In late October, the Fashion Institute at Fordham Law School sponsored an event that addressed the issue of cultural appropriation (or rather, misappropriation) in the fashion industry. More specifically, the event advertisement asked the following: “When it comes to culture, the world’s closets are filled with borrowed and reimagined finery – but when does inspiration shade into cultural appropriation? And at what point should counsel comment?” The discussion was held at the De Buck Gallery in Chelsea, which showcased exhibitions of Zevs, a popular street artist similar to the infamous Banksy.
The gallery was cozy, so capacity was limited. Only New York’s best dressed “fashion attorneys” and a few lucky law students attended. The reception welcomed the small crowd with an assortment of sweets and a spot of bubbly champagne.
After some chit-chat and a drink (or two), everyone sat down to listen to the speakers – Professor Susan Scafidi, Academic Director of the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham; Katrin Zimmermann, designer of Ex Ovo jewelry; and Katherine E. Lewis, Attorney Advisor for the Smithsonian Institute.
First to speak was Ms. Zimmermann who described her jewelry line as, “modern high-end ‘bridge’ jewelry sold in museums of modern art in the U.S. and worldwide.” Ms. Zimmermann discussed the cultural inspiration she uses in her jewelry making. Perhaps most enticing was Ms. Zimmermann’s answer to the question, “When searching the world for inspiration, where do you draw the line?” She responded, “There shouldn’t be a line,” and clarified that there was a stark difference between “inspiration and misappropriation.”
Next up was Professor Scafidi, who examined the controversy surrounding cultural inspiration and the fashion industry, and offered examples of the extreme cultural misappropriation that we often see on runways and product lines. For instance, Matthew Williamson’s Summer 2008 Collection included two Ethiopian dresses that were so similar to Ethiopia’s traditional national dress that the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs took to investigating the matter. But nothing came of the case after Mr. Williamson issued a formal apology and an explanation that the appropriation came from a deep “admiration… for the traditional dress of the Ethiopian people.”
In November 2012, the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show featured one of its models in a Native American-style headdress, leopard print underwear, and high heels. After the outfit was condemned by many as a display of ignorance toward tribal culture and history, Victoria’s Secret publicly apologized and assured the public that it would not include the outfit in the show’s television broadcast or in any marketing materials.
It wasn’t even a year earlier that Urban Outfitters was in the soup over the same kind of transgression. But that time, a public apology was not enough to save the company from harsh criticism — and even a lawsuit.
For most people, being the inspiration for a character in a best selling novel would be a dream come true. But 60-year-old southern housekeeper Ablene Cooper isn’t most people, and for her, it’s a nightmare.
In 2009, Kathryn Stockett’s best selling novel The Help chronicled the lives of Southern black maids and the white families who employed them in the 1960s. But for Ms. Cooper, who works for Ms. Stockett’s brother as housekeeper and nanny, the character Aibileen Clark hits a little too close to home – and now she’s suing.
Last month, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal reported on the lawsuit that was filed on February 9 in Hinds County Circuit Court — and gave no indication of how this case will pan out. The complaint alleges “unpermitted” appropriation of Ms. Cooper’s identity, holding her to the public eye in a false light, and intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress. LASIS investigates and asks: is Ms. Cooper likely to win on these claims?
Probably not. (more…)