The Cultural Depth of Fashion’s Accessorisation

While Chanel considers the boomerang a leisure-sports product, there is considerably more history to it than understood.

My left eye was twitching as I began to draft this piece up, because repeatedly, I’ve assessed fashion from its positives to its most negatives, hoping that something comes out of it and that the industry behaves itself as a member of one of the most coveted and elusive industries in the world. Unfortunately, good rarely comes out of it, with the likes of racism, diversity (exclusion and inclusion), sexism, and industry treatment being some of the biggest contenders on fashion’s list of crimes, just to name a few of course. Over the years, season in and out; these topics of debate tend to rotate within the industry from designer to designer as a never-ending parallel of seemingly, easy things to amend. If only the power names in fashion actually got up on their feet and used their designer shoes to walk and do more. 

But, there’s no greater and more ignorant crime in this blasé industry than cultural appropriation, which helms a massive role in the authenticity of fashion, but also as a means of political and social understanding that stems beyond just clothing in the name of artistic value. It is with great displeasure, to announce that the fashion industry has disrupted what short-lived peace that it has had by rearing its ugly head again with a $2000AUD boomerang, smacked with their (in)famous ‘CC’ logo on top, by none other than French house Chanel. Loosely stamped as cultural appropriation by many, this product of consumerism delves a deeper meaning into understanding the context between fashion/culture to recreating hobby pieces, and drawing the very fine line of it all.

Member of the Indigenous Australian community

Immediately, over the course of the week, as the boomerang circulated online, there was a criticism with the distasteful and ignorant infringement of Indigenous Australian culture. Chanel’s so-called sports product has been racking in accusations, and rightfully so, of imitating of one of the oldest and most recognisable hunting tools in the world. What makes it even more enraging for many, is that the boomerang itself, is listed under ‘Other Accessories’ amongst other acquirable items on their website, which includes a Chanel tennis racquet, or a Chanel surfboard. All branded, all overly expensive. Easily found at your local sport store down the road.

Adding fuel to fire to try to appease the masses of the angry online buzz, a spokeswoman for the house released a quasi-apologetic statement for their product, stating that the house is “extremely committed to respecting all cultures and regrets that some may have felt offended. The inspiration was taken from leisure activities from other parts of the world, and it was not our intention to disrespect the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community and the significance of the boomerang as a cultural object.”

Take it as you will about the lacklustre apology – or lack of.

Chanel, as per usual, will continue their business without feeling the weight of the backlash of this, selling the boomerang to those without a conscious, to those, like that of self-proclaimed internet makeup artist (or whatever) Jeffree Star, who shared a post online of him frolicking with boomerang in hand (who had effectively started this entire issue). As an iconic house with a long legacy and a loyal and stringent consumer base, Chanel is most likely to go unscathed and will not have to suffer any consequences of the appropriation, which exists above this level of scrutiny that a smaller designer would have to go through.

The issue itself beyond Chanel attempting to pass this off as a must-have accessory for the bona fide fashion lover, rather it’s the cultural appropriation that many will miss, and pass off as a trend to attempt because it’s been tried and done by the industry. Critics have slammed Chanel’s product as expensive and impractical, and many have proposed investing into the cultural understanding of the boomerang and considerably, purchasing an authentic one made by a member of an Indigenous Australian group. This factors into another argument of the issue that Chanel, and many within the fashion industry, tend to exploit the underprivileged and then feign ignorance through only wanting to express ‘homage’ or ‘art’.

The boomerang is a symbolic cultural tool and for it to be materialised within the matters of fashion superficiality and lack of morality is an immense blow to the Indigenous community. Historically, the boomerang is more than what it seems to be on the surface level as a cultural symbol for Indigenous Australians – having, in the past, been taken as trophies during the European settlement in Australia to be put in museums and being used in racist phrenological studies. According to the National Museum of Australia, boomerangs helm an important role in the Aboriginal culture as objects of work and survival. Boomerangs have been constructed historically with precise and attentive detail to be used for accurate hunting…the authentic ones at least. B-grade and holiday souvenir boomerangs are constructed for visual means, and aren’t made to return when thrown, let alone last. While the embossed logo on the Chanel boomerang probably looks nice enough for a socialite with too much time and a lack of morality (see: brains), it won’t do much.

