announcement of the launch of the kit completely backfired last year as witches recognized this as cultural appropriation.
Fenty Beauty by Rihana did a fabulous job at appropriately using popular online subculture by launching a selection of lipsticks, compatible with each zodiac sign, from the Mattemoiselle collection. The reactions are positive, ” The selection is spot on” according to Instagram users and they are evenly happy with the various colours suitable for all skin tones.
Does intention matter?
It’s all about responsibility of a brand to make sure that products or ads are evaluated (by the right people) before they are launched when borrowing from other cultures. These problems are mostly bigger than just one product or ad and should be prevented by evaluating diversity within the company. Brands want to make a profit, so it’s not in their interest to exclude anyone or step on anyones toes, but that is even more reason to be more considerate of (sub)cultures they are inspired by.
How to avoid cultural appropriation?
In an article on Greenheart, Kelsey Holmes says:
“Appreciation is when someone seeks to understand and learn about another culture in an effort to broaden their perspective and connect with others cross-culturally. Appropriation on the other hand, is simply taking one aspect of a culture that is not your own and using it for your own personal interest.”
Just appreciate, don’t appropriate
– Understanding the value and meaning of a particular element/tradition good enough to borrow it appropriately
– Having knowledge of histories of oppression, segregation and colonialism – Acquire information from individuals or organizations that can tell you more about the culture’s, practices and values
– Asking yourself and your co-workers: What is the reason for using elements from another culture? How can it be done in a respectable way?
Opinions on cultural appropriation are divided, Michael J Bramham argues that “Providing your intent is not to mock, disrespect or stereotype minorities, the cultures of humanity form a common heritage for all humans and thus, belong to us all to enjoy and partake in (in a responsible way)”. This sounds great in theory, only in my opinion the effects are far more important than the intention. As long as there are minorities that are discriminated and marginalized, it’s the responsibility of the brand or person who wants to adopt elements of a culture to be aware of what it means to people first instead of focusing on their own intentions and creativity only.