Not often does Karl Lagerfeld receive criticism regarding his work at Chanel, but, during Wednesday’s Walter Van Beirendonck Fall 2014 menswear presentation, Lagerfeld's design judgement was challenged in a very public way. Beirendonck sent his models down the runway wearing Native American headdresses emblazoned with the phrase “STOP RACISM.”
The message was a clear reference to the continued appropriation of important cultural garments by the fashion industry, specifically Lagerfeld’s use of Native American headdresses during his exclusive Dallas Métiers d’Art show back in December. It could also have been a nod to the recent Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show where model Karlie Kloss wore a bedazzled headdress complete with a not-so-culturally-accurate fringed string bikini.
Though Beirendonck may have singled out Lagerfeld for his sins, cultural appropriation is widely criticized in fashion and entertainment. It is the gift no one wants, but keeps giving. Many designers, however, successfully use the imagery and techniques of other cultures as inspiration for their creations while avoiding exploitation. During their Pre-Fall 2014 presentations, for example, Oscar de la Renta showed Japanese floral and Emilio Pucci drew inspiration from the American Southwest… not a geisha or feather in sight.
Designers need to abandon the use of cultural stereotypes as a shortcut to artistry. If the current trend is Westernwear, it's easy to slap a feather on a suede jacket and call it a design. Fashion houses like de la Renta and, in the past, Lagerfeld, are called great because they use social, political, and cultural cues to influence their designs creating modern works of art. Using your environment as a stepping stone to creativity is where real talent lies.