Chanel, Cheongsams, and Burma Chic: What’s the Difference Between Appreciation and Appropriation?

Of all the batshit things to happen at Chanel‘s Resort 2014/2015 spectacular in Dubai yesterday, one of the most blogged about was Karl’s most recent piece of social commentary — a quilted Chanel handbag shaped like a petrol can. Oil, lol. Dubai has it! Well, kind of. Although Dubai’s economy was built on the back of the oil industry, revenues from oil and natural gas currently account for less than 7% of the United Arab Emirate’s revenues. But what’s Karl going to do — make a bag shaped like an, err, shopping bag from The Dubai Mall? Maybe he’s saying they built their city on petrol, now they can spend it all on Chanel. Is that any less offensive?

It wouldn’t be a Chanel show without a questionable cultural reference. For Fall 2014 it was Americans, potato chips, and mass consumption à la Jeremy Scott for Moschino, for Spring 2014 it was the DIY aesthetic of poor art students, and for the last Metiers d’Art ready-t-wear…. Well, that was awkward. The headdress shown at Chanel Dallas, “a celebration of the beauty of Texas,” attracted far more criticism than gushing #regrams and RTs labeling it the accessory of next season. Chanel issued an non-apology claiming they were really just trying to toast the beauty of Native American craftsmanship. Safe to say that particular tribute didn’t show up in the accompanying K-Stew campaign.

So, a Chanel petrol can bag now exists. The second thing that caught my eye on Instagram yesterday was an ornamental shot of British model Edie Campbell taken for the latest issue of W magazine, a “fantastical fashion-filled pilgrimage to the golden land of Burma,” apparently inspired by Prudence Farrow, Mia’s “rather uptight and impossibly perfect Buddhist sister.” There are 16 more equally stunning photos in the series shot by the amazing Tim Walker, elaborate explosions of gilded face paint, kaleidoscopic robes, intricate Burmese trinkets, gleaming jewelry, and local life. One of the pictures, captioned “Edie Campbell by Tim Walker for W May 2014 – Gilt Trip” shows the model looking almost identical to the two Burmese women clapping and smiling beside her. Only their sandals are covered in grime and Edie’s look to be Prada. The Instagram comments are unanimously positive.

It’s easy to see why the headdress is offensive. In the United States we, or at least those of us who aren’t Alessandra Ambrosio at Coachella, have a visceral reaction to symbols of a culture we associate with years of oppression. Same goes for blackface — when we see a picture of a white model dressed as an “African Queen” we can already taste the first droplets of the impending social media shitstorm. But how many of us leaned about the history of Burma in middle school? How many have only seen one of those Kayan Lahwi “giraffe necklaces” by thumbing through issues of National Geographic in the dentist’s waiting room? It seems ironic that the Burma shoot is the one titled “Gilt Trip,” which would have taken on a whole different meaning if used in conjunction with a blackface spread. If it’s an “exotic” culture we don’t know a huge amount about, there seems to be no guilt attached when we appropriate a pick-and-mix of its prettiest elements.


Does it also make a difference that the Burma shoot is more visually arresting than Chanel’s kitschy bag? Is it a higher form of art? But then, aesthetics were the argument made in defense of Katy Perry‘s Geisha shit show at the American Music Awards in November. If you look at with cross-eyes and don’t notice the skin-tight Japanese kimono designed to reveal her chest, it’s pretty and flowery and the colors are lovely. At least this is what the majority of Katycats argued on YouTube.

Just this morning industry fashion darling Hanne Gaby Odiele posted an Instagram from her travels in Beijing. Her and another model are posing alongside a Chinese woman, all three of them wearing traditional dress. One of the comments says “Hilarious,” another “sooooooo cute.” She does look nice, and like the W staffers, she didn’t intent the photo as a mockery on a culture. I can’t smell any backlash brewing.

Maybe the safest way to make a comment on culture is the opposite of telling people they don’t know anything — it’s telling people they know a lot. It’s humor and irony that sell Chanel’s petrol can bag. If you #regram it (or if you’re loaded, buy it,) you’re saying “Look at me, I know about global economies and Dubai and stuff.” The bag flatters fashion into thinking it’s in on an inside joke. But is the joke on us if this snapshot of a culture is as crude as unrefined oil?

Related links:
The 13 Most Batshit Instagrams of the Chanel Cruise Show in Dubai
Ghetto Fab: 13 Voices Speak On Appropriation of Urban Culture
Belgian Designer’s Runway Demands Fashion “Stop Racism”

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