I attended a panel discussion last night at Parsons on the subject of cultural appropriation in fashion.*
While the panelists all spoke powerfully, most of what they shared was anecdotal. Their stories were mostly of being that one person in the room who had to speak up in order to stop a train wreck. I believe most POC placed in positions of power can relate.
As an attorney, I was trying to find a legal solution to all this – one that would raise the stakes and take the burden off POC to be the voice of reason in the room. But I don’t believe one exists. This is an ethical issue. And in many ways, violating the ethics or boundaries of borrowing from cultures can have greater consequences than a civil suit. With the power of social media, the damage can be both intense and immediate. Fashion companies are just a few key strokes and hashtags away from a PR nightmare.
What the fashion industry needs is a written cultural appropriation code of conduct. A non-binding code that at a minimum details a methodology that designers are advised to follow in order to avoid cultural appropriation. It is not sufficient to simply tell designers to “Google” each of the design elements of a particular collection before it hits the runway or stores. The only way to get designers to consistently and effectively avoid this minefield is to give them a written code that they can choose to adopt and internalize into their organization.
But which organization or organizations should prepare it? (I ask this question because I honestly do not know.) Writing the code is a minefield of its own. Certainly not everyone would be happy. That said, I don’t think that’s reason enough not to make an attempt and at a minimum issue industry guidelines. Designers can follow them or completely ignore them, but what they cannot then do is claim ignorance.
The panelists all spoke very eloquently about situations they were each in when they had to speak up and inform a client or designer that what was intended to be placed on the runway or in fashion magazine was simply not okay. Clearly, if designers object to a written code of conduct or even guidelines, then they should closely examine the composition of their design teams. Designers should include and expect more diversity on their design teams. And their entire team should be empowered to speak up when something just doesn’t smell right.
*Panelists included Elaine Welteroth, Editor-in-Chief of Teen Vogue; Aurora James, Creative Director of Brother Vellies; Amy Farid, Fashion industry hairstylist; and Anastasia Garcia, Photographer and body positive activist. Kim Jenkins, part-time lecturer at Parsons School of Design, was the moderator.
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