Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Inspiration or exploitation- where are the boundaries?

Recently I was invited, as a plus one, to an Eritrean wedding. I was extremely excited at the prospect of going to my first African wedding and having the opportunity to experience a different culture with a particular interest in the traditional dress the people attending would be wearing. 

Details from Eritrean embroidery

As many people do, I had a preconceived idea of what this traditional dress might look like. In my ignorance I was expecting a riot of bold colours and overwhelming clashing patterns, what I found, however, was somewhat different. The Eritrean traditional dress is loose fitting and predominantly white with a strip of colourful patterned embroidery towards the bottom, extremely understated and demure in comparison to my expectations.

 I was taken aback by how much the recent Autumn/Winter 2014 Valentino collection had taken inspiration from the embroidered patterns I had seen at the wedding. 

Valentino Autumn/Winter 2014
Seeing this type of design in its traditional form(not being paraded down a runway on an extortionately priced garment) got me thinking about how high end designers source their inspiration. Is stealing the native designs from a poorer community exploitation or just a natural consequence of globalisation? Should these communities be receiving some of the profits...or at least some recognition for their designs? There is a very fine line between using someone's artwork as inspiration and imitating it to create a replica. Where do we draw the line to separate design inspiration from exploitation?

In one of the WGSN trend seminars I attended at Premiere Vision, the painted mud huts of the Ndebele tribe in South Africa were referenced as being a key point of design inspiration for the WGSN confluence trend for Autumn/Winter 2015(I will be doing several blog posts on the WGSN trend seminars I attended at PV over the coming weeks).

Ndebele tribe designs

Although WGSN has referenced the tribe where these designs originated, you can guarantee that the suppliers and high street stores that follow this trend will imitate the artworks without accrediting the design source. 

This same tribe(the Ndebele tribe) was also used to inspire Mara Hoffman's early work(see below) and has been featured in Topshop and on other various garments and footwear. Even Kim Kardashian has been photographed wearing a Ndebele inspired print, I'm pretty sure we can accurately guess that she has no idea where the pattern she wears in the below photo originated.

 I can't help but question how fair it is that the artwork of these communities is being used repeatedly without them being aware or receiving any of the profits. Surely something should be done to protect their designs?Or if something is already being done maybe more awareness should be raised? 

I guess part of the problem when protecting the intellectual property and traditional crafts of a tribe/specific culture is how to differentiate between the work of an individual and the work of a community. Namboniso Gasa, a researcher and analyst of gender, politics and cultural issue(quoted here: ) believes that,

 indigenous cultures all over the world are not insular; they influence each other...It's not necessarily the same as exploitation. A law might limit and suffocate artists in their particular creative genre."

This is a very valid point- copyright legislation is so extreme, particularly in the US, that it inhibits creativity. In my opinion we should be able to draw on a wide variety of sources across various cultures, religions and contexts without feeling constrained by copyright laws. This being said, I strongly feel that for high end designers, like the aforementioned Valentino and Hoffman, it should be mandatory to state the sources of their inspiration. Although this is not direct exploitation, it can lead to design source ignorance which I think we need to put a stop to. If you work in design, print in particular, know your sources!!! 

I experienced an infuriating example of design source ignorance several weeks ago. A buyer, from a company I shall not name(as I don't really buy into public humiliation), sent me a moodboard of inspirational images for their new collection. The moodboard trend was titled 'Latin style'....the prints used as inspiration,however, were all dutch wax prints/African ankara fabric. A typical example of design source ignorance- not only are Latin America and Africa on completely different continents, they also use completely different prints and design styles. 

In my opinion, high end designers should lead by example and state their sources. Instead of claiming that all prints are 'ethnic' they should give credit to the original design sources.

If anyone is aware of any organisations that aim to protect traditional artworks and creativity please let me know as I would be really interested in doing a follow up blog post on this!

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