DIOR And Cultural Appropriation
Words by Kendra Hunsley
Cultural appropriation is a continual topic of discussion within the fashion industry. There are a number of brands who have been accused of appropriation (think white models with dreadlocks for Marc Jacobs; Gucci and Sikh-style turbans and Victoria’s Secret and Native-American-style headdresses). The topic almost always fuels a debate and creates an imaginary line in the sand with cultural appropriation on one side and cultural appreciation on the other - each person moving to the side that they deem to be true. These debates are both complex and important as it is not always black and white because whether it may be appropriation or appreciation, it is not always known and clear-cut.
To unveil its Cruise 2020 collection, DIOR chose El Badi Palace in Marrakesh as it’s backdrop and Africa as its inspiration. More than 100 looks strutted down the runway, each garment enhanced with an African note. Considering the backlash DIOR received for an ad campaign starring Jennifer Lawrence for the brand’s Cruise 2019 collection inspired by Mexico’s Escaramuza riders, Maria Grazia Chiuri, who is DIOR’s creative director treaded lightly this time around and undertook a task rarely taken on by most designers who choose to pull inspiration from other cultures. After reading Anthropologist Anne Grosfilley’s book titled ‘African Wax Print Textiles’, Chiuri chose it as her point of reference for her latest collection and brought Grosfilley on as a consultant. The collection was made in collaboration with Uniwax - a textile company based in Ivory Coast. Designer Grace Wales Bonner, Visual Artist Mickalene Thomas and Ivory Coast based designer Phathe’O (The man behind Nelson Mandela’s printed shirts) were brought on as design collaborators.
On the surface, this all seems quite commendable. A maison of such magnitude is stripping itself of traditional couture idealism and creating garments in a factory in Africa - miles away from the birthplace of haute couture. The runway show sparked discourse on social media around cultural appropriation. Many felt it was appreciation while stating that the steps that Chiuri took to create her collection were both sufficient and admirable. Luxury Connect Africa, a luxury business resource and investment platform concerned with the growth of luxury in Africa, was one of the more resounding voices speaking out against the brand. They felt that DIOR did not do nearly enough to fall within the appreciation realm by excluding true African textile experts and creatives in bringing the collection to life.
The company took to their social media pages to express their frustration with DIOR and so many luxury brands who hide behind paying homage which ends up causing more harm than good with tokenism and incomplete and ill-informed references. Chiuri’s collaborator Uniwax, is a subsidiary of Vlisco Group, a Dutch company that designs, produces and distributes fabrics in West and Central African markets. Contrary to popular belief, Wax Print is not an authentic African print but is influenced by Batik - a Javanese method of dyeing clothing. Textile factories in the Netherlands adopted this technique and created imitations of Batik. The Dutch then brought the imitations over to West Africa. Today, wax print is one of the most recognized prints in African culture. Choosing the most visible ‘African’ print as a focal point for a collection with a colonial company as a collaborator is a lazy attempt that propels a false pretense.
Speaking to The New York Times, Chiuri explained that part of her goal was “to highlight the fact that ‘couture’ should no longer refer simply to the work of an atelier in France. [The collection] was really about culture, history, human labor and the touch of the hand - all of which applied to African wax prints as well as any woven jacquards.” As I read her words along with reviews of the collection by many influencers and editors who were in attendance; praising DIOR for jumping through hoops and borders to bridge the gap between Europe and Africa and creating an authentic African-inspired collection, I couldn’t help but think of fashion’s utopian idea around the intersection of fashion and culture. Brands draw inspiration from places and people, picking out the parts most pleasing and then reimagining them in their collections for consumption. Fashion is a universal language and a medium that can tell you a lot about a place and its people.
We express and communicate through the things we choose to adorn our bodies, so it is innate that we become inspired by the different cultures of the world. There is beauty and magic in discovering and experiencing parts of the world and the many cultures outside of your own. However, looking at fashion through this global-without-borders lens is irresponsible and detrimental to minority cultures. How are the people who you draw inspiration from benefiting from this? When the runway show has ended, the garments are put up for sale and the social media buzz has died down; what is left for the people who you have been inspired by?
Cultural exchange may be an essential part of human connection and it is important that we continue to move outside of our bubbles to educate ourselves on cultures and its people who are spread across the globe. I fail to believe that those who attended DIOR’s show along with the people who make up DIOR’s target market are rushing to Google to learn more about the intricacies of African cultures. Africa is a continent made up of 54 countries, each possessing its own unique culture and beauty; despite the world’s insistent nature of lumping it into one whole territory. In the same breath, although it is important to call out international brands on appropriation, it is also our responsibility to move the conversation further than a rant on social media. To question and educate ourselves the on governance of our resources and our trade policies as well as finding solutions around preserving our heritage. The fashion industry continues to look to Africa as a source of inspiration and while it may be easy to be overcome by flattery, Africa is not an aesthetic. It is our responsibility to safeguard our rich cultures that pulsate throughout the continent and continue to be the captains and leading voices of our stories. We cannot allow our heritage to become diluted and re-written.