Photograph by H. Armstrong Roberts / Getty Images
The fashion system has a troubling history of stealing Indigenous designs. But the movement to protect Traditional Knowledge and Native cultural expressions is finally gathering pace in a bid to dismantle the industry’s colonial approach to inspiration.
The first time many European and North American fashion consumers see a Mexican huipil, a traditional Romanian blouse known as ia, a Colombian mochila, or an Indigenous ribbon skirt, it will be a commercialized approximation, sold as a fashion statement by a global brand. These garments are often described as “bohemian,” “folk-inspired,” or “ethnic,” so the consumer is divorced entirely from the origins of the design.
For decades, the western fashion industry has turned to Indigenous cultures for “inspiration,” incorporating traditional embroidery, motifs, weaves, textiles, and crafts into their designs or—as is often the case—simply copying an entire garment without crediting or compensating the culture from which it came. Fashion is such a self-referential industry that copying is practically an established part of the machine, but stealing and appropriating Indigenous designs is all the more insidious.
Fashion design is a creative expression, but it’s rooted in research.
Everything from poetry to political movements inform the silhouettes, materials, and motifs designers work with. Given the breadth of designers’ sources, it’s unsurprising that inspiration might expand into different cultures—but the status of the Indigenous garments and adornments that are being mined for inspiration is too often overlooked. “Everything we carry as robes has a story, has meaning,” Benki Piyãko, spiritual and political leader of the Ashaninka People, told the audience at the Earthed summit, gesturing to his striped robes, the beads crossed over his torso, and his woven headwear finished with three tall feathers. The cultural and spiritual meaning is often discussed by Indigenous leaders, but still some designers think, “that’s mine to take.”
“It perpetuates colonial tactics,” says Sage Paul, executive and artistic director of Indigenous Fashion Arts (IFA), a platform for Indigenous-made and -designed fashion, crafts, and textiles. “The money is not going back into our communities; it’s going to people who have lots of money, who are our oppressors and colonizers.”
Standout examples of what’s sometimes called “cultural plagiarism” include U.K. fashion label KTZ’s like-for-like replica of a garment designed and worn by Aua, one of the last Shaman of the Canadian Inuit; Isabel Marant’s appropriation of a design and pattern unique to the Purépecha from the Mexican state of Michoacan (one of many accusations of appropriation against the brand); Zimmerman’s recreation of Huipil designs belonging to the Mazatec community who are Indigenous to Mexico; and Urban Outfitter’s use of the Navajo name and Navajo-style motifs across a range of items from sweaters to underwear.
“The money is not going back into our communities; it’s going to people who have lots of money, who are our oppressors and colonizers.”
executive and artistic director, Indigenous Fashion Arts
The public acknowledgement of theft and appropriation often plays out on social media with accounts such as Give Credit posting the original and the copy side by side. Without these callouts, the average fashion consumer would likely be unaware a theft had ever occurred. Though a necessary tool in publicly calling for accountability, social media’s fleeting nature doesn’t always allow for a deeper interrogation of the real harms caused.
“We were not legally allowed to practise our culture,” says Paul, who is an urban Denesuliné woman and a member of English River First Nation. “So, historically, people were making money off our culture that we were not allowed to practise.” Stolen designs may also feature ceremonial images and iconography, she says, which are then taken out of context when presented in isolation by a brand.
The hurt felt by affected communities goes deep—this unrooted representation of Indigenous peoples and Native cultures can lead to harmful stereotypes, which are then used to justify further oppression, mistreatment, and violence.
Growing up, Monica Boța-Moisin used to dig through a wooden chest at her grandmother’s house and try on the traditional Romanian clothing within. They belonged to—and were made by—Boța-Moisin’s grandmother and great-grandparents, the color and complexity of the embroidered designs conveying different meanings and stories. Then, years later, she saw the singer Adele in the March 2012 edition of Vogue wearing a blouse that looked strikingly similar to the ones in the chest—but the credit was to Tom Ford.
Tom Ford cited Yves Saint Laurent as his inspiration, who in turn created his version in response to La Blouse Roumaine, according to researcher Kate Caric, a painting by Henri Matisse which depicted a woman wearing a Romanian blouse. Matisse was inspired to paint it because of Queen Marie of Romania’s visits to Paris to be dressed by French designers. The chain reaction has rendered the blouse a symbol of French fashion, not an important touchstone within Romanian culture. And this, in turn, upholds the dominance of the four “fashion capitals” in New York, London, Paris, and Milan, the underlying message being that it’s not “fashion” unless it’s been syphoned through these geographies.
Paul and her colleagues do not subscribe to this thinking. On its website, the Indigenous Fashion Arts says it strives for artistic integrity beyond euro-western artistic definitions. “It’s important that we create autonomy,” Paul says, “And to start to determine for ourselves what art is. We don’t need other people to define that for us.”
In legal parlance, the generational know-how and skills needed to bead, embroider, weave, and much more is called Traditional Knowledge (TK), and the physical or practical outcomes are called Traditional Cultural Expressions (TCEs). Within a fashion context TCEs might refer to beaded earrings or a crochet bag, but more generally it can apply to everything from music and dance to names and ceremonies.
The language might be set, but the legal tools and frameworks to protect TK and TCEs are not. The World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) established the Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge and Folklore in 2000 to create international legal instruments to effectively protect TK and TCEs. Negotiations are expected to conclude “no later than 2024,” with the likes of the U.S. inviting input from Indigenous communities to shape the outcome. That it’s taken nearly a quarter of a century to reach a conclusion demonstrates the complexity of the issue.
