Another week, another cultural appropriation controversy. Or so it’s beginning to seem when it comes to fashion and its faux pas.
This time around the lightning rod is Kim Kardashian West’s latest venture, announced on Tuesday: a line of “solutionwear,” itself a creative take on the more typical “shapewear,” which used to be called girdles, and before that corsets. This one happens to be called Kimono.
Turns out Romeo and Juliet had it wrong. When it comes to names, there is a lot involved — at least when attempts at catchy branded wordplay, national heritage and influencer-associated fame collide.
Kimono, a riff on Ms. Kardashian West’s name that is in line with her other brands (Kimoji and KKW Beauty) and what she said in a statement to The New York Times was meant to be “a nod to the beauty and detail that goes into a garment,” quickly became the subject of online charges of ignorant and offensive misuse. Especially because the name was juxtaposed against images by the photographer Vanessa Beecroft of many women of different sizes and colors undressed in the collection.
Ms. Kardashian West said in her statement that she has no plans “to design or release any garments that would in any way resemble or dishonor the traditional garment.” She also has no plans to respond to the reaction by changing the name.
“My solutionwear brand is built with inclusivity and diversity at its core and I’m incredibly proud of what’s to come,” she said. That includes bras, briefs, shorts and bodysuits, among other undergarments.
The line is scheduled to make its debut in July. But while traditional kimonos, which date from the 16th century, according to the Victoria & Albert Museum, have many associations, those tend not to involve lingerie, Hollywood celebrities or reality TV. Hence, the problem.
One exception to those posting their objections was Chrissy Teigen, who tweeted, “Oh my god, I don’t have to cut one side of my Spanx anymore.” Ms. Kardashian West promised to send her “the biggest package ever.”
People became even more incensed when they learned that Ms. Kardashian West had applied for trademarks for her Kimono lines. She has applied for eight, around variations on the name and its design, and in classes that include Clothing and Apparel Products, Leather Products (not including clothing) and Advertising, Business and Retail Services.
The application also involves a specific font version of the word Kimono — a sort of bubbly print created, she has said, by her husband, Kanye West — as opposed to the general word itself.
“Filing a trademark is a source identifier that will allow me to use the word for my shapewear and intimates line but does not preclude or restrict anyone, in this instance, from making kimonos or using the word kimono in reference to the traditional garment,” Ms. Kardashian West said in the statement. The nuance was lost in the outrage.
As of Thursday morning, a new hashtag was making the rounds on Twitter — #KimOhNo — and a petition had been started on change.org by Sonu Fukunishi, who wrote of wearing a kimono every day.
“I do not wish to share the word with an underwear brand,” the petition says. “‘Kimono’ means ‘clothing’ in Japanese.”
The petition calls the use of the name “horrible cultural disrespect.” As of Thursday afternoon, more than 11,000 people had signed, though it does not specifically call for any action other than demonstrating general unhappiness with Ms. Kardashian West’s choice.
Ms. Kardashian West has been accused of cultural appropriation before, most recently in April, when she attended her husband’s Coachella “Sunday service” wearing what looked to many like a maang tikka, the head pendant that is one of 16 traditional Indian wedding adornments; and previously for wearing what she called “Bo Derek braids.”
She has chosen not to engage in the public self-recrimination and apology that has become de rigueur in the fashion world (see: Gucci, Prada, H&M) and has remained silent, at least on social media, during much of the controversy.
By Thursday, however, she had decided to make a statement. Perhaps because the chaos had overshadowed the line itself, which was conceived for many different body types and skin tones and is clearly meant to carve out a space in a market somewhere between Spanx and Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty lingerie line.
“I understand and have deep respect for the significance of the kimono in Japanese culture,” Ms. Kardashian West said.
In any case, she is not, it turns out, the first brand with no particular kimono-related history to attempt to attach the name to a product. There are Kimono condoms, and Kimono Lash eyelash extensions. Still, Ms. Kardashian West’s brand is the first created on an individual persona — and her internet fame.
And therein lies the moral of this particular story. Those who live by the power of viral social media moments and sharing can also be vulnerable to the power of viral social media backlash and sharing.
Vanessa Friedman is The Times’s fashion director and chief fashion critic. She was previously the fashion editor of the Financial Times. @VVFriedman
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