Cultures / of / Taking: Exploring Cultural Exchange in Contemporary Fashion Practice

Fashion designers frequently take inspiration from external sources, including architecture, music, film, historical dress, and, indeed, the aesthetics associated with particular cultures. But when designers reference other cultures for the production of fashion, they inadvertently become active participants in cultural exchange—a controversial territory rife with the complications of historically institutionalized power dynamics. These designers are often criticized within academia for carelessly appropriating and exoticizing those cultures from which they take inspiration. However, the literature has rarely considered the position of designers as actors in these exchanges and has consequently overlooked the potential for constructive negotiation within design practice. This dissertation thus seeks to complicate these readings by asserting designer agency in a critical analysis of transnational flows in the fashion industry. With an understanding of the relevant historiographical context, this study mediates between critical and practical perspectives to explore whether contemporary designers can engender productive cultural exchange through fashion practice. Moving beyond theoretical paradigms, ethnographic research and visual analysis are used to investigate processes involved when designers borrow from other cultures, observe the critical reaction to these designers’ work, and examine designers’ responses to critique. This approach is utilized to locate sites for potential dialogue and development in contemporary fashion, promoting a discourse that considers how designers can implement criticisms of cultural exchange by evolving innovative methodologies of taking inspiration. The possibilities and limitations of this engagement are also discussed, with particular attention to the underlying issues inherent to industrial practice. By considering how designers’ iterative processes function as dialectical mechanisms, we can revitalize discourses of cultural exchange in contemporary fashion practice, surpassing the stale dichotomy of inspiration / appropriation.

Key Issues

fashion design process, design thinking, designer agency, creative inspiration and conceptual development, trend cycles, globalization, cultural appropriation and ethics, politics of design, orientalism, postcolonialism, tradition and innovation, branding and marketing, business structure and financial viability, public relations strategy, critical design engagement, artisan partnerships, collaborative design practice, ethnography