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By Chere Di Boscio
When Stella McCartney showcased African prints in one of her collections and Isabel Marant ‘borrowed’ South American textiles for some of her designs, Social Justice Warriors (SJW) cried out loudly against this, citing ‘cultural appropriation:’ how dare these brands steal indigenous traditions for their own monetary gain?
And yes, they have a point. Cultural appropriation, or “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society” can be nasty. The thing is, there are two issues here: do these SJWs even have the right to act in the name of indigenous peoples, or is this itself a form of neo-imperialism or even ‘cultural appropriation’? And secondly, why do they do nothing when their own cultures are being appropriated? After all, this is currently happening on a massive scale.
Think about it: How would you feel if Coca Cola sponsored your local park? Or McDonald’s promoted an organic cooking competition in your neighbourhood? Sure, it’s got its benefits – everyone wants more parks, and a big brand like McDonald’s could catapult a local chef into stardom. But it seems large corporations are hijacking grassroots movements in the developed world for their own monetary gain more than ever. And that’s not cool with us.
Take Lululemon, for example, Whilst most large sports brands rely on celebrity endorsements by superstar athletes to help market their athletic gear, Lululemon instead depends on popular yoga teachers in communities to become ‘brand ambassadors’ – all of whom are unpaid. “We have no contractual agreement, there is no financial transaction with our ambassadors. We drive traffic to their studios, we provide them with the tools of leadership and personal development,” a spokesperson for the company told the Business of Fashion.
It’s not really surprising Lululemon doesn’t pay their ambassadors, since the brand has been called out for using sweatshop labour to produce its goods, by the way.
But I digress. In return for these ‘leadership tools’, ambassadors teach classes for free at Lululemon stores and events, and help to ‘bring Lululemon deeper into the yoga community’ – by stealth.
It’s an insidious way to make people believe they’re buying the brand due to genuine ‘word of mouth recommendations, and it’s a cheap method for Lululemon to sneak their way into our consciousness. In fact, these unpaid ‘ambassadors’ (who, unlike Instagram influencers, don’t even need to legally disclose their relationships with brands), essentially act as spies for corporations. According the Lululemon, they are “the company’s eyes and ears”, and play a critical role in providing feedback on products and services to the brand. “We have 1,500 data points around the world, so we’ve got an ability to listen at a micro level and see trends really early,” boasted a Lululemon spokesperson to the Business of Fashion.
This strategy — which combines sophisticated analysis of people’s personal data with an organisational of centralised corporate management – allows companies to analyse and jump onto trends far faster than local entrepreneurs could.
For example, through their ‘data points’, Lululemon noticed yoga lovers also like spinning, and now offers yoga and spinning classes courses in their shops. This means local yoga studios and teachers not affiliated with the brand are losing students thanks to the bigger marketing power of the clothing giant.
Cultural Appropriation – Right Under Our Noses
The same could be said to have occurred for small ethical fashion brands: once huge fast fashion brands sniff out the popularity of local trends for organic fashion, they start offering organic clothing themselves. Yes, ostensibly, this is a good idea, but ultimately, it shuts out the small local entrepreneurs who originally had the idea of offering organic clothing in the first place, but who cannot compete with the economies of scale enjoyed by H&M.
Globalised economies and growing consolidation of corporations into ever-larger megacompanies means increasing homogenisation of products and cultures. Consequently, local grassroots organisations have popped up in opposition to this, offering instead unique products that are frequently produced on a smaller scale, more ecologically, and aimed at addressing local needs.
Some recent examples of this include the clean food movement and vegan cafes; microbreweries; vintage bike shops and music and art movements that counter the mindless pap that’s produced by corporate boy bands and ubiquitous pop stars. And all of this is a great thing!
Until the corporations hijack it.
When Uniqlo launched its renewed megastore on London’s Oxford Street, the Japanese brand dedicated the top two floors and roof of the six-level structure to hijacking – or rather, ‘showcasing’ local culture, including vintage bikes, locally made, ethical clothing, grime music, a yoga class with top wellness blogger Madeleine Shaw and more.
What’s most disturbing for me is that this event provoked not a single word about ‘cultural appropriation’ from those mindless SJWs. Why is it ok for a Japanese mega-corporation to use London’s culture to sell its goods, but if a London based designer incorporates traditional kimono fabrics into one of her designs, the SJWs have a fit?
It’s time for us to regain some perspective here. Cultural appropriation is a sensitive issue, and one that should be addressed – but by the cultures under attack themselves; otherwise, any defence by outsiders reeks of neo-colonialism and self-righteousness. It’s time to take back control of our OWN cultures, which are under attack by very large corporations, who not only have no shame in making money from grassroots movements, but also go about collecting data and exploiting ‘community leaders’ in unethical ways.
Image credits: Stella McCartney, change.org, Lululemon