There are some established laws in place. In 2000, Panama approved the first sui generis (of its own kind) Indigenous IP system in the world that granted Indigenous groups exclusive, collective, and perpetual rights to their TK and TCEs. Meanwhile the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990 in the U.S. makes it illegal to falsely sell products as being Native-produced. A more recent example is the Federal Law for the Protection of the Cultural Heritage of Indigenous and Afromexican Peoples and Communities, which was introduced in Mexico in 2022 to safeguard heritage, TK, and TCEs (although there are concerns about its lack of Indigenous input as well as the vague language that makes it difficult to implement).
The most straightforward way for a consumer to know the origin and authenticity of a piece is to buy directly from the source.
Many Indigenous communities also take a proactive legal approach. The Navajo Nation trademarked the “Navajo” name in 1943, and at the time of its dispute with Urban Outfitters in 2013 held 86 registered trademarks. The Sámi people (who live in Finland, Russia, Norway, and Sweden) hold two trademarks. The use of databases is also an option—documenting the specifics of what already exists and where it originated to prove ownership.
The need for legal protection is clear, but some argue that current solutions force Indigenous people to fit generational, community-based structures into a colonial legal system predicated on property and novelty. “It’s hard to adapt our perspectives of stewardship into systems that are specifically created for ownership and power,” says Paul. The use of databases can also put things in the public domain, compromising the secret nature of some TK and TCEs, and invalidating less formal approaches such as oral registers maintained by Elders.
“Whilst some [existing] IP protections can be extended to TCEs, none of them are 100% compatible with the nature of these expressions and the knowledge associated with them. Ideally a tailor-made legal protection system is necessary—or at least personalized strategies on a case-by-case basis,” says Boța-Moisin, who is the only lawyer in Europe who specializes in cultural intellectual property law. She also founded the Cultural Intellectual Property Rights Initiative (CIPRI) in 2018, which supported the Oma Ethnic Group of Laos in establishing a traditional textile design database after its designs were seemingly used without consent by Max Mara.
The most straightforward way for a consumer to know the origin and authenticity of a piece is to buy directly from the source. The IFA has a catalogue of all its designers and artists on its website, and similarly the Sámi lists licensed craft makers and producers online. But can everyone wear these designs? The answer depends on the artist, many of whom make their position clear. For instance, Jamie Gentry of the Kwakwaka’wakw Nation, who makes moccasins, says that by buying Indigenous-made, consumers are “not only…supporting the artist’s work, you are also supporting their family and their community.”
For non-Indigenous brands who want to incorporate a version of a TCE into their collection, CIPRI aims to encourage a benefit-sharing model based on the 3Cs rule: consent, credit, compensation. If a fashion brand is inspired by a garment, or a style of embroidery, for instance, they would have to seek permission from the craft custodians (who, vitally, have the right to say no, Boța-Moisin explains). If granted permission, the brand must credit appropriately and compensate—not just monetarily, but socially based upon the needs of the custodians.
For Ana Tarfur of Sake, this is the only way to do it. After working in fast fashion in China for seven years, the Colombian designer headed back to Latin America to work with a more local focus, settling in Peru and taking the time to research and visit Indigenous and rural communities there. Tarfur wanted to learn about traditional ways of making—the opposite of the huge-scale production she’d previously overseen. “When you work with communities, you have to learn their rhythm,” Tarfur says. “I understood that I couldn’t just go and say, I want this.”
Learning from and staying with different communities in Peru, Tarfur built relationships that weren’t purely extractive. She works according to the established timelines of how long it takes to make a given piece and co-creates with the artisans. All makers are paid above the standardized Fairtrade rate, and Tarfur also assists communities according to their requests. For instance, she is currently assisting the Pinchimuro community in Cusco—who rear alpaca, dye and spin the fibres, and weave them into textiles—to create an entrepreneurial structure to sell their products directly to consumers, receive government funding, and create their own company.
Tarfur collaborates with seven communities across Peru in this manner because of a driving belief that there is a responsibility to honor the traditions and cultures of Indigenous peoples—not the other way round; after all, forced assimilation has long been a tool of colonialism and oppression. But education is also necessary for the industry to better understand the legalities, and embed the necessary level of respect and value for Indigenous TK and TCEs.
For example: CIPRI established the Knowledge Hub for Cultural Sustainability to provide a holistic education around creating “ethical pathways for direct partnerships with Indigenous Peoples, Ethnic Groups and Local Communities.” The IFA, meanwhile, is building education into its wider efforts for systemic change. As discussed in a Townhall meeting, its “Network Weave” project could entail public education around what objects are sacred, boundary-setting for what Indigenous Business looks like, and protocols for working with Indigenous people.
“We need to ensure that we’re protected and that we’re proactive in that protection.”
executive and artistic director, Indigenous Fashion Arts
Although—in the first instance—this labor to educate is shouldered by Indigenous people, later down the line it would put the onus on brands to research and know the playing field before seeking to incorporate TCEs into their designs and collections, as well as consumers to do due diligence before hitting “buy.” The theft of Indigenous and traditional designs certainly isn’t resigned to the past but the movement to protect TK and TCEs is gathering pace.
It’s not unlikely that an ethical consumer will soon begin to question the origin of a design just as they now increasingly ask who made their clothes. But the legal and educational efforts to reach this point must be balanced. “We need to ensure that we’re protected and that we’re proactive in that protection,” says Paul. “But it’s also incredibly important that the designers who steal do take that work on because that is necessary to balance out the labor.”
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