Before you base your designs off of a very visible cultural symbol – especially if you are not of that culture – you might want to reconsider. The global Black Lives Matter protests have pushed race-related issues to the front of the queue, and fashion brands are blundering right into the fray. Cultural appropriation? In this climate? Social media users are clearly fed up with seeing it.
Three days ago, Danish brand Cecilie Copenhagen posted a photo of an influencer wearing their distinctive patterned designs, and their mentions immediately filled with angry comments. Their pattern is distinctive because it belongs to the Palestinian keffiyeh, and the use of this pattern is exploitative when removed from its history of symbolically representing the Arab world’s fight against injustice and oppression.
Although the keffiyeh dates back to Sumerian and Babylonian culture as early as 3100 BC, it became a prominent political symbol in the 1920s and 30s when the UK placed Palestine and Transjordan under British rule. Known as Mandatory Palestine or the British Mandate for Palestine, and backed by the League of Nations, the mandate placed formal British rule over the Levant region. This later provided groundwork for the creation of the Jewish state and formation of Israel on Palestinian soil. During the Mandate, Palestinians would disguise their faces beneath the keffiyeh in order to avoid arrest and persecution. This symbol of resistance gained even more prominence later on during the protests known as the First Intifada of 1987 and the Second Intifada of 2000.
Colonial oppression and conflict have long dominated the Arab world, and with the keffiyeh as a universally recognized symbol of the Palestinian resistance, it comes as a shock that a brand would co-opt its use. Even if you didn’t know the origins of the pattern, a quick Google search would have revealed everything you needed to know about it. Pleading ignorance in this matter is not a justified excuse.
Cecilie Copenhagen has been called out for this error many times before. The Guardian wrote about it 2019, and other media outlets have called attention to it over the years. One impassioned user @hama_lifestyle responded to the brand on Instagram saying, “I wish you acknowledged this fact [a] long time ago when we emailed you and texted you 8 years ago!!! But you blocked all of our pages! This is definitely not your design and you knew from the beginning.”
ILNA Collective, a Middle Eastern creative hub driven by independent MENA talent, also reached out directly to Savoir Flair on Instagram and shared their story of their previous attempts to hold Cecilie Copenhagen accountable. “I’ve contacted them directly years ago, and again now. But they ignored every attempt. I even offered to educate and consult them free of charge, which they also ignored,” said ILNA Collective founder, Saif Hidayah.
Colonial oppression and conflict have long dominated the Arab world, and with the keffiyeh as a universally recognized symbol of the Palestinian resistance, it comes as a shock that a brand would co-opt its use.
Additionally, Hidayah tenaciously pursued Cecilie Copenhagen’s stockists, alerting them to the matter. He went further, and addressed Cecilie Copenhagen via Instagram DM, asking if they would be willing to donate to Middle East organizations, “particularly in native Palestine”. The brand responded saying, “We have made a statement which we are committed to. Feel free to quote from there.” Hidayah pursued the request, and they ignored him, although it is clear from the Instagram “receipts” he shared with us that they had left him on read.
In our recent dictionary of “woke” terminology, we drew an unequivocal definition of cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation is when an individual, company, or brand profits off of the culture of another. Keffiyeh “inspired” items retail at Cecilie Copenhagen for an average cost of AED 1,000, which makes the accusation of cultural appropriation valid.
In response to the heated comments that called them out, Cecilie Copenhagen posted a statement. Given the current social climate, one has to question the timing of their response, given that it has been called out for years, and not addressed until now.
In their Instagram statement, the brand acknowledges that the pattern originated in the Middle East, and explains that the founder created a look from her mother’s keffiyeh scarf and found it “light and airy, and easy to wear”. From there, she incorporated the keffiyeh into her designs, and shortly thereafter Cecilie Copenhagen was founded. They promised going forward that they will credit the keffiyeh’s origins “on our social platforms and external channels when we post styles inspired by the Keffiyeh pattern”.
However, this response fails to recognize the profiteering nature of cultural appropriation. One proposed solution to cultural appropriation is representation, where the appropriated item is made by indigenous craftspeople who are paid a living wage for their work, as well as placing indigenous individuals in campaigns. This redistributes some of the profit back into the community that created the appropriated symbol. Perhaps Cecilie Copenhagen should make use of the solution, or better yet, they should stop basing their designs off of the political symbol of a nation that they chose to remain ignorant of, until it was convenient.
Savoir Flair reached out to Cecilie Copenhagen for comment and they responded, “As you have probably seen, yesterday we have taken an action and publically [sic] apologized and acknowledged the use and significance of the Keffiyeh pattern in our production line.”