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Cultural appropriation in fashion is nothing new

Chanel is just the latest example of an industry that doesn't care

Posted by Kish Lal

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If you were to list the fashion industry’s biggest crimes you’d have an extensive list. From the objectionable treatment of models to brands run like sweatshops; fashion is a secret world tangled in it’s own inability to uphold standard ethics. Cultural appropriation is one of high fashion’s biggest and most common offences and this week Chanel was its latest perpetrator.

The world shared a collective gasp when it was revealed the designer’s newest item: a $2000 boomerang featuring their signature logo. Most people immediately saw an issue with the distasteful appropriation of Aboriginal culture. Nathan Sentance, an Indigenous project officer at the Australian Museum, pointed out that the $2000 boomerang cost almost 10% of the average annual income of Indigenous Australians. Despite what can only be described as universal outrage the boomerang remains on their website listed under ‘Other Accessories’ amongst Chanel tennis racquets and a Chanel surfboard.

Chanel will go on and operate unaffected by this backlash, in fact they’ll probably sell these to real customers, like Jeffree Star who proudly shared an Instagram of him playing, holding, throwing and hoping his couture ‘other accessory’ will indeed return as advertised. Unlike celebrities who rely heavily on their fanbases and are often forced to apologise for ignorantly flashing dreadlocks, bindis, or native headdresses as fashion, designers often go on unscathed, seemingly existing above this level of scrutiny. It’s not the angry Tweeter that’s going to boycott Chanel that they’re worried about, but the rich out of touch Valley girl who wants something new to flaunt on Facebook who owns the ‘controversial’ Marc Jacobs dreadlocks.

This isn’t a one-off or an honest mistake, Chanel likely spent months designing the item only for it to be approved by what I can imagine are dull white people who were likely aware of the implications of releasing a hurtful and offensive ‘accessory’. You’d be hard pressed to convince me that designers are unknowing of the implications of their actions. The fashion industry is ruthless and it is made clear time and time again that their intention is to make money. Who they fuck over in the process doesn’t matter. Chanel released a eye-roll inducing statement that was the press release equivalent to saying sorry not sorry, “We’re extremely committed to respecting all cultures, and regrets that some may have felt offended.”

There’s a fine line between what is cultural appreciation and appropriation and the number of times the industry has collectively gotten it right is overwhelmingly outweighed by the times it’s hasn’t. And with that, we look back at five times they’ve gotten it comprehensively wrong.

01. Chanel releases the wood & resin boomerang

If you’re the kind of person who’d buy this, I really hope that when you do decide to give it a throw it comes back, hits you in the head, and knocks some sense into you. Is that crossing the line? In the words of Chanel, “I regret that some may have felt offended.”

02. Marc Jacob dons his models in dreadlocks

Seeing Kendall Jenner sport dreadlocks was a dark omen we all seemed to ignore. Instead of hiring black models with dreadlocks, Marc Jacobs opted to gather the Fyre Festival gang for his runway show. When the internet shrieked in horror he responded using the “I don’t see colour” defence.

03. Riccardo Tisci for Givenchy's “‘Chola Victorian” show

Combing out fake baby hairs on a white girl does not a Latin girl make. Tisci’s obsession with Latin archetypes has been well documented but the runway casting was made up of around 20% non-white women. Oh and that’s how Tisci described the show, to represent a culture he apparently adores…

04. Victoria’s Secret Native American headdress

In a world that is slowly starting to understand the implications of cultural appropriation and why exactly it is wrong, some would say earlier discussions were sparked by white girls wearing native headdresses to Coachella. Which makes it even more confusing that Victoria’s Secret would get it so wrong because aren’t all their models Coachella VIPs?

05. Valentino’s ‘Wild Africa’ show

Bongo drums and white models wearing cornrows sounds like a sick joke? Except it wasn’t. Eight out of the show’s 87 looks were given to black models and for a show that is based on “tribal Africa”. That’s unacceptable.

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