Cultures, Not Costumes

What Does Cultural Appreciation Look Like?

The luxury fashion industry just can’t seem to avoid stepping on toes when taking inspiration from other cultures. But avoiding this altogether to avoid accusations of cultural appropriation won’t benefit anyone.

What Does Cultural Appreciation Look Like?

It was meant to be an act of cultural appreciation. In September, when Dior released a teaser trailer for its new film titled We Are The Land, as part of a campaign for its fragrance Sauvage, the French luxury brand went to gargantuan effort to be inclusive and celebratory in its portrayal of Native American culture.

The one minute video, which stars actor Johnny Depp, features two co-stars of Native American descent. Dior worked with an advocacy group, made a donation to the community and took great pains to ensure that the cultural symbols portrayed in the film, which included a warrior dancing in feathered regalia, were accurate and respectfully conveyed.

But the moment they released the video, all these efforts seemed to amount to naught. An uproar blew up on social media, with the dreaded accusation of cultural appropriation leading to the campaign ultimately getting cancelled.

In an accompanying statement, the brand wrote, “The House of Dior has long been committed to promoting diversity and has no tolerance for discrimination in any form. We are deeply sorry for any offense caused by this new advertising campaign, which was meant to be a celebration of the beauty, dignity, and grace of the contemporary Native American culture. As a consequence, we have decided not to release this version of the campaign.” The most recent iteration of the campaign features close-ups of the perfume bottle.

There is no doubt that luxury fashion in general has a problem with cultural appropriation. Over the past 12 months, Prada released, then recalled, a series of bag charms that resembled Gollywogs; Gucci sent white models down its runway wearing Sikh turbans; and Dolce & Gabbana cancelled a splashy fashion show in Shanghai after its promotional videos featuring an Asian model struggling to use chopsticks to eat Italian food was accused of being racist. Dior itself has previously been embroiled in controversy when a campaign featuring Jennifer Lawrence wearing an outfit inspired by the escaramuza (female Mexican equestrians) garnered criticism for appropriating the design without including Mexican community.

“Cultures are not costumes,” go the objections to “accessories” such as Gucci’s turban, or Dior’s escaramuza outfit.

This time, with Savauge, Dior’s efforts seem so well-meaning and earnest in comparison to previous fiascos. The press notes that were sent to the media include this line: “On-going communication about the project, and then on the film set, had a shared aim: moving away from cliches in order to avoid the cultural appropriation and subversion that so often taints images representing Native people.” Admittedly, at least this one luxury brand is trying – even if it does not seem to be hard enough or fast enough for this digital age.

So what went wrong? For one, the name of the perfume, which is uncannily similar to a racist slur, naturally raised hackles. And while the collaboration with the Native American community was carefully communicated to those working on the project and subsequently documented, none of this was apparent to viewers of the film who merely saw Johnny Depp as a lone white man wandering the American Far West, before cutting to shots of a warrior doing a ritual dance and a girl wearing a poncho – and then, the bottle of perfume. It felt like a classic example of cultural appropriation, when people from a dominant, more privileged culture take whatever they deem cool from a minority group with giving due respect, credit or offering compensation.

Unfortunately for Dior, on social media, where snap judgements are made based on a single visual or a short video clip, all their painstaking effort at ensuring inclusivity was lost in the split second it took to share a post.

Dior’s Sauvage perfume campaign ran afoul of the cultural appropriation markers; the fragrance’s name (which translates to wild, not savage) probably did not help matters.

But cancelling the campaign entirely feels like a cop-out too. We live in a time of heightened cultural sensitivities and one of the ways to promote greater awareness and appreciation is to allow creatives the leeway to draw inspiration from different cultures. Otherwise, we may all retreat to our silos with limited ways to meaningfully interact with the rest of the world.

Still, there is no doubt that luxury conglomerates can afford to do much better when it comes to showcasing and communicating cultural appreciation. They could start by changing their messaging around ad campaigns. Instead of focusing on the end product, as is traditionally done, they can lead in by highlighting the indigenous artisans, communities and talent that they work with. The fashion industry has long been accustomed to crediting the celebrities, photographers, models and stylists they work with; now it is time to acknowledge the living, breathing sources of their inspiration too.

Brands who say they “value diversity” should also have the gumption to make the change from within. With many of the questionable fashion collections, it sometimes feels like the brands’ artistic directors are drawing on a hodgepodge of seemingly random cultural influences that tickle their fancy, which result in half-baked, thoughtlessly launched creations. Arguably, many of these faux pas could have been avoided if they had design teams that hail from a diverse background. After all, who better to lead the charge in elevating cultural elements to haute fashion with authenticity than the very people who are born with an intimate knowledge and sensitivity of what they are working with?

In Singapore, fashion designer Priscilla Shunmugam, who is of Chinese-Indian descent, has made a name for her label Ong Shunmugam, thanks to her elegant and modern reinterpretations of Asian clothing. She draws on a wide variety of Asian textiles and traditional wear to create thoughtful, respectful designs that showcase this rich heritage in a new light.

On the global stage, it certainly would not hurt international luxury marques to hire those with similarly engaged viewpoints into their teams. After all, it is 2019 and it’s high time the fashion industry finally shifts the conversation from “What were they thinking?” to “I think they got it right!”

Related Stories