If one is going to attempt to talk objectively about fashion, it is often best to look at it from more than one perspective. To the degree possible, when a collection invokes themes from another culture we like to consult someone from that culture to see if they agree with the portrayal. The exchange is almost always educational.
Nicole Miller’s spring/summer 2017 collection presented a different challenge for us, though. The designer took her inspiration from art she saw while in Panama. Ms. Miller told Vogue, “I was visiting a gallery that was exhibiting this art. They had a collection of vintage molas that were absolutely beautiful. I bought them to frame, but then decided they would make beautiful fabric and embroidery.”
Ms. Miller was right, they do make beautiful fabric as the Panamanian women would know. They’ve apparently been sewing those designs into their clothing since Panama was colonized by Spain and Christian missionaries convinced the Kuna women to stop painting the designs directly on their bodies. That’s right, the designs on Nicole Miller’s spring collection are taken, by extension, from the original body painters.
The tribal designs are exquisite and do a great job of setting the clothes apart from anything else one is likely to see. Most of the embroidery is set on a black background which makes the colors pop. Silhouettes ranged from the long and sleek to the loose and flowing. Plunging necklines were common enough and shoulders were frequently bare for those who are enjoying that particular trend. There was a bit of tassel here and there, the occasional frayed hem, and even some steel-punched mesh to give a sense of modernity.
From a strict fashion sense, the over-sized denim jackets were a mistake. The look, the weight, and the fabric were all at war with the softer cotton and designs of the rest of the collection. I think the world can probably do without another jean jacket, anyway.
At the end of the show, we all agreed that the collection was very attractive and wonderfully different. There’s just one question sticking in my brain that goes unanswered: is this cultural appropriation? Consider that Panamanian women have beautiful brown skin but Ms. Miller’s presentation consisted almost entirely of Caucasian models. At the very least, she could have utilized a more racially diverse cast for presenting the tribal-influenced designs. As works of art, the molas are traditionally done in pairs. Kuna women stitch a front and a back then sew them together to make a blouse. There’s no sense of that tradition in Ms. Miller’s styling. But then, who says there should be?
Unfortunately, since the show didn’t end until mid-evening on Friday, we didn’t have anyone from Panama we could call and ask for a reference. Without that experiential perspective, we’re hesitant to be totally okay with this collection. The other side of the argument is that the molas are works of indigenous art, not religious symbols, and are therefore open to interpretations such as Ms. Miller’s collection. Certainly, her intention was to honor the artistic work of Panama’s Kuna women. There is no disrespect intended.
Still, this is not the first time we’ve seen designers lift traditional designs for their own profit. Designers can travel to remote regions more easily now than ever. I like what Nicole Miller did with the mola designs, but the conversation about cultural appropriation is one the fashion industry needs to take seriously.