Cultural Appropriation in the Fashion Industry - 5 BIPOC-Owned Brands Paving the Way

Woven textile cultural fabric

It is important now more than ever to continue to learn and reflect on the historical contributions that BIPOC have continued to make. As a small ethical fashion brand, we want to focus specifically on those in the fashion industry.

Make no mistake, the fashion industry has a deep rooted relationship with racism. As consumers are now not only beginning to question the industry’s standards, they are also demanding change by simply boycotting companies with unethical practices. We need to take a deep look at the history of black fashion as well as black fashion designers and brands that have continued to lead the way. 

Black Lives Mattter protest in United States

The Black in Fashion Council is an organization that aims to include all groups of people in the fashion industry, ranging from models to media executives so they can work together to build a new foundation for inclusivity. On their website, they state, “As an industry we cannot continue to claim that we are progressive if we are not working to force diversity and inclusion in corporate structures while rectifying systemically racist policies that have permeated our industry for hundreds of years.”

There is no denying that there is disproportionate success amongst non-BIPOC designers compared to BIPOC counterparts. A L’Officiel article written by Alexa Hempel and Ryan Norville explains, “Black ideas and culture are often watered-down and re-packaged by non-marginalized groups, and it is no secret that the fashion industry has been the culprit of such cultural appropriation.” At Huaywasi, we believe that the process to start these necessary changes in the industry begins with education. 

huaywasi artisans at educational workshop in huaycan, peru

Cultural appropriation is defined as the use of objects or elements of a non-dominant culture in a way that does not respect their original meaning, give credit to their source, reinforces stereotypes, or contributes to oppression. The fashion industry is littered with cases of cultural appropriation. A few key examples include:

  • Brands continuously sending (mostly) white models down the runways in hairstyles and designs inspired by BIPOC culture and these are often the very same styles they have been discriminated against.

  • The industry is guilty of creating trends out of “new” looks that BIPOC have worn for generations and many non-BIPOC are profiting off this

  • Beauty and fashion trends can be described as ‘ghetto’ or ‘ratchet’ when BIPOC wear them but are deemed ‘high fashion’ or ‘trendy’ when they’re on a more privileged person 

The term ‘blackfishing’ was derived by Journalist Wanna Thompson in response to the countless designers, brands, and individuals who take advantage of BIPOC culture and fashion. Blackfishing is used when things that have cultural significance to BIPOC, such as hairstyles, are appropriated to create and enhance certain features, making it appear as if they have black heritage or are racially ambiguous

The biggest issue of blackfishing in terms of cutlural appropriation is that it allows non-POC to pick and choose the “cool” parts of being black, without facing any of the discrimination that BIPOC do. Thompson said, “Be it fashion, beauty or music. Black is cool, unless you’re actually black.” 

the fashion and race database screenshot of webpage

Rather than looking at these facts pessimistically, we can look at these unfortunate realities as opportunities to lead us to future growth. Organizations and leaders such as The Fashion and Race Database, an “online platform filled with open-source tools that expand the narrative of fashion history and challenge mis-representation within the fashion system” are continuing to pave the way towards a fair fashion industry for all.

Additionally, instead of focusing on the brands that need to be doing better, we are going to focus on the brands that already are. Here are 5 BIPOC-owned ethical fashion brands that are focusing on cultural appreciation rather than appropriation. 

WASI CLOTHING - A brown owned Bolivian-American business run entirely by Vanessa Acosta. ‘Wasi’ is a Quechuan word that means ‘home’ (just like Huaywasi!) and WASI Clothing’s mission is to put Bolivian culture on the map as well as elevating and creating a safe home for people of color and allies to shop. 

Being a Woman of color herself, Vanessa started WASI after experiencing firsthand the toxic atmosphere of the fashion industry. Her business aims to be ethical, sustainable, diverse, and representative of many underrepresented folks. To respect the culture and traditions of these designs, all textiles are personally sourced from South America and handmade from scratch in Los Angeles by Vanessa herself! 

Was clothing three models in bolivian textiles

SINDISO KHUMALO - A sustainable and ethical fashion brand founded by Sindiso Khumalo that focuses on creating modern sustainable textiles with a strong emphasis on African storytelling. Sindiso designs all textiles by hand through watercolors and collage and over the years she has developed a uniquely colorful visual voice which draws upon her Zulu and Ndebele heritage. 

Working closely with local NGO’s that develop Sindiso’s textiles, sustainability, craft and empowerment lie at the heart of her label. 

Sindiso khumalo

YELLOWTAIL - A Native American owned and operated fashion brand and retailer that specializes in storytelling through wearable art. Designed by Bethany Yellowtail, culture and tradition are at the heart of B. YELLOWTAIL and they have set out to share authentic Indigenous creativity with the world while prioritizing economic opportunities. 

Not only does Bethany advocate for social justice and provide fair employment for dozens of artists, “In a world where indigenous images are often stolen and misappropriated, Bethany serves as an unapologetic arbiter of authenticity; a genuine voice who seeks to empower through design and representation.” 

b. yellowtail brand

THE FOLKLORE - An innovative online retail brand that stocks high-end and emerging designer brands from Africa and the diaspora. ‘The Folklore’ serves as a cultural hub for contemporary brands, artists, and creatives to showcase their personal stories and reflect on the diversity of Africa’s contemporary urban landscapes and design aesthetic

 In addition to operating as an online store, The Folklore provides wholesale services that helps enhance the visibility and financial success of Africa’s garment industry by exposing a global customer base to these exclusive styles and designers. 

the folklore clothing

KENNETH IZE - A luxury brand that focuses on reinterpreting examples of Nigerian craft to create an original perspective on luxury production within the fashion industry. They support a variety of artisans, weavers, and designers across Nigeria and are devoted to the long established traditions of Nigerian craft and local artisanship. Kenneth Ize strongly believes in exploring and nurturing existing cultures while merging in new design aesthetics. 

kenneth ize modeling his design

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