Article by Melissa Singer /
The Sydney Morning Herald /
January 15, 2021 /
Click here to view original /
What happened? Earlier this week, Australian global fashion label Zimmermann debuted its latest range of beach and swimwear, including a tunic dress featuring embroidered peacocks, flowers and frills that has ruffled a lot of feathers.
Because it cost $800? Primarily, no, although the cost is not completely irrelevant (more on that later). No sooner did the brand post images of the tunic dress than social media users began calling out the brand for cultural appropriation.
Who did Zimmermann allegedly rip off? The design was inspired by the traditional embroidery of artisans from the Oaxaca region of Mexico. The patterns are used in costumes worn for cultural festivals, with different colours and trims signifying different geographical or ancestral groups.
I recognise those patterns from a tablecloth my grandma used to have. If she bought it from local artisans on a cruise to Acapulco then that is probably fine. The reason Zimmermann was called out was that the dress was likely designed in its Sydney or New York studios with precisely zero input from Mexican communities.
Didn’t another brand do something similar? Yep, in 2019, the Mexican government accused US label Carolina Herrera of making dresses with embroidery said to be highly borrowed from traditional techniques.
How bad is what Zimmermann did? If the cultural group at the centre of the claim is upset, as opposed to a mere chorus of Twitter keyboard warriors, it’s bad. University of Melbourne pop culture expert Dr Lauren Rosewarne says it’s not up to white people to decide. “Not only do outsiders to the culture often not recognise it as problematic but we often don’t understand why it might also be offensive … But this is never the point: it’s not about white people caring, it’s about the traditions of those being appropriated to care. And on this occasion they did.”
I take it Mexican groups didn’t respond too well. The Instituto Oaxaqueño de las Artesanías publicly called on Zimmermann to explain the design process and give recognition to the traditional custodians of the motifs. On Friday, the institute posted to Twitter a screenshot from a Zoom meeting with Zimmermann’s US-based communications representative.
Oh, so they’ve apologised. Yes, “for the usage without appropriate credit to the cultural owners of this form of dress and for the offence this has caused”, and pulled the dress from sale. According to the brand, they have spoken with the institute and are “working with them towards a suitable solution”. Stephen Wigley, associate dean of fashion enterprise at RMIT, says brands, particularly more cashed-up ones, should interrogate their designers and spot any red flags in the early stages. If they can bring cultural groups or artisans to the table in a meaningful collaboration, then great. If not, maybe the design should get the chop.
Anything else? The internet’s unofficial fashion police, Diet Prada, which previously accused the brand of racism towards its employees, was unequivocal in its thoughts on what Zimmermann should do. “PAY THEM,” its founders wrote on Zimmermann’s post.
It always comes back to money. Well, no, but if the dress does go back on sale for $800, then the “owners” of the original design would have a fair claim to a portion of that. Think of it like a brand using an artist’s song in a commercial.
So where is the line between, say, supporting artisans and cultural appropriation? Glad you asked, as this comes up quite a lot, including with Aboriginal-designed fashion. According to Indigenous fashion social enterprise Clothing the Gap, wearing a T-shirt with an Aboriginal motif, provided an Indigenous artist has been paid fairly for the work, is OK. Wearing traditional dress, or a T-shirt with certain Aboriginal slogans that should only be worn by mob is not.
There must be a way to keep these things from happening. I think about this a lot but so long as humans design clothes, there are bound to be misjudgments, particularly in the murky waters between inspiration and appropriation. Brands across the spectrum, from luxury to fast-fashion are vulnerable, as we saw with the Gucci blackface sweater or the H&M “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle” windcheater train wreck.
Like feathered headdresses, or the Kim Kardashian Kimono thing? There are definitely similarities between all these examples, although I’d venture that Kardashian wanting to name her shapewear line Kimono (since changed to SKIMS) was more cultural insensitivity than appropriation.
At least it’s no $2000 Chanel boomerang. Please don’t ever mention that again.