 Chanel boomerang/ Hermès boomerang

Nathan Sentence, an Indigenous project officer at the Australian Museum, pointed out that the overpriced Chanel product costs almost 10% of the average annual income for Indigenous Australians, who are the most economically disadvantaged demographics in Australia. Additionally, journalist Madeline Hayman-Reber, a self-described ‘proud Gomeroi’ woman, shared in a comment piece:

Our artists spend hours and hours telling stories more than 50,000 years old through a variety of mediums, including painting, song, dance, creating weapons and instruments. They are telling the stories of our people and their personal experiences. They do this not just to express themselves, but to share our culture with the world.”

Disappointed, but not surprised, obviously, this isn’t a one-off or honest mistake from the house, with the underlying understanding that designers are unknowingly designing things that supposedly inspire them without doing their hard-end research and understanding the implications of their actions. This is obviously not new, with the boomerang sporadically having been in production and for purchase since 2005, but perhaps never having been affected with this much negative attention. With the rising of social media and online platforms, in addition to individuals who thrive off attention and the need for superficiality with expensive, albeit impractical products, on a whole new level, like Star, people in and outside of the industry are putting down their grounded arguments for fashion to open their eyes and be more aware of cultural changes in society. (Back in 2013, French house Hermès was also selling their own variation of the boomerang, offered at a price less that than Chanel’s and with less recrimination.)  

Chanel has, of course, always been in the spotlight as a big name that seems to never get the issue with cultural appropriation or, doing something that’s wildly offensive and having Karl Lagerfeld justify it as a contrast between art. For their Spring 2017 Campaign, Chanel used Bantu knots on a Caucasian model and justified it as  ‘fun, quirky futuristically contemporary.’ Then back during their Pre Fall 2014 show, Chanel held a Western show, and models donned the Native American headdress, which has always been a massive issue within the industry. Activist Sasha Houston Brown explained that headdresses are very specific to different tribes within their own rights, but the way the industry has represented them as an accessory and as a ‘stereotype’ is greatly demeaning. From designers like Valentino to Junya Watanabe, every single individual within the industry (perhaps, even I, unconsciously) has associated themselves with some kind of cultural tokenisation, by ‘drawing inspiration’ without realising the implications of trying to re-creation something symbolic to a culture. By alienating those that have been referenced or inspired by, fashion tends to take artefacts from those who are marginalised and benefit from them, then passing it off as trendy or flattery for the season.

Chanel Pre-Fall 2014

Interestingly, while Chanel is one of many houses who (I guess, rightfully so, within the means of intellectual property) are notorious for their threats for trademark infringement of their logo, isn’t it ironic to learn that Indigenous culture in Australia have no legal protection at all. Copyriht can only protect individual property, but not the historical roots from which it stems. So of course, in a culture that is literally bound by land and precedent, you have to wonder what rights do Indigenous individuals have protected?  It stems beyond fashion of course, into general society, politically and socially, where masses of people miss out on the understanding of how important culture is, especially for one of the oldest communities in the world. It shakes the means of foundation for families, history, while demeaning the capacity for a self-sufficienct economically and spiritually.

It has to be noted that even though this may have blown up to be a big issue within the industry and media to express vicarious anger, there has to be an acknowledgement for an actual Indigenous individual to be morally upset over this cultural appropriation. Rather in this day and age, with something as impractical as an overly expensive designer product, these individuals are probably more concerned with more realistic things, such as jobs, families, and general everyday within Australian means of lack of Government support in their communities.  I admit, there was a vexing concern of how to slate this piece, where to go and how to be more informative and less insolent on the matter.

But all in all, this turn of events, as usual with things that happen in the industry, demonstrate that regardless of a house’s status, whether historically beloved or upcoming, must start adhering more to the reception of what consumers and onlookers want. In recent years, there have been enough outrage with runway shows, campaigns, products sold and even designers themselves who have been outed with these acts of cultural ignorance. So what is the industry to do?

In a few months, or even weeks, the issue of the Chanel boomerang versus the rights of Indigenous communities will die down. More thinkpieces, like this, will probably be published, people will be angered, but then the anger will die down and people will go on to appropriate something else, and then the cycle will reserve itself.

Perhaps this is just another reminder for everyone, collectively to understand that someone else’s culture and tradition, whether it seems big or small, is not a costume or plaything for another, and start reaping it the lessons from this.