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We we’re a little concerned after coming across an interesting tale of cultural and commercial conflict, and the restraint this conflict has tried to introduce into the borrow-and –take world of fashion.

Frockwriter reported this week, in a post aptly titled Hands off Aboriginal Culture, of the anger caused by the Mulleavy sisters – creative heads behind Rodarte – after their use of Aboriginal art for their Fall 2012 collection.

The campaign of cultural ‘anxiety’ is being spearheaded by Megan Davis, an indigenous Australian lawyer and head of the University of NSW   Indigenous Law Centre and an expert member of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII).

It’s clear the lady in question is an expert on indigenous Australian culture, and her argument is this: she found the use of Aboriginal art in the Rodarte Fall 2012 collection to be “insensitive” and “offensive”, later adding that it sickened her to see women parading around in ready-to-wear garments, when in fact the people from whom this art is derived live in abject poverty in remote areas of Australia. She also spoke of her unhappiness at the use of Aboriginal art and culture as a reference point “without consultation” and without entering into a “cultural protocol” with a particular indigenous group.

The latter point threw me a little. Given that the  Mulleavy sisters confessed they have in fact never been to Australia, and that the indigenous inspiration “came out of “nowhere” but merely acquired through research and photography; the point made my Megan turns on her argument. She contests that the use of her native Aboriginal culture and art in the fashion collection offended who she was, but would this have been inoffensive or ‘less’ offensive had the Mulleavy sisters spoken with a head Aboriginal figure in a given indigenous locality in Australia, and asked for express permission?

I respect the cultural privacy of an indigenous group, and that it would probably prove wholly invasive – as it did when, in 1999, Donna Karan was accused of cultural theft by the Pauktuutit Inuit Womens’ Association of Canada for travelling out to far reaching Arctic communities to seek inspiration, even purchasing traditional garments – for the Mulleavy sisters to carry out physical, outback research. So is it not better then, that rather than a rude and unwelcome intrusion, a subtler approach to cultural referencing is taken through distant research, like in the case of the Rodarte collection?

Fashionista reported that the Mulleavy sisters acquired relevant licences for the use of the prints and thereby, the Aboriginal artists involved would share in the proceeds from the collection. So, isn’t this then an example of “consultation” and a form of entering into a “cultural protocol” with artists related to the indigenous group in question, thatDavisso vehemently claimed was denied by the Rodarte duo?

The issue of cultural sensitivity is a hot-headed one. Only a few months back, Donna Karan again landed in the not so likeable spotlight, after her Haitian-shot spring/summer 2012 campaign inspired by her charity efforts in the earthquake ravaged country was accused of “using the downtrodden as props for high-fashion shoots.” Following on from this, esteemed and superiorly fashion forward designers including Proeza Schouler and Isabel Marant have ingested in epic amounts, the influence of Native American art and craft, in particular the Navajo-inspired form.

Burberry Prorsum and Donna Karan channelled world travellers, with a colourfully enriching concoction of tribal prints and embellishments that have become the visual cornerstones of the season. And what of Jil Sander’s Picasso splashed spring/summer 2012 sweaters? Are they untying the legendary Spanish artist from his epic status? No, they are an ode, an express appreciation of his massive artistic influence, showcased to an equally appreciating fashion audience.

The same stands for other artistic cultural references – big fashion names bring these almost ritualistic, secretive practices to the fore, applauding the efforts of highly creative minorities who could possibly never imagine getting the exposure to match their exceptional talents.

The repeated referral to various expressions of art forms from far flung and often undocumented cultures is not unheard of in fashion. Nor is the almost law-like notion that fashion heavily borrows from culture. If it weren’t for this, Dolce & Gabbana wouldn’t put the fiery style of a bella southern Sicilian donna on the fashion map, and Isabel Marant’s insouciance in Navajo-inspired knits would be lost in the scorching Arizonan wilderness.

Inspiration should be freely and fairly sought and sourced, for it is this referencing system in fashion that acts as an education in culture, and just like fine, cross-continental wine and foods, we should embrace and enjoy, not discard its appeal.

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