Retailers capitalizing on cultural symbols are nothing new – major retail brands such as Asos, Topshop, and even high-end retailer Givenchy have been caught out in the ‘trend’. Many natives of the cultures being appropriated are offended by retailers making money off their history and struggle – while I see where their anger is coming from, it’s almost time for the fashion community and activists to force retailers to conform to their expectations of cultural appropriation, rather than be angry whenever there is familiarity between a product and their history.
If the public sets its own terms and conditions to cultural appropriation, then they regain control and give back to their culture, history, and people. More importantly, the history of the product becomes the spotlight of the product, making history and struggle rise back to the surface, thus educating the general public.
This month, British-fashion retailer Topshop decided it was an appropriate to turn the scarf into a playsuit and market the playsuit as ‘festival appropriate’. The playsuit retailed for £40 for approximately 18 hours before it was redacted from their website after a series of furious reactions on Twitter.
If a retailer or a product wants to appropriate my culture for financial gain and give some of the proceeds to a charity that supports my cultural, my people, and preserving my heritage: that’s fine with me.Yara al-Wazir
I enjoy festivals, and in fact, I’ve worn my Kuffiyeh to festivals in the past. As an example of how retailers like Topshop can react to this public relations storm is to use the proceeds from the (overpriced) Kuffiya playsuit sale to support a program that promotes cross-cultural communication. The Kuffiya in itself is misunderstood, as some relate it to a symbol of ‘violence’ rather than ‘resistance’. The truth is that when the Palestinian Exodus happened in 1948, over 700,000 people were forced to flee their homes.
Many fled through the sandy deserts across the border with a Kuffiyeh wrapped around their neck, head and face to shield them from the heat and the dust. Sixty years later, the Kuffiyeh has become a symbol of resistance and serves as a reminder of the struggle and the blood spilled. If anything, Topshop cold have used its power as a major fashion retailer to explain the history of the Kuffiya rather than simply pulling it off the shelves.
If a retailer or a product wants to appropriate my culture for financial gain and give some of the proceeds to a charity that supports my cultural, my people, and preserving my heritage: that’s fine with me.
The activist community must learn to adapt and become pragmatic in their approach – publicity gets the people talking. One of the greatest pitfalls that plague the misunderstanding of the Palestinian issue is the lack of understanding of the history of the cause, which is due to a lack of communication fueled by the fear of being politically incorrect. Asking the ‘wrong’ question can be seen as insulting to Palestinians or as anti-Semitic to others.
The stigma that is associated with political correctness is instilling fear and getting in the way of progression. As people, we cannot progress or get anywhere unless we talk about our history, our feelings, where we are today and where we want to go. If an item of clothing instigates this conversation, then by all means let the clothing go on sale.
Retailers that are accused of capitalizing on cultural appropriation often insult ‘minorities’ – the native Americans, the Palestinians, the Arabs. Why is it that when Dolce and Gabbana produced a line of Abayas (the black dress that some Muslim women choose to wear) they weren’t accused of cultural appropriation? Instead, the line of Abayas was used as an example of ‘diversification’.
There are hundreds of Kuffiya-printed products made by local designers that are currently on sale on numerous Internet websites such as Etsy. While I understand that there is significant history associated with how ‘cultural’ prints are produced, if they are mass-produced by local designers, then it is culturally acceptable. As such, if large high-street retailers produce them in association with cultural designers, as well as giving some of the proceeds to charities and programs that support the cause, then it can no longer be referred to as cultural appropriation.
As an individual of an ethnic minority that lives in Europe, I’ll embrace clothes that are seemingly ‘appropriating’ my culture so long as they are produced in conjunction with local designers who understand the heritage and history, and so long as proceeds from the sales are used to promote positive conversation.
Yara al Wazir is a humanitarian activist. She is the founder of The Green Initiative ME and a developing partner of Sharek Stories. She can be followed and contacted on twitter @YaraWazir