The role of fashion and art as vessels for powerful statements, is becoming more prominent than ever. But greater ability comes with greater responsibility. As designers strive to celebrate cultures through their creations, the accusation of “cultural appropriation” is easily evoked. It is true that all are free to employ different cultures in creating works. But therein also lies the responsibility to present the right story and pay full respect.

March 2017 Issue of Vogue | Photography courtesy of Vogue

A recent debate on cultural appropriation emerged after Gucci’s Cruise 2018 show in Florence. The luxury brand presented a look that resembles a design of African-American artist, Dapper Dan — a fur panel jacket with big puff sleeves, replacing the Louis Vuitton monogram with the interlocking double-G logo. Some were filled with indignation, seeing the outfit as a theft of creativity and culture. While some applauded the work that they claimed, had brought cultural exchange.

Gucci Cruise18 Collection | Photography courtesy of Vogue

Los Angeles-based makeup artist named PaintDatFace also made a controversial move, giving a white model a black face. “This is about one woman acknowledging, embracing, and celebrating the beauty of another woman’s culture,” the artist wrote. Yet, the intended celebration was turned into an arena of anger. People commented that black-face was not something someone could put on and take off when convenient, and to truly acclaim black beaut, the artist should had hired a black model.

Makeup by PaintDatFace | Photography courtesy of Anna Thorsell

The notion of  breaking down cultural borders, is welcomed by all. But when it comes to cultural appropriation, the feelings are mixed. Advocates for marginalized cultures insist on ensuring that minority cultures are not determined by the majority. But one might question the rigidity of such by-law, which quite almost prevents any white designers from incorporating less privileged cultures into their works.

Valentino SS16 Campaign | Photography by Steve McCurry

Infusing elements of other cultures into designs should not be unduly denied. Yet, un-cited influences are in fact assimilations of the already marginalized culture; obfuscating the heritage’s true origin. With all the “Guccy”, “Guccification” and “Guccify Yourself” labels, signs of collaborating with or paying homage to Dapper Dan could hardly be seen. The brand thereafter published a post, revealing the source of inspiration. Still, few believe that had there been no condemnation, the brand would not have made those moves. Although we would never know the brand’s true intentions, it is clear that Gucci needs to improve in honoring other cultures.

Capturing Mexican Beauty | Photography by Zora Sicher

Paying full homage to the cultures taken in assembling pieces, does not in itself perfect the cultural exchange movement. When the power dynamics stay unequal, more has to be done: to be sensitive in handling cultures and presenting the message. Celebrating the beauty of minority cultures, is a notion worth praises. However, when the appreciation of black, brown, hispanic (etc) beauty comes from a white model, the appreciation becomes misplaced.

Depicting the Jamaican Identity | Photography by Lúa Ribeira

Depicting the Jamaican Identity | Photography by Lúa Ribeira

Art is always about allowing multiple interpretations. One could deem the black- face makeup as a triumph of black allure over white charm, and then comes an endless debate. But constructive criticisms should not be merely on products, but also on the state of the industry. We want the authentic story to be presented properly and, better still, by the owner of the culture.

New York Fashion Week 2017 | Photography courtesy of Vogue

We have made progress, seeing a 2.5% increase of non-white models over last season in Fall/Winter 2017 (theFashionSpot, 2017). Still this figure shows over 70% of models are white; suggesting that the Eden of cultural inclusion and mutual recognition is still a working progress. Non-white models deserve to be at the forefront.

Re-creating Fashion Advertisements | Photography by Deddeh Howard

It is more than just a lack of people from other cultures; we are still holding stereotypes towards minority cultures. Not only are we compartmentalizing people of color, the industry is also suggests that “dark” is not beautiful, in its actions. Black models are often required to get their natural hair straightened. Make-up artists use the wrong shades to mix and match for the “correct” skin tone. Cultural traits are still forced to fit western beauty standards, dividing people and denying true appreciation.

 

“Well, they didn’t know I am black girl. I have a strong nose and I remember people suggesting that if I were to get my nose done I would get more work and I was just baffled.”

Diandra Forrest at ELLE, 2017.

Model Diandra Forrest | Photography courtesy of ELLE

Kanye West Fashion Show | Photography by Gareth Cattermole

Changes and efforts were made to rectify cultural stereotypes and inequality; this could not be repudiated. But more has to be done, especially when the industry holds the power to transform the undesirable. Standing in the 21st century, when terms of cultural appropriation and imperialism have repeatedly surfaced and cultural privilege stays intact, it is only right to remain unsatisfied.

A Forecast for the Future: a rainbow of colors on runways and covers; a clear and cavernous sky of cultures; and a horizon that is inclusive.

Many thanks to the referenced sites for press materials. 

Written by Audrey Heng

Edited by Sonia Wan

Rachel Hosie (2017) Makeup Artist Provokes Outrage by Turning White Woman Black [Online] Available at http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/fashion/makeup-white-woman-black-turn-artist-racism-blacking-up-paintdatface-los-angeles-a7762516.html [Accessed 02/06/17]

Osman Ahmed (2017) Why Fashion Needs Cultural Appropriation [Online] Available at https://www.businessoffashion.com/articles/opinion/why-fashion-needs-cultural-appropriation?utm_source=Subscribers&utm_campaign=38dd86d230-top-15-m-a-targets-in-beauty-mary-meeker-s-2017-in&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_d2191372b3-38dd86d230-421061765 [Accessed 02/06/17]

Nana Agyemang (2017) What 8 Black Models Want You To Know About Working In The Fashion Industry [Online] Available at http://www.elle.com/fashion/a43095/8-models-speak-on-discrimination/ [Accessed 02/06/17]

THEFASHIONSPOT (2017) Report: Fall 2017 Was a Banner Season for Runway Diversity, Especially in New York. [Online] Available at http://www.thefashionspot.com/runway-news/740117-runway-diversity-report-fall-2017/ [Accessed 02/06/17]