A Fashion Designer and an Activist Talk Cultural Appropriation

As a fashion activist, designer, and MIT Media Lab Director’s Fellow, I study the relationship between fashion, politics, and social change. Many things about fashion seem political to me — not just cultural appropriation, but even the way we consume fashion and the role colonialism plays in sustainability. I am also an Arab woman, keenly aware of how Arabs are portrayed in the media. In this context, the work of fashion designer Marine Serre has caught my attention.

Serre is a young designer who shows in Paris. She has only put out four collections, three of which make use of a crescent shape that seems to reference Islam — though Serre says it is “about the moon” as well. Her designs so far have been critically acclaimed, on the Cut and elsewhere. Although her work is aesthetically appealing, Serre’s motives were unclear to me. That lack of clarity appears to be deliberate. In January, she told the Cut, “There are people who think the print is quite radical, and there are others who don’t know anything about politics and think it’s just cute. And this is exactly what I love.”

I question cultural appropriation because I believe it reinforces oppressive power relations. For me, it is not about “political correctness” (a term that undermines legitimate critiques of dominant power structures), but about fighting back against colonization. No choices are neutral, and despite good intentions, when fashion co-opts symbols of faith, they can become symbols of oppression.

Last week I wrote a piece asking why journalists have not questioned Serre more about her use of Islamic imagery. I was angry with the lack of conversation around her logo (also a crescent), and the fact that Serre said her use of the shape was inspired by terrorist attacks in Paris. She called her debut collection “Radical Call for Love” which felt very loaded to me because of the way the word “radical” is often used to misrepresent Muslims — and yet I had read no articles where she was asked to answer to this in a meaningful way. After the story had been up for a few hours, we took it down and decided to ask her the questions directly. Serre agreed to speak with me. She explained that she wished to use the crescent pattern to create positive associations with the symbol in the media. I explained that I’d found her first attempts clumsy, and frankly insulting — particularly the use of the word “nude” to mean white, and the lack of Muslim models in her show. Read on for our conversation:

Celine: Hi, Marine. Bonjour.

Marine: Thank you, you speak French?

Celine: Oui, I speak French, but we’re gonna do this in English. [Laughs]

Marine: I apologize for my English. Maybe we’ll have little French word, but I will try to do everything in English.

Celine: Your work is doing really well, but as an Arab woman, I have serious questions about some of your choices, so thank you for taking it seriously.

Marine: Of course. It’s really important for me to answer your questions because not a lot of people have asked me them before.

Celine: The other day I wrote about how Arab women I know were upset about the use of the crescent in your work. Are you surprised by my opinion?

Marine: I am not surprised because it’s just part of my work. I have a lot of friends that are Muslim — my best friend is from Liban [Lebanon] and I’m working with them every day. The points of view of all the people around me are really important.

Celine: You used the words “Radical Call for Love” for your collection, correct?

Marine: Yes, exactly.

Celine: And so, the word “radical” to you — how do you translate it? I want to understand, what do you mean when you use the word “radical?”

Marine: For me “radical” means something more like an engagement. Something that’s about action. It’s also just going to the end of what you believe in. I actually intended “radical” in a positive way.

Celine: I understand. But are you aware, for example, that the same word is used to condemn Muslims today … in America, in Europe. When we talk about “the radicals” or “radical Muslims,” that word is used to condemn a group of people under a very negative perspective in the media.

Marine: Yeah, of course, I’m totally aware of that. But I wanted to use it and to change this negative word into something positive.

Celine: Okay. I see that your intention is to change or to inspire change, but what do you mean, when you use the words, “Radical Call for Love” —who are you hoping to change? The media, for example? The use of the word in the media? I want to understand a little more.

Marine: First of all I’m a designer, so of course the only words that were a link to my collection was this title and this symbol of the moon, which is one of the older symbols in the world. But I’m really aware that media and people are talking, and also that fashion is really involved with what is happening in the world. I always talk a lot with my friends about how they feel. I actually hope that by calling the collection, “Radical Call for Love” I could change at least a little bit of the fear that was in the world.

Celine: When I show the image of what looked like a white woman wearing a hijab in light-colored tone to my Arab friends, we all have a very intense reaction to it because it’s something that many Muslim women wouldn’t be able to wear. This color doesn’t match our skin tone. It feels hurtful to see someone reference the hijab, but also make it exclusionary. As you know in France, full-face veils like the burka and niqab are banned, so it’s very political. [Editor’s note: In 2004, France banned “conspicuous” religious symbols, like the hijab, from state schools. In 2010, the French Parliament banned full-face veils like the niqab and burka from all public places.]

Marine: In the collection, you have two tones of this moon pattern, brown and nude, and they are for the girls I represented in the show. Part of my team are Muslim, and they actually ordered the shirt.

I really don’t mean to hurt, and if it’s the case then probably something has to change then in this pattern and in the collection, but I’ve never had anyone before you telling me that. Everyone was really proud. I have a really close friend that I talk a lot with, and she said to me, “You stand for something that I also believe in, and you also use Arabic cultural references in a beautiful way … ”

I’m really trying push this hybridity by mixing things together. So for example if I explained to you why I use the hood — because for me it’s not a hijab — it’s referring to sportswear garments, and Margiela, who as you probably know, covered women in many of his shows, plus references to skiing and skating … and also Islamic references.

But then it was to mesh all of that together, and actually maybe by putting a blue-eyed, white woman in this first look, I thought it was actually saying, “Why should we actually be afraid of dressing in a hijab? Why should it be a problem for the ones who want to dress in this?”

