Fashion is tribal. It offers a metaphorical and sartorial form of belonging, or at least one can pretend to be part of a group by adopting its dress styles. For example, a business suit is worn by tribes of working women, while athleisure might be worn by a tribe of athletes. It is a basic human instinct to group ourselves according to our likes, and fashion is the external adornment that helps us signify who we are and what pockets of society we see ourselves as belonging to.
Zuhair Murad’s Spring 2018 Couture show takes from the metaphors and symbols provided by tribal association and makes them literal. With a runway transformed by a teepee made of spears, feathers worn in the hair of models, and distinct tribal beadwork, his “Indian Summer” collection makes the thesis plain.
Where Native Americans used elaborate, handmade beadwork to tell the histories of individual nations or to adorn battle garb, Murad borrows from indigenous patternmaking in order to decorate his couture collection. Visually, the effects are stunning, as dense beading is used on every single surface, from tights to elaborate gowns. Shot through with crystals, metallic embroidery, and multi-colored tapestries, his gowns were spectacular, but problematic.
Murad is already being called out for cultural appropriation in the comment section on Instagram.
Presumably, as a Lebanese designer, Murad is not aware of how intensely protective indigenous people are of their codes. Many public groups have pleaded with designers repeatedly not to appropriate Native American styles of dress, particularly when it comes to feathered headdresses which are worn only by the warrior class in their society. Other designers, like Dsquared2 and Valentino, have been called out for their casual incorporation of Native American styles. And with the “woke” generation watching the fashion industry like hawks, searching for potential missteps and poor messaging, Murad is already being called out for cultural appropriation in the comment section on Instagram.
On the other hand, there are designers like Dries Van Noten, who, in a recent discussion with Business of Fashion for its “Voices” series, declared that fashion’s co-opting of cultural signifiers is nothing more than an homage meant to honor the cultures they imitate. The notion is, as a fully interconnected society, we must all act as citizens of the world. This is achieved by honoring and respecting other cultures, and fashion is one route designers take to pay tribute. While we are willing to give Murad the benefit of the doubt here, the set’s teepee and feathered beauty looks are hard to look past.