Another thing that got me thinking is that if you know Chanel, you know that it’s all about fantasy. Nothing Karl creates is ever really based on reality. Chanel is essentially its own parallel universe, and the Chanel look is meant to be international.
On the other end of the spectrum, you have Ralph Lauren, who has been making western inspired clothing for longer than I have been alive. But the inspiration behind that is his love for Santa Fe, New Mexico. So if he lives there, what does it mean for him to take inspiration from his second home and to bring that to the forefront of fashion? Is that okay?
Like, if I’m Asian and I love a certain Native American pattern, would I be allowed to wear that??? What if I wanted to wear cowboy boots but I’ve only ever ridden a horse once in my life? Fashun is so weird.
Cultural Appropriation - is it OK if it’s Chanel?
"It’s a reinvention of something I don’t really know, but that I like to play with." Karl Lagerfeld, about the Paris Dallas collection.
The Chanel Métiers d’Art show happened last night in Dallas and the theme of the collection conveniently revolved around cowgirls and pistols, feathers and other Native American symbols.
This a special collection that Chanel first launched in 2002 to showcase the skills from the workshops and specialty ateliers they have been acquiring over the years. The collection also serves to present the Pre-Fall collection and has always been themed around a certain city. In the past there was the Paris-Moscow (Pre-Fall 2009), Paris-Shanghai (Pre-Fall 2010), Paris-Byzance (Pre-Fall 2011), Paris-Bombay (Pre-Fall 2012) and Paris-Edinburgh (Pre-Fall 2013).
This year, the inspiration came from the Texan city of Dallas and according to the official Chanel site
“This event is the occasion to celebrate the strong bond that linked the French designer to the United States. “I admire and love America. It’s where I made my fortune. (…) The climax of this mutual passion dates back to 1957, when Coco Chanel – accompanied by a delegation of 125 people from France – landed on October 14th at the Dallas airport. Stanley Marcus, co-founder of the Neiman Marcus store, awarded her with the Neiman Marcus Award for Distinguished Service in the Field of Fashion, the “Oscar of Fashion”.”
In a sort of full-circle moment, it was Lagerfeld’s turn to receive the same award last night. In his own words, this collection was "a reinvention of something I don’t really know, but that I like to play with." And indeed, he played with all the stereotypes and clichés associated with the Wild West, cowboys and cowgirls, Native American tribes, feathers and pistols.
I follow some fashion professionals, ranging from hairstylists, make-up artists, models, bloggers, editors, designers, and fashion magazines on Instagram. This morning, my feed was full of pics from last night’s show, all of them mesmerized by the Kaiser’s incessant ability to create amazing fashion collections and Chanel’s impeccable party-planning structure.
However, some of the images I saw made me cringe a little… Is is just me or is it not extremely wrong to create a hairpiece that puts together feathers and pistols?
Photo from Vogue Paris’ Instagram
The collection borrowed several references from Native American tribes and although they were not merchandised as Navajo (like Urban Outfitters did), it still came across, at least to me, as a case of cultural appropriation. The thing that upset me the most was the feather headdress worn by Caroline de Maigret in the last look. It was an all-white, floor-length, knock-off of Indian headdresses.
Image from Style.com
Headdresses or warbonnets are probably the first thing that come to our minds when we think about Indians and, in fact, they are one of the most copied or borrowed features from Native-American tribes. However, our interpretations always fail to convey the extreme importance and symbology attached to these objects. We reduce them to their aesthetic aspects and use them in a superficial way.
This got me thinking a little further on this subject of cultural appropriation and, in the context of fashion design, where we draw the line between “inspiration” and “cultural appropriation”. Basically, when does it stop being OK using another culture’s iconography for inspiration and it becomes simply disrespectful? If Mr. Lagerfeld doesn’t know anything about Indian headdresses, then he probably shouldn’t also play with them.
Mentally reviewing all other Métiers d’Art collections, it seemed obvious there was always a direct stylistic approach in terms of folklore and iconography. The Paris-Edinburgh show took place at the castle where Mary Stuart was born and featured a lot of tweed, plaid, argyle and knitwear —produced by Barrie, a Scottish company Chanel had recently acquired, Paris-Bombay was a spectacular show where models wore sari-like dresses and tunics, accessorized with jewelry that seemed to have been borrowed from a Rajasthani maharajah and their eyes outline in dark kohl. Paris-Moscow was a homage to Imperial Russia, Constructivism, Russian architecture and byzantine jewelry.
It hit me suddenly, had all these collections been a great number of cultural appropriation from Lagerfeld? Again, how can we draw the line between using folkloric and cultural iconography as visual reference and inspiration and shamelessly ripping-off and misinterpreting another culture?
The truth is, mood boards filled with visual reference and inspiring pictures are something practically all fashion designers use to guide their creative process. And very often, fashion designers cite a certain country, culture, era or place as their inspiration for a collection. From the top of my head, I can think of at least three or four examples: Frida Kahlo and Mexico, the Victorian era, Greek classicism, Asia - more specifically China and Japan, and, of course, Native American themes.
Fashion designers can learn a lot from traditional costumes and take advantage of the skills and know-how that each country or people developed and applied to their costumes. Fashion designers shouldn’t ridicule other culture’s iconography and symbols and reduce them to their aesthetic and stylistic aspects, reinterpreting them in superficial, empty ways.
In conclusion, is it possible for fashion designers to develop a different creative process? How can they still be inspired and genuinely interested in folklore and traditional costumes, while interpreting them in ways that are not harmful or disrespectful?
Am I the only person thinking about this? Am I overreacting? Please let me know.
TBH I was going through the exact same argument in my head. I think when Chanel introduced the Métiers d’Art collections, the purpose was to bring the know-how of traditional regional techniques like embroidery and weaving into their couture ateliers. So rather than just creating a dress that looks like it’s from India or from Scotland, Chanel tries to create the most authentic craftsmanship that it can.
When it comes to the end product though, it’s still Chanel and it’s gonna look like real clothing, and not some regional costume. When it comes to Texas, however, I think Karl purposely mixed up the cowboy and Native American and patriotic USA symbols to create more of a romantic fantasy as opposed to an actual portrait of American culture. And I think that’s why it’s so complicated. Obviously a cheap feather headdress from a costume store is horribly demeaning but the Métiers d’Art collections is more of a cross between couture and ready-to-wear and in my opinion, is Chanel’s way of bridging Chanel with the rest of the world. Which can be ironic, especially since I doubt any Native Americans are going to be wearing Chanel any time soon.
Personally, I feel like the war bonnet is straddling that borderline between beauty and cultural appropriation. The main thing saving it is that it’s probably never going to see the light of day inside a shop and it serves essentially as an inspiration for the locale and nothing more.
I think those who are offended by the symbol 100% have the right to be, and I think those who think it’s beautiful are not exactly wrong either. It would have been best for Chanel not to include it but Karl probably didn’t mean to offend anybody.