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Out of Africa

Fashion designers make no secret of ransacking the world's closets in search of inspiration.   The world, however, isn't always thrilled to see someone else in its favorite dresses.

Last month the Independent reported that British designer Matthew Williamson had provoked the ire of some Ethiopians with two Spring 2008 designs that resemble traditional dresses.  In the words of Abdurazak Omer of the Intellectual Property Office in Addis Ababa:

We are very unhappy with the actions of Mr. Williamson.  These are the dresses of our mothers and grandmothers. They symbolise our identity, faith and national pride. Nobody has the right to claim these designs as their own.

Photos via Sassybella.com

Williamson, whose colorful designs appear under the Pucci label as well as his own, has frequently turned to India and more recently to Native American designs in his collections.  In response to the controversy, a spokeperson noted:

In presenting his spring/summer 2008 collection Matthew Williamson strived to gain recognition and admiration for not only the traditional dress of the Ethiopian people, but also other African communities whose beautiful traditional techniques are also evident in the show. 

I've argued elsewhere -- and as recently as yesterday at a panel chaired by Prof. Sonia Kayal at the AALS annual conference -- that attribution to a source community is often sufficient to avoid or at least mitigate charges of unauthorized cultural appropriation.  Williamson's statement to the press by proxy is certainly a step in the right direction.  But such acknowlegement is usually more effective if it occurs before the fact, not after.  (In fairness to Williamson, I haven't read his program notes -- but then again, in the excitement over an opening act by Prince, most of the attendees at the show probably didn't read them either.) 

Of course, it never hurts to ensure in advance that specific allusion to traditional designs won't be offensive.   Remember Karl Lagerfeld's inadvertent embroidery of verses from the Koran on a Chanel bustier?  Or Jean-Paul Gaultier's Hasidic-inspired collection?  Not good for public relations in either case. 

Perhaps Williamson will adopt the suggestion of the Independent reporter and show his African-inspired designs on African models next time.  Or even donate a portion of his profits to Ethiopian designers, an idea that would no doubt please Prof. K.J. Greene, who has argued for reparations to correct past instances of uncompensated copying of African-American music. 

But one thing's for sure:  Williamson won't be seeking protection for his own designs from the Ethiopian Intellectual Property Office any time soon.