How a Diverse Staff Can Steer You from Cultural Appropriation to Culture Appreciation

How a Diverse Staff Can Steer You from Cultural Appropriation to Culture Appreciation | MakersValley Blog
Chastiny Walker

Chastiny Walker

Oops, they did it again! It’s nothing new for fashion brands to land in the headlines for controversies like culture appropriation – for some, it occurs more frequently than for others.

That’s partly because fashion brands worldwide are in a different atmosphere now than they were 30 or even 10 years ago. Thanks to social media, it’s now quick and easy for consumer sentiment to make fashion brands go viral. Whether or not that benefits the brand’s overall health as a company depends on whether customers make it go viral for doing good or for doing wrong. While in some cases a simple click on the internet and five minutes of research would allow brands to avoid controversy over the hot topic of cultural appropriation and the types of fashion products they release and the ways in which they do so, an even more fool proof way to assure your brand stays out of hot water in this area is to diversify your in-house staff. Let’s take a look at why.

Why Diverse Staffing Matters in Fashion

fashion executive telework call with diverse staffAs cringeworthy as it sounds, it was not so long ago that fashion brands made offensive choices like displaying a noose on a product, using Native American motifs without permission or credit, and the like. Not only do these decisions make the brand look bad and decrease sales, but it also makes the models they hired to show the products look bad. So, is diversity within the company the key to avoiding offensive fashion ideas? We think so.

When fashion brands aren’t diversified, they often lack knowledge of and sensitivity to issues that impact their customer base, regardless of whether or not they impact the brand’s top decision-makers. This and an overall lack of knowledge of different cultures can significantly hurt customer loyalty and sales for the brand. 

Diversity is essential for companies to have overall, especially in the fashion industry which plays a key role in how people choose to present themselves to their peers, employers, employees, role models, and more. When fashion brands seek out and employ diverse types of employees, they gain internal voices who can knowledgeably question and challenge designs internally before the public outcry. People of different cultural backgrounds can address offensive fashion ideas before they hit the media or runway. In addition, diversity allows brands to proactively address appropriation versus appreciation, and produce designs and an image that presents more inclusively to customers overall.

But how can fashion brand leaders tell the difference between what is cultural appropriation and what is cultural appreciation? We have a couple benchmarks and examples to help with that below.

Cultural Appropriation: Why It Is Ignorant

victorias-secret-fashion-show-cultural-appropriationGetty Images via Teen Vogue

Cultural appropriation happens when an individual wears a costume or clothing without any knowledge of its cultural significance, credit to its original community of creators, and (sometimes) does so mockingly. Fashion brands that fail to seek the understanding that is critical to cultural appreciation rather than appropriation beforehand are most often the ones with their decisions backfiring. Brands like Victoria's Secret have made huge mistakes in their fashion designs due to their lack of knowledge on different cultures. For example, in 2012, Victoria's Secret hosted a fashion show in which each model represented a different calendar month. When it came to November, a Caucasian model named Karlie Kloss strutted out in traditional Native American wear. This upset many in the Native American community, primarily because while pop culture traditionally associates their image with the Thanksgiving holiday, it is not actually one that they celebrate. Forcing an association between the two on such a high profile stage presented a painful reminder of the atrocities that their communities have suffered throughout history. In this instance, culture appropriation proved hurtful because it highlighted the community’s history of oppression and displayed a lack of awareness of which fabrics the community held sacred and why.

Native American in traditional clothingMore than a few fashion brands have gone under fire for offensive fashion ideas, and sadly, have made headlines for their offensive design, casting, and merchandising ideas:

  • Gucci – In 2018, Gucci received backlash for a turtleneck worn by a Caucasian female model. The mouthpiece was open but the design made the woman’s face appear as if she wore red lipstick around her mouth; if you look at the picture closely, it resembled black face. Many Black Americans, and others as well, took offense to this. Unfortunately, America has a massive history of performing black face, and it’s not a good one;  black face was traditionally used to mock Black people as ugly, ignorant people, and more.
  • H&M –  H&M is a famous Swedish fashion brand known worldwide. However, the company received backlash when it released product photos of a green hoodie, with text saying “Coolest Monkey In The Jungle”, modeled by a Black child. This fell flat because historically in America, Black people were offensively referred to as monkeys, and unfortunately, some even still use this slur today.
  • SKIMS –  Kim Kardashian’s shapewear line SKIMS was once called Kimono. A Kimono is already a specific type of Japanese garment. It is also part of the national dress for Japan. The Kimono already has a rich Japanese history, so Kim Kardashian's lack of knowledge on the word to use for her brand was hurtful. What is also upsetting is that the Kardashians are known for appropriating cultures, such when Kardashian wore a maang tikka, a traditional piece of jewelry worn on the foreheads of Indian women.

women wearing traditional kimonos and geisha makeupDifferent cultures hold different histories, and misappropriating those due to a lack of knowledge often sends the wrong message. While the brands highlighted above received instant backlash from the Black and Japanese communities respectively, appropriating fashion designs and trying to profit off the style, history, or name of another culture should simply be a no-go for brands. Sadly, this happens more in the fashion industry than in any other industry. Why? Because fashion is a realm where people feel free to try out new looks, a critical extension of identity.

How Small to Mid-Size Fashion Brands Can Show Cultural Appreciation

colored-fabrics-from-boliviaCultural Appreciation is when individuals seek to broaden their knowledge about a culture by reading books, watching videos, or having a conversation with a person within that culture. Learning about different cultures and appreciating them differs from cultural appropriation in that the individuals involved gain knowledge about a culture different from their own in order to understand what is and isn't offensive. When it comes to fashion designs, studying the global histories of fabrics and designs will help brands avoid controversy.

There are multiple ways to wear or showcase culturally inspired fashions without being offensive. For example, Aurora James, a designer for Brother Vellies, spoke of her father being from Ghana and wanting to share a piece of who she is through her fashion brand. Aurora goes on to speak about how she wanted to use her products to expand knowledge of Africa’s designs and fabrics but didn’t want to appropriate the material. She goes on and states that she sought and seeks consistent feedback from experts within the communities she’s inspired by in order to avoid anything controversial. Unlike Aurora, Gucci, H&M, and SKIMS in the above listed examples lacked education and failed to seek feedback on their design concepts before displaying them for the world to see.

There are multiple ways that fashion brands can appreciate cultures and integrate them into their fashion ideas without falling into cultural appropriation. Here are four key steps:

  1. Seek knowledge beforehand.
  2. Ask multiple questions.
  3. Give credit where it is due.
  4. Be respectful.

For small-to-midsize fashion brands with little to no diversity within the company, we recommend doing your research if you're looking to appreciate another culture through your designs or fabric choices. For starters, seek out webinars or hire a professional consultant to sit down your design and sourcing leaders and speak within the company about the do's and don't when it comes to creating a look that appreciates rather than appropriates. Next, if you are on a budget, a simple click to Google or YouTube is also helpful to find information about different cultures and their fashion and fabric histories. Lastly, if you're looking for feedback, look to influencers and individuals within the culture and ask tons of questions. You’ll likely gain, not only knowledge, but also social media mentions from the experience.

Remember, a diverse staff can help you avoid future controversial fashion ideas. In addition, employees of different cultural backgrounds are just a step away from informing you about their culture and what they do and don't find offensive. So if you are a fashion brand that lacks diversity in the office, it is time to start looking for employees with different cultures to join your company as your brand’s hiring capacity grows.


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