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Woke culture has created an environment in which everyone is being scrutinized under a carefully placed microscope. As a man of African descent, is designer Virgil Abloh an enabler of cultural appropriation?


By Nicolas Nhalungo

Jan 28, 2021

The presentation of Virgil Abloh’s sixth collection for Louis Vuitton—the FW ‘21 mens collection—christened Ebonics/Snake Oil/The Black Box/Mirror, Mirror, was an expression of artistry through poetry, visual imagery, and the powerful words imprinted on the clothing, directed in collaboration with performer Josh Johnson. The young Artistic Director sought to use the runway as a stage to tackle some of the most polarizing issues that have bubbled to the surface of the crucible that has been the past year. In an attempt to create a platform for the marginalized, did Abloh, however unintentionally, take up a space that was not his own to do, or worse still, yield power to the oppressor?

With this collection, through performance art and gender-effacing garments, Abloh seeks to challenge society’s perception of the individual as stems from the manner of one’s dressing. As he puts it in his show notes, “The Louis Vuitton Fall-Winter 2021 Men’s Collection investigates the unconscious biases instilled in our collective psyche by the archaic norms of society.” The collection was inspired by the 1953 essay, 'Stranger in the Village,' by novelist James Baldwin, which expresses the author’s experiences as an African-American man who moved from the United States to a Swiss village. This story draws a parallel to Abloh’s own journey as a black artist in a world dominated by white European creatives.

Certain pieces in the new collection have, however, resulted in conversations around cultural appropriation. One of the models donned a tracksuit wrapped with a swath of LV-monogram-peppered Kente. Kente is a textile that originates from and is closely linked to the people of modern-day Ghana. The toga-esque manner in which the colorful cloth is presented on the model mirrors the toga-esque manner in which Ghanaian men traditionally fra ntuma (the Twi language expression that directly translates as “wear cloth”). This is not the first time Louis Vuitton has incorporated another culture’s traditional textures into its design (see SS’12’s use of Maasai checks) nor the first time the brand is being accused of cultural appropriation.


Virgil Abloh. Photo: Courtesy of CFDA

Abloh, however, deems the collection as quite the opposite of appropriation, and rather as an exploration of this very question of ownership and intellectual property vis-a-vis cultural identities. In the collection’s show notes, the idea is explained thus: “If Kente cloth—the fabric of Virgil Abloh’s cultural heritage—is rendered in tartan, does that make Kente any less Ghanaian and tartan any less Scottish? Provenance is reality, while ownership is myth: manmade [sic] inventions now ripe for reinvention.” In short, what stops us from creatively borrowing from cultures other than the one into which we are born, especially given the fluidity of identity in and of itself?


context and commercialization

In entering into a discussion around cultural appropriation it is important to understand what this controversial term means. With varied definitions, perhaps in this case the most relevant one would be “the act of a member of a dominant culture taking cultural expression from a minority culture and repurposing it in a different context without authorization, acknowledgment or compensation and potentially causing harm”, as described by Intellectual Property lawyer Brigitte Véznia.

The reason Abloh's use of Kente may be confused with cultural appropriation is that although he may be of African descent, he is representing a European brand. As one of the few Black American designers at the helm of luxury brands, Abloh is under constant scrutiny as he is expected to be the epitome of a designer for the Black community. This is not Abloh's first controversy but the reality is that it is far easier to criticize a Black artist because of the systemic racism embedded in society. All artists borrow.

The dangers of the appropriation of cultures, by luxury brands, however, should be acknowledged. Appropriation is problematic when one considers the intention (or lack thereof) behind it. Where there is no acknowledgement of the source material in a situation in which a power gradient already exists between the borrower and inadvertent “lender”, the question of theft and disrespect arises. Furthermore, in fashion, it is not uncommon for iconic runway moments to trickle into fast fashion trends. This trajectory could lead to the devaluation of iconography that an entire subculture holds as sacrosanct.


fashion as a tool

Globalization has been a large contributor of cultural exchange. The dynamics of the evolution of cultures is one of the reasons the lines may be blurred, so the question of ownership Abloh raises is a valid one. For many, fashion is a reflective tool of one's identity. But identity is complex.

Before criticizing the designer, it is essential to see the world from his perspective. As the child of two immigrant Ghanaian parents, Abloh admits that in his teenage years, it was difficult to find people he could relate to. He tells WWD, “I grew up feeling that design wasn’t for me, because I didn’t see anyone like me in design.” So when presented with an opportunity to highlight and honor African cultures on a global stage, it is only natural for one to take advantage of this to the best of their ability. By understanding this, we can also understand how these experiences and feelings may have shaped Abloh’s world view and why cries of appropriation in this instance lack nuance.

Abloh chose not to emulate Kente (which is understood not to be Kente at all if it is not woven in Ghana, though there is no official IP law governing Kente and its replication or propagation) in its traditional use, but rather to draw inspiration from and reimagine it in the context of the Louis Vuitton brand identity. However, does this use send the right message, given that “Kente is a royal and sacred cloth worn only in times of extreme importance as it signifies wealth and celebration”? In response, one might argue that Abloh is challenging the question of how Kente can be used, innovating from tradition. Besides, as a man of Ghanaian ancestry, is he not assimilating (rather than appropriating) his own culture into his artistic vision, and in choosing to do so, helping to shape the narrative of how the Kente can be adapted?

Louis Vuitton Mens FW'21. Photo: Courtesy of Louis Vuitton

Louis Vuitton Mens FW'21. Photo: Courtesy of Louis Vuitton

Louis Vuitton Mens SS'12, by Kim Jones. Photo: Chris Moore/Karl Prouse/New York Times

drawing the lines

The intention of Abloh’s production was to challenge what normal looks like. As one of the few designers of color in a position as powerful as his, Abloh has created room for much needed conversation. He invites us all to re-evaluate our own stances on how each person should look. To claim cultural appropriation without attempting to understand the message behind the collection and show would be to disregard not only Abloh’s heritage, but his thought process.

And yet the question remains, when is it okay to borrow something from another culture and how can we avoid cultural appropriation? Where does one draw the line between assimilation and appropriation? The answer is not a clearcut one, but we can all agree on the importance of borrowers educating themselves, seeking permission (where possible), and acknowledging the history and origin of cultural elements that inspire or color their work.