This is the problem with cultural-appropriation critiques. They depend on reductive binaries—“high culture” and “low culture,” and oftentimes, “first world” and “third world”—that preserve the hierarchical relations between the fashion industry and the cultures being appropriated. This is related to the problem with cultural-appreciation defenses. Producers and consumers of culturally appropriated objects often present them as examples of healthy cosmopolitanism, of an openness to diverse global sources of inspiration. But the Indonesian plaid example shows that such production and consumption of “diversity” can often—intentionally or accidentally—obscure the actual diversity and complexity of the cultural object being copied.
Instead of the appropriation discourse, I suggest that critics and designers engage in an “inappropriate” discourse, one that reframes the debate to include all the things that are not carried over when white Western creators swipe from elsewhere. Rather than obsess over whether certain practices and forms of cultural appropriation are “good” or “bad,” “racist” or “post-racial,” respectful or not, inappropriate discourse asks what is not appropriate-able, what cannot be integrated into and continue to maintain the existing power structure of the high fashion system, and why. In doing so, we truly challenge the idea of the absolute power and authority of the West to control how the world sees, knows, and talks about fashion.
The idea that an Asian country like Indonesia might be the deliberate, self-aware originator of a fashion trend, rather than simply the third-world site for manufacturing cheap commodities, is an “inappropriate” one: It doesn’t correspond with the binary of high and low culture at the heart of cultural appropriation critiques. An “inappropriate” critique would point out that Western fashion designers are not only extraordinarily late to this plaid trend, they are following the followers of the trend. By locating the source of their inspiration in the Chinese-made bags (which are themselves based on cheap copies of the Bugis textiles), Philo, McCartney, and Jacobs are following in the tradition of earlier European and Asian trading companies who were already copying this textile. These illustrious Western fashion designers are, in effect, knocking off knock offs. The only thing “reinvented” by the Céline, Stella McCartney, and Louis Vuitton pieces is the notion of the Western fashion industry as the most important site of design innovation—an idea that is itself an invention.
Even without knowing the textile history of the Céline, Stella McCartney, and Louis Vuitton pieces—in fact, taking for granted the Chinatown origins of the prints—an inappropriate critic might ask how Chinatown residents benefit financially and socially from a high-fashion craze that references their cultural practices, everyday lives, and bodies. Does that craze afford them new opportunities to actively and genuinely participate in the fashion system (as designers, consultants, consumers, or in some other capacity)? Or does it only worsen their historical exclusion? In other words, how deep does the ballyhooed “cultural appreciation” run?
A favorite cliché among fashion elites is that commercialism is a bad word. The idea is that fashion is, first and foremost, art. Questions and critiques that follow the economic bottom line of fashion companies—who profits, how, and how much—are inappropriate. Yet since trying to parse out what is an appropriate trend or not hasn't seemed to help anyone, the inappropriate is exactly what we need right now.