By Ester De Greef, Institute for Cultural Diplomacy.
Traditional clothing of a certain culture often inspires designers for their latest collections. But what happens if designers go too far and the cultural groups consider their work as straight-up stealing? Many ethnic groups think that there is no respect for their cultural heritage and that the fashion industry is ruining their traditions.
At the beginning of April 2013, there was an issue concerning an American fashion chain which used an Ethiopian dress as inspiration for their cloths. The only problem was that they didn’t just take inspiration, but the actual design too. Some Ethiopian women were offended by this as the fashion chain didn’t give credit to the original design; in Ethiopian culture this kind of dress is special and they only wear it on special occasions. Because they didn’t take this into account, the Ethiopians considered it as disrespectful and irresponsible behavior.
This case raised the question of how far designers can go when it comes to ‘borrowing’ designs. The fact is that there is no law that protects designs in the United States, unlike in the music industry where musicians’ creations are protected. In the fashion industry this is not the case: they can only protect their brand, but not their design. In other words, every other designer can copy the same design and consider it as his or her own, as long he or she puts another brand name on it. The American court decided that fashion designers do not qualify for copyright protection, because it is too hard to specify who original created a design.
There are also ethnic groups, on the other hand, that were happy that top designers were inspired by their culture. The fashion industry helped raise awareness and understanding for their culture.
This is a case where two cultures missed the opportunity to do something together: to raise awareness about their cultural heritage. Fashion can be a strong tool to bring cultures together, but it is important to have a mutual understanding, otherwise it may be considered exploitative. Even when everything is done within a legal framework, designers have to consider the moral aspects of their actions.