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Gucci, Cultural Appropriation by the West, and The Debate That Is Missing In India

Gucci, Cultural Appropriation by the West, and The Debate That Is Missing In India

Milan Fashion Week Autumn/Winter 2018 just concluded with international labels showcasing their collections in Italy from February 21 to 27. This season is part of the ‘big four’ fashion events, along with Paris, London and New York. In fact, the city is regarded as one of the world’s most important fashion capitals. Fashion houses and designers regularly choose Milan to showcase their newest collections to make fashion statements that reverberate around the world.

Gucci’s Offering At Milan Fashion Week 2018

The ready-to-wear line showcased by Gucci’s Alessandro Michele was a phantasmagorical inspiration, and it also received rave reviews. However, apart from the chameleons, rattlesnakes, albino baby dragons and models carrying their own replica head, Michele’s line was heavily inspired by non-Western cultures. Especially, Asian ones. And therein lies the problem.

Gucci’s Autumn/Winter 2018 RTW line featured 90 models, out of which 78 were white/Caucasian. Yet, it featured fashion accessories such as beaded head-wears inspired by African dance wigs, a headgear that was a mini-pagoda assuming an ode to China, a lace niqab, and scarves as hijab that’s inspired by the Middle East, and finally models wearing bindi with pants, crystal body chain jewelry, and turbans (the Sikh pagari) inspired by India.

This offering by Gucci’s multi-billion dollar fashion house has rightfully been accused of cultural appropriation. To be clear, cultural appropriation has been defined by Oxford Dictionary as, 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. While Cambridge Dictionary defines cultural appropriation as the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture.

Gucci’s collection at the Milan show, unfortunately, followed the definition of cultural appropriation to the T. White/Caucasian models showcasing beaded headgear, using the pagoda (a place of Buddhist worship) as head-wear, and putting models in a hijab, smacks of lack of respect, or at the very least, ignorance by one of the biggest fashion names in the world.

The beaded head-wear inspired by African dance wigs on Gucci models will be added to other instances of African cultural appropriation, such as Western pop stars flaunting cornrows and dreadlocks and face paint. The pagoda as a headgear shouts out the West’s age-old problem of seeing East Asia as ‘the Orient’. The British left the South Asian sub-continent 70 years ago yet the West’s education of East Asia continues to drape it in colours of ‘exoticism’.

With the niqab and hijab, Gucci enters dangerous territory as the scarf is a religious piece of clothing for Muslim women as well as is seen as a sign of subjugation by many who have to wear it. One wonders what fashion statement was Gucci attempting to make with these looks.

However, the worst faux pas of the night was white Gucci models sporting blue turbans (pagaris) inspired by the Sikh Dastaars. The turban is unequivocally a religious symbol and is part of the five Ks of Sikhism. It covers the uncut hair of a Sikh man or woman and is tied in a particular way. Gucci’s offering made the turban a fashion accessory sported by white models. The irony was not lost as people across the world, Sikhs and nonSikhs alike, lambasted the fashion brand for the sheer inappropriateness of the offering.

To underscore the point of the lack of acceptance of different religions and their symbols in the West, Gucci’s fashion show coincided with a Sikh man being attacked outside the British Parliament.

The topic of cultural appropriation has often been debated in the West, from the appropriation of dreadlocks to the way English itself is spoken and sung by rappers in the U.S. Yet, cultural appropriation is yet to find mention in India’s vocabulary. As the debate raged on Twitter about Gucci’s insensitivity and blatant cultural appropriation, there was nary an opinionated voice from India that the country was even bothered by it.

No fashion designer, celebrity or for that matter an ‘influencer’ chose to call Gucci out. The Indian media seamlessly went from reporting the Nirav Modi scam to Sridevi’s untimely death.

So why is it that cultural appropriation is (apparently) not offensive to Indians? Do we take any form of representation in popular Western culture as increasing acceptance? Or are Indians, at home and in the West, now immune to being West’s continued source of inspiration for the exotic? Or are we as a society uncaring of appropriating culture that is around us (think Priyanka Chopra acting as Mary Kom) and hence see no offense as the West does the same?

While we introspect, the photographs of models wearing turbans are missing from Gucci’s Twitter and Instagram feed just days after the fashion brand’s show. The acclaimed design house is yet to release a statement on the controversy but Marco Bizzarri, CEO, Gucci will have a lot to answer for… especially because a day before Gucci’s show, he had made a statement, “Being in an industry with significant social and cultural influence, we have the opportunity and responsibility to lead by example.” Well, Gucci’s show at Milan will go down in history as a missed opportunity.

Note: The views expressed in this particular piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect that of WODROB Magazine.