Let’s strip to the basics.
Culture is a mix of customs, behavior, ideas, beliefs, traditions of a group of people or society. Could be tangible (read: the saree passed on from your grandmother to your mother to you) or intangible (read: the way that same saree is tied in your family).
Sustainability — yes, we know this word is thrown around a lot (even by us!), but to sustain simply means to preserve, nurture, regenerate, and not deplete for our own greed.
Put together, “Cultural Sustainability” then means respecting, nurturing, and preserving our culture and passing down tangible and intangible cultural expressions to future generations.
So, where does the fashion industry come into the picture?
Designers take inspiration from the culture around them all the time. A key component of this culture is artisanal creation. Sometimes they work directly with craftspeople. Things go wrong when this “inspiration” turns into “plagiarism” without due credit or compensation. Take the case of Dior. The 2017 pre fall collection included a jacket that looked quite similar to an early 20th century jacket from a province called Bihor in Romania, without as much as a mention by Dior. Or closer home, in 2018 Dior lifted our own People Tree’s block print design. Again, without any acknowledgement. And don’t get us wrong, Dior isn’t alone. Tom Ford did this with a Romanian blouse in 2011 and most recently MaxMara with a Laotian community in April this year.
Oops. That ain’t cool.
Which is why our community member Monica Bota Moisin proposes a framework for businesses to co-create with artisans, through the Cultural Intellectual Property Rights Initiative. The Initiative protects artisans’ rights as custodians and transmitters of traditional knowledge. Monica is a powerful advocate of not just giving credit but giving due compensation or contributing to artisans’ community development. She’s also a proponent of building shared business models wherein artisans are equal knowledge partners and co-creators.
But, do things stop here?
Of course not. There are many unanswered questions. What is cultural appropriation? Is it even possible to have a cultural intellectual property right when you don’t know the origins of a motif or craft? e.g. who does Ajrakh printing belong to as it performed on both sides of the India-Pakistan border? Is Beyonce wearing Indian clothes at an Indian wedding cultural appropriation? How should the celebrity wearing a design without being aware that it’s been taken without credit or compensation from an artisan be held accountable? It’s hard to have all the answers now.
However, we can start.
As consumers we can ask our brands if they are thinking about cultural sustainability. Message them on Instagram, email them — ask them which artisans they work with, how do they decide how much to pay. See if they give credit to the artisans, as is the case with “Walking Hand-In-Hand”, the brainchild of Asif Shaikh, one of India’s top designer. It is a one-of-a-kind fashion show where artisans and designers walk together.
As brands we can make a conscious choice to buy directly from artisans and not from middlemen. Give a part of our sales to the local artisanal community school. Encourage artisans to write their name on the labels, co-create designs with them, and ultimately help them become better more resilient entrepreneurs themselves.
The final take.
Cultural sustainability is complex because our culture is multi-faceted and not singular. Getting fashion houses to adopt cultural sustainability requires systemic change. None of us alone can move that mammoth. But never a good moment as now to start right? Baby steps.