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Fashion House Appropriates Sacred Inuit Design

Posted by Rebecca Blake on December 03, 2015

In November, Canada’s CBC Radio reported that British fashion label Kokon to Zai (KTZ) stole a sacred Inuit pattern to print on their “Shaman Toweling Sweatshirt.” As it turns out, a descendent of the shaman who created the design is a producer at CBC North, which broadcast her story. Salome Awa told CBC radio that her great grandfather created the image in the 1920s for a protection parka made of sealskin. The design is considered sacred, and by Inuit tradition, only the shaman is permitted to wear the design. Since no one at KTZ contacted her family for permission to use the pattern, Awa speculates that the fashion label saw the image in books or in a film documenting the travels of the explorer Knud Rasmussen, who met the shaman.

Although KTZ didn’t initially return Awa’s telephone calls, they eventually pulled the design and issued an apology. Awa credits the outcome to the negative publicity generated by the broadcast and news stories. This isn’t the first time the fashion house has been in hot water for appropriating indigenous design. In early February, KTZ was accused of lifting the pattern on a dress from the work of Crow designer Bethany Yellowtail. Yellowtail took inspiration for her fashion design from beadwork inherited from her grandmother. Adrienne Keene, a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, points out that cultural appropriation in the fashion and design industries shows little creativity: “It was our people who did the heavy lifting creative work for you. We designed these images. We have the knowledge and understanding of what they mean and how they can be appropriately used.

Treading the fine line between cultural inspiration and insensitive appropriation can be difficult for designers. On her blog Native Appropriations, Keene asks that Native businesses be supported, and that designers understand “…that our cultures aren’t free for the taking.” In her article “A Much-Needed Primer on Cultural Appropriation” (Jezebel, 11/13/12), Katie J. M. Baker recommends doing some basic research on the religious and cultural significance of designs and products. Those wanting a deeper understanding of the complex issues of cultural appropriation can check out Who Owns Culture?: Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law by Susan Scafidi. Scafidi, a leader in the new field of fashion law, covers the grey area of communal authorship not protected by US copyright law.

Below: KTZ’s current line of apparel features designs heavily lifted from Native American cultures, including a pattern which closely copies the work of designer Bethany Yellowtail (center dress).

Dresses from Kokon to Zai Fall 2015 line

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