Cross-cultural influences: Appreciation vs. Appropriation

Sotho women displaying their beautiful traditional blankets

A specific kind of copying is when the intellectual property of a group of people or a culture is “stolen”. This is known as Cultural Appropriation, and is fairly prevalent.

Cultural appropration is defined as

Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without their permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.


Insult is added to injury when certain circumstances are present:

  1. The source community being a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways.
  2. There is little or no understanding of the true meaning of the object or activity.
  3. The object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects.
  4. The user benefits (e.g. financially), without coresponding benefit to the source community.

Those engaging in the practise will frequently argue that they are “honouring” or being “inspired by” the originals. However, greater awareness of exploitation has led to exposure and resulting criticism of celebrities such as Madonna, Katie Perry, Selena Gomez, Avril Lavigne, and Kylie Jenner and designers such as ktz and Dsquared2.

Madonna “Ray of Light” performance                                                                ktz design and the original Inuit garment    

To avoid being labelled a culture vulture ask yourself these questions before dressing up or designing in an “ethnic” style:

  1. What culture does this style reference, and what is my relation to that culture?
  2. Why am I wearing it/executing this design?
  3. How accurate/respectful is it to the source?
  4. Who made the product, and who is selling it?

Close to home, a recent example is Louis Vuitton’s use of the Basotho blanket. A/W2012 saw two-toned blanket-like wraps/coats/scarves, but for S/S2017 followed full traditional Basotho textile patterned shirts.

Louis Vuitton coat A/W2012                               Louis Vuitton shirt and blanket S/S2017

“The history of this blanket is interesting – lots of cultural crossovers. I think LV should have paid homage in some way to [the manufacturers] Aranda and Lesotho the place, and should have collaborated with the people from this region to make their collection. I can imagine the end product would have been much stronger…”

This is the opinion of Lisa Jaffe, designer at Guillotine, a Johannesburg clothing company who has also used the blanket as basis for a coat. Lesotho-born fashion designer Thabo Makheta, who first wore a Basotho blanket design to the 2011 Durban July and was named “best dressed” at the event, agrees. She adds, “I also would have loved to have seen the consumers of these shirts in South Africa spend that kind of money on locally produced goods and support and grow authentic African products rather than consuming a repackaged Africa.”

Thabo Makheta “Starburst” coat                           Coats by Guillotine

Ironically, Thabo Makheta herself could be the one to have sparked this latest cultural raid. In 2014 Jackie Burger, at the time South African editor of Elle, wore one of Makheta’s designs to…..Louis Vuitton Paris Fashion Week! Co-incidence?

Jackie Berger resplendent in her Thabo Makheta cape in Paris