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Stitched up: The fashion industry's culture of appropriation

News   •   Feb 22, 2017 08:52 SGT

Idea theft in the fashion industry is bad enough. It's worse when sacred cultural designs are co-opted. Picture credit: Nate Francis/Unék Photography

The Native Fashion Now exhibition, which opened in New York last week, is billed as a celebration of contemporary North American indigenous fashion designers as well as an exploration of the complex intersection of fashion with art, culture, cultural identity, politics and commerce.

One controversial issue the exhibition, hosted by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, is helping to draw attention to is the practice of cultural appropriation in the fashion world.

It is a particularly objectionable form of idea theft, as writer Alli Joseph observes in Salon: "From mass retailers to couture lines, 'Native' fashion elements — such as suede fringe, beading and tribal patterns belonging to specific families — are being used without permission, attribution or any benefit to actual Native American designers." Not only that, but in some case images and designs are considered sacred and therefore not something that would ever be sold for profit.

Joseph cites the example of high-end European clothing designer Kokon To Zai (KTZ) being caught red-handed in 2015 using a distinctive design originally created as a sacred spiritual protection for an Inuit Nunavut shaman. "This is a stolen piece," the shaman’s great-granddaughter told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation at the time. Luckily the family had photos to prove their claim, and KTZ quickly sought to make amends.

Such cultural appropriation is arguably just the tip of a very large iceberg, with there being an endemic culture of "ideas appropriation" within the fashion industry.

You don’t have to talk to too many aspiring designers who have pitched their work to an established fashion house before you hear a story of a design idea subsequently being used and sold in some slightly amended form without any credit or payment to the original Creator.

This is why PitchMark exists: to give you verifiable means to prove a design or idea is yours before you pitch it to others, to deter those who might think about appropriating your work, and to provide a mechanism to seek redress, by giving the perpetrators a dressing down.

Do you know of any cases where Creators have found themselves "stitched up" by a fashion house? If so, we'd like to hear about it.

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