The Great Misappropriation: Black Culture and the Fashion Industry

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Once in a while, my beloved fashion industry steps out of line, way out of line, and it needs a little talking to. This time around the offender is none other than everybody’s favourite Chanel. A picture surfaced on social media last week showing a model wearing what is commonly know as a ‘durag’ with the caption ‘Chanel Urban Tie Cap’. Well well well, here we go again. Of late, I have noticed black ‘culture’ being misappropriated in the most obvious and crass of ways and whilst on black people, such practices are mocked and belittled, on Caucasian models, it’s fashion forward and of course that dreaded word, ‘urban’. What is commonly know as ‘baby hair’ has now been transformed into ‘Urban fabulous’ hair for a show at New York Fashion Week. Many black and Latino women gel down their baby hair to stop them flying loose and this practice has been stylized and slowly become ingratiated into our look and associated with women of colour.

The second look, the durag, or ‘Urban Tie Cap’ is commonly used by men and women of colour to keep their hair in place. Both durags and baby hairs have become synonymous with the growing hip hop culture and have come to be known by the mainstream as typically ‘ghetto’ or ‘hood’. In reality, they’re just ways that people with a certain hair texture use to keep their hair under control.

It is undeniable the effect that Hip Hop culture has had on the world reaching as far back as the 80’s with black culture having carved out its own identifiable style and look but for the longest time that ‘look’ was rejected by mainstream media and associated with the ‘ghetto’ culture. Think bandanas, sagging trousers, gelled hair and even trainers but if you are to look at how the fashion industry has evolved, you will undoubtedly see these elements of black culture being included into mainstream fashion or being watered down or stylized to become more acceptable by the sheep.

Another bone of contention is the constant misuse of the word ‘urban’ to describe something deriving from black culture. By definition, urban refers to the characteristic of a town or city but it has since devolved into a not -so-code word for ‘black’ and it seems that anything preceded by the word ‘urban’ from the fashion industry will be followed by a ‘bastardization’ of black culture. Brilliant.




Piece by artist Jennifer Li 



This is not the first time the fashion industry has made such a faux pas. In 2008, Louis Vuitton sent what are commonly known as ‘Ghana Must Go’ bags down the runway masquerading as luxury designer goods. Most African’s were shocked to see such an  item, which is linked to such controversy and has a long history attached to it, being marketed for over N200,000 as a mere accessory to people who were too ignorant to know better. Designed by Marc Jacobs for LV,  the piece was described on the website as ‘a complex refraction of the many inspirational sparks that go into the work here: pieces synthesized to project the simultaneous multinational appeal that Louis Vuitton must maintain.’ I wonder if he average African’s Ghana Must Go bag would be described so eloquently. Doubtful.


These are just examples of how the fashion industry sometimes gets it very wrong and how, in the search for creativity, we arrive at stupidity. Yes, there is nothing wrong with taking inspiration from cultures but to blatantly rip off and try to stylize something that has been normalized by black people, therein is where the trouble lies.



Writer and blogger from London, currently living in and loving Lagos. Currently battling crippling addictions to Fanta, MAC, Rihanna and Indomie. Donations welcome. Column: The Diarist

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