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Honoring Culture & The Slippery Slope: Lessons From #KimOhNo for the Sustainable Fashion Industry

It typically goes something like this when I reach out to a sustainable and ethical fashion brand asking them to change the name of a kimono garment that does not resemble a kimono: Would you please consider changing the name of your kimono item to something else? This piece is not a kimono and the kimono is sacred in Japanese culture. Then the maker or brand will respond with a version of this: We are honoring the Japanese culture by naming this item “kimono.” 

The rest of the conversation circles around and intention trumps impact and so called honoring silences harm. It is a rare and cherished win when makers and brands listen and take action to change the names of their kimono and Japanese inspired garments. After roughly a year of these experiences, I was extremely shocked by the final outcome of the recent Kim Kardashian kimono kerfluffle because I was certain she would not change the name of her shapewear brand even after the inspiring blowback of the #KimOhNo testimonials and outrage

But she did. And while you will not hear any applause from my corner, there are some important take-aways that can apply to the sustainable fashion industry when it comes to conversations about cultural appropriation. To be clear, these lessons do not come from Kim Kardashian, but from the collective efforts of the people who bravely spoke out.

Emi Ito in a Kimono on her wedding day

Photo by Nirav Patel

 

Who Gives Permission? Whose Voice Gets Centered?

Cultural appropriation can be especially challenging to discuss because the fashion industry has such a long history of using inspiration from other cultures as an excuse to dodge accountability and perpetuate superficial and often damaging interpretations of marginalized cultures. This track record reveals that those in power give permission and their voices get centered; which means the voices of those being harmed have been silenced and pushed aside. This dynamic needs to not only get inverted, but also subverted.

What the #KimOhNo response teaches us is that this inversion is possible and that the fashion industry has an obligation to listen to the voices of those being harmed. In this case it was many voices, but sometimes it is just a vocal few that still need to be considered and respected. If someone is brave enough to share about the harm being inflicted upon them– it is incumbent upon those being asked to listen, to do just that. When it comes to the question of permission and even cultural and intellectual property laws, sustainable fashion makers and brands have an ethical responsibility to take the time to prioritize impact over inspiration, rather than uphold the status quo of colonialism and white supremacy in fashion.

In practice this would look like embodying the tenets of slow fashion by actually slowing down long enough to take the time to have difficult conversations; hiring Black and Indigenous anti-racism and equity educators to train staff; not just consulting with members of the origin culture that is the source of the inspiration, but striving to get to a point of hiring people from those communities, so they can participate as key decision makers and collaborators, with the power to guide, shape, and even stop problematic projects. 

Two photos of Emi Ito in a Kimono

Sustainable Making & Mistakes

As a veteran elementary educator, the most exciting aspect of these ongoing conversations about cultural appropriation are the moments when mistakes are owned and openly discussed by designers and brands because– it means there is actual brain growth and I like to think, community growth as well. In many innovative classrooms around the world mistakes are examined, talked about with curiosity, and dissected so that the community of learners can make gains together. I believe that gradually, this same kind of movement is happening in sustainable fashion.

Thousands of testimonials and even government officials were involved in letting Kim Kardashian know that she was making an egregious mistake. While she didn’t own her mistake or apologize, positive action was the result because of the many conversations on and offline about the mistake she was making. There was growth.

Mistakes are a vital part of the learning process and if sustainable makers are committed to ethical practices, then mistakes and accountability are a dynamic and required part of the work.

Portrait of Emi Ito

Photo by Kristen Murakoshi Photography

 

Be An Ally and Disrupt White Supremacy

Another important part of ethical practices in sustainability work is ensuring that historically oppressed groups are honored on their terms so that we do not slide into the trap of not just cultural appropriation, but cultural erasure. If we strive to honor cultures that are not our own, then we must uplift all the truths that are being shared, even if they push us out of our comfort zones. This is the work of being an ally: Listening and acting upon the feedback of people from marginalized communities who are speaking out about topics such as cultural appropriation and size inclusivity in fashion.

Sustainable fashion prides itself on deeply considering ways to mitigate harm to humans and the planet, therefore committing to ending cultural appropriation is one more aspect of valuing human contributions. Rather than sliding back on the slippery slope into cultural appropriation, it is my belief and hope that we are witnessing a movement upward and onward toward a sustainable fashion community that is beginning to embrace accountability and smashing the status quo of white supremacy with solidarity rather than silencing. If there is one main lesson to be learned from the #KimOhNo response, it is that we must keep speaking out. It matters and it makes a difference.


Emi Ito is a mother, San Francisco Bay Area public educator, and sustainable fashion community member who has been outspoken about the cultural appropriation of the kimono and Japanese culture since she started her public Instagram account in 2018.