Below find a guest post by Carrie Hertz, Curator of Dress and Textiles at the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA. –Jason Baird Jackson
On Taking Credit: Textile Traditions and Fashion Rip-Offs
by Carrie Hertz
On August 13, the mail carrier delivered the most recent catalog for Boden, a British fashion brand. While flipping through its pages that evening, I stopped dead on a spread for a new “limited-edition collection” of clothes featuring very familiar embroidery patterns. In explanation, the copy reads:
Our designers were so inspired by a vintage rug they discovered on their travels, they dreamed up this limited-edition collection of exquisitely embroidered pieces.
Let’s unpack this.
The Boden designers, clearly positioned here as worldly travelers, admit foreign “inspiration” for their ideas without actually revealing any valuable details about the source. The mention of a “vintage rug” not only suggests a possibly singular, idiosyncratic item, it places that rug’s creation far in the past, likely made by an anonymous and untraceable craftsperson now lost to history. As a limited-edition line of clothes, potential customers could be led to believe these designs are rare, exclusive, and fleeting, requiring their urgent action. These designs, however, are not unique. They are rip-offs.
As a folklorist and curator of textiles and dress, I engage and partner with artists around the globe who often struggle against the living legacies of colonial structures and the inequalities endemic to Western cultural imperialism. Western fashion corporations repeatedly claim the rights of “discovery” to the world’s textile traditions, capitalizing on unfair advantages constructed over centuries of imperial exploitation, profiting off the creative work of others, and actively concealing the sources of their theft.
Perhaps most painful to many of the artists and communities that I work with is the public erasure of their cultural contributions. In this case, Boden didn’t provide proper credit, not even naming the exquisite embroidery tradition it found so inspirational, perhaps because to do so would immediately shatter the illusion of their design team’s innovation, the elite exclusivity of their garments, or even their relative beauty in comparison to much higher quality versions readily available at affordable prices in the global market place.
So, I offer a small piece of this context now.
Suzani (from the Persian word for needle) embroidery has been developed over centuries in Central Asia, traded along the Silk Road, and later survived Communist attempts to suppress it during the Soviet era in places like Uzbekistan. According to Mary Littrell, a textile scholar and research associate for the Museum of International Folk Art:
In the 20th century, Communist rulers in Uzbekistan equated handcrafts with a feudal past. Handcrafts, associated by the Soviets with individual creativity and private production, served no purpose in a unified and mechanized future. Craft production was forbidden or forced underground as the workers turned to mass production. With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Uzbek artisans began the long process of reviving their centuries-old craft traditions and transforming them in new directions for domestic, tourist, and international markets. (http://handeyemagazine.com/content/past-and-future-suzani)
Today, you can readily find gorgeous hand-embroidered garments made with naturally-dyed silks and cottons being sold on sites like Etsy and produced by living artists for which this artform represents multigenerational cultural memory and skill. During every non-pandemic year, the International Folk Art Market (IFAM, https://folkartmarket.org/) features numerous Uzbek artists selling handcrafted rugs, bedspreads, pillows, clothing and accessories. For examples:
or the stunning work of Sanjar Ravshanovich Nazarov (http://ifamstories.org/artists/sanjar-ravshanovich-nazarov/);
or the truly exquisitely-embroidered coats produced in Madina Kasimbaeva’s workshop (https://www.instagram.com/madina.kasimbaeva_suzani/?hl=en) in Tashkent (http://ifamstories.org/artists/madina-kasimbaeva/).
These are only a few of the talented and dedicated artists “dreaming up” suzani designs today. Uzbek artists and others have fought hard to sustain and revitalize suzani tradition. At the very least, they deserve credit for their efforts.