And it’s not about the color of your skin anyway, it’s about what you want to be. So this is how I see it, and I’m also really sorry if I have offended anyone with doing that, because it was really not meant in that way.

Celine: The thing is … because there is an actual ban on the burka and niqab in France, and there is a travel ban in the United States on six Muslim-majority countries, seeing a white woman wearing it feels like a privilege available only to her. She is able to do it, but most of us aren’t, for example. Do you think people outside of fashion might see your work differently than people in your entourage?

Marine: Ah, yeah. I mean, of course. Though most of the people around me are not fashion people. Most of my friends are not having any interest in fashion, actually, but I totally understand what you are asking. That’s also why I really wanted to speak to you today. I’ve heard you … honestly, I’m really happy if I could even change things with you, like with your critique today, to my next collection, to actually try to fix things with us.

Celine: I appreciate that. But I want to ask you, do you think there is such a thing as cultural appropriation?

Marine: In my work, you mean? Or in general?

Celine: In general. Do you think there is such a thing as cultural appropriation? Because obviously the piece I wrote was in reaction to having seen your work, having felt insulted, for example, and then saying that this is cultural appropriation.

Marine: I don’t know. I mean, everything can be and nothing can be. It’s about how you relate to it. I really tried to actually break these boundaries and borders and taboos. My work is about hybridity, and of course I do not wish to be associated with cultural appropriation. Today, the world is merging because of media, because of Instagram. I hope that the culture of everyone can be the culture of everyone.

Celine: How do you think about casting for example? What effort have you made to be more inclusive in your casting?

Marine: Most of them [sic] are my friends. I don’t want to see these boundaries. I’m like most of the models. I like them in terms of personality, in terms of attitude, and in terms of who they are or where they are coming from.

Celine: Do you think I’m overreacting?

Marine: No. It’s normal to react to things and you showed this to your friends, and they have reacted with you so it’s also part of the process. I think too, when something changes, we overreact — I overreact a lot of times too. So no, we’ve got to stick together. This is the best thing that can happen.

Celine: You can ask me questions if you have any.

Marine: Yeah I have one. I was also thinking earlier about what would actually be a better method than to spread the crescent and the Islamic culture symbols as a trend, so as something that people will love to wear, to actually battle against the demonization of Islamic culture in mass media? Do you think it could be a solution? I just wonder if you think that it’s a good solution or if you think that it will be misinterpreting too much? Because I would love to keep working with the symbol.

Celine: I see a good intention that you have. But the crescent already means love, even though the media has tainted it with terrible connotations, the crescent on its own comes from a religion of love and a religion of acceptance. Even though it is interpreted in many different ways that are negative. I would say, if you want to keep on using this symbol you should definitely be casting Arab models, Muslim models, putting them in your shows and stepping aside and stepping back more.

Marine: Yes.

Celine: It was shocking to me that the main image that was circulating from your show was one of a white woman who has the privilege to choose whether or not she wants to wear the hijab — we can call it a hood, we can call it a balaclava, but it is a hijab at the end of the day, when we look at it, with the symbol that is put on it. And so to me the answer lies in the way that you choose to show it, and who you’re choosing to bring to the forefront. Who are you putting under the spotlight?

You have a privilege, you have a platform. How do you you use your platform and your privilege to give a voice to minorities, to actually create a positive change? To me, that is where we see the intention being used in a positive sense, as opposed to being drowned under your privilege — under the status that you have for example.

Again, your pieces exist within a sociopolitical context that I know you’re not ignoring. How do you play on that in a way that is respectful to minorities that are being persecuted, harassed, banned from certain countries, banned to even wear their own cultural symbols? It is forbidden for Muslims to wear some of these symbols in France, so you are using those symbols, you are allowed to do it because you are a white woman — because you are in fashion, because it is fashionable.

Marine: Yeah. I totally agree with you.

Update, 3/12: Marine Serre reached out to the Cut with a comment after the publication of this piece. She writes:

I did indeed use the word “nude” in the interview once, and I’m sorry for this, as I’m of course aware of what is assumed by it. Please note, however, first of all: language is not my primary mode of expression. Fashion design is, and that I have designed a nude-brown catsuit for FW18 should really speak volumes. Second, this slipped through not for no reason. For a large part this is due to my limited command of English, but not only: it slips through easily in my English because there is really no apt word in English to denote the skin color of “white” people.

After we made the pieces under consideration, we found out about this the hard way. How to name this color? I actually think this is quite a striking thing: while other skin tones have names, apparently “white” does not have to be named in the English language today, as it is pre-assumed as the standard. Me and my team have been searching a lot for a word here, ever since the collection came out in the public space, and it was only after a long time searching that we found out that the accepted term in the fashion industry today is “tan”. I think this is still weird, though, as it does not really cover the tone. Why not “soft pink”? Tan is what you get in the sun … Anyway, you can see in all our articles, line sheets, and press statements that we have always used the word “tan” or sometimes “trompe l’oeil”.

The author of this article has the right, of course, to display the text as it was spoken, and I did slip here. However, my team and I strongly protest being called naive or clumsy on the issue, as this has been a matter of concern to us ever since my collection first came out publicly. If this is possible, we would like to accuse the English language here, and actually, I’m quite sure that we can agree on a common stance together with the author of the article on this matter.

A Designer and an Activist Talk Cultural Appropriation