The melting pot of the world, American society is a beautiful and ever-evolving amalgamation of diverse places and people. This culture draws from across the globe, and often creates a fusion of times new and old, places near and far. Yet it’s sometimes a blurry line between cultural celebration and cultural appropriation. As we’ve started to see more policing around who is allowed to wear what, it’s not infrequent to hear of celebrities getting “cancelled” for cultural appropriation in their clothes, or a brand issuing an apology for a cultural mishap. As we turn a keener eye towards how culture (and cultural appropriation) plays a role in our music, our movies, our food, and so much more, clothing is no exception.
Examining how culture plays a role in our clothing begins with examining how we think about diversity. Culture, whether clothing, food, art, or music, gives us the medium to weave together diverse narratives into a single story. We must redefine culture to not be one person’s story becoming everyone’s, but about bringing together a collective narrative to tell the story of a group. For Sofiya Deva, founder of This Same Sky, and Sandra Zhao, founder of Zuri, recognizing and rewriting the narratives that our clothing tells stands at the heart of their brands.
“I’m keenly aware that diversity isn’t just place specific,” said Sofiya Deva, founder of This Same Sky. “It’s also time specific. East, west, modern, ancient. How can we bring together the best of all worlds? And how can we facilitate a dialogue that’s truly respectful and humane?” By recognizing that our idea of culture is something that is constantly changing, not just with place, but with time, religion, government, and so much more, we let go of the idea that culture is something that needs to be protected, instead giving ourselves space to explore for ourselves what culture means.
For Sandra Zhao, founder of Zuri, her personal experiences have given her a great appreciation for the fluidity of culture.
“My time in Nairobi gave me a great appreciation for how deeply linked we all are through constantly changing and moving cultures throughout history,” said Zhao. “The culture of a place as we understand it today is the product of all the cultures that preceded it, and it’s always in flux, shaped by all the people who exist within it, and around it.”
The stronghold of traditional cultural ties can lead to a feeling of displacement that many of us can relate to. Often many of us even feel this sense of displacement from one generation to the next– despite being in the same geography, time can make our surroundings rapidly evolve around us, and we feel like we stand on the outskirts of an existing culture that we are not a part of. We even feel this in Seattle, our Armoire HQ, where the Seattle we grew up in wasn’t the same Seattle we inhabit today. Recognizing that culture is ever-changing reminds us that this feeling of displacement is often a side effect of evolution.
“Growing up straddling different cultures, I felt an acute sense of displacement, like I wasn’t sure where I belonged or how to reconcile the Indian and American parts of me,” said Deva. “But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve begun to see the cracks in my identity as a kind of gift, and resource. I see the world as complex, beautiful, and multifaceted because my heritage reflects this.”
We often shy away from talking about this feeling of displacement because of the isolation, discomfort, and even shame that can come from it. However, as Deva notes, we instead have an opportunity to lean into this discomfort and learn. Rather than leaning into tradition, which often feels defined by rigid walls with no place for exploration, reflecting on how different places, time periods, and stories weave into our individual lives gives us an opportunity to redefine our concept of culture and ownership.
According to Deva, wanting to reconcile our need for belonging with progress in the modern day drove her inspiration behind This Same Sky.
“I often say, the shadow side of assimilation is erasure, and the shadow side of progress is alienation,” said Deva. “So, how do we integrate and move forward, while still honoring our origins, and our need for belonging? This creative question is at the heart of a lot of what I do in the world, and express through This Same Sky.” In creating a brand that draws on traditional Indian colors, prints, and silhouettes, Deva aimed to create an opportunity through clothing to recognize our heritage, while redefining what those roots mean today for ourselves.
“It wasn’t purely about preservation,” said Deva. “It was about extending the bounds of inclusion through cross-cultural dialogue, and challenging euro-centric views about what it means to be modern.” In this way, clothing becomes not a way to embrace our traditions, but to create an intentional space for these roots within our modern lives. By acknowledging the stories that these different textiles, prints, and garments carry alongside our own identities, clothing creates a space to examine our own relationship with our roots, our traditions, and our personal identity.
“‘Fusion’ isn’t always ethical, or artful, but I’m a big believer that fusion done right, whether in food or fashion, allows us to rediscover the familiar, and enter into an intimate relationship with the ‘foreign’,” said Deva. “It’s an antidote to other-ing narratives, and a testament to our shared love of creativity.” Cultural appreciation does not have to emulate tradition, therefore cast as cultural appropriation when worn by those of differing backgrounds, but can mean exploring what culture means to ourselves personally, and identifying our own value in these stories. Clothing becomes the vessel for this, an opportunity to ‘enter into an intimate relationship with the foriegn’.
By acknowledging the stories behind our clothing, we can create a space to not stand at odds with these histories, but to discover how these rich histories play into our own lives, and what it means for us personally to wear a dress from a culture with stories different than our own. For Zhao and Zuri, whose dresses are produced in Kenya, these personal stories are reflected in the story of the garment itself as well.
“Our dresses are worn all around the world, including the places where they’re made and places very far away,” said Zhao. “It’s really important to us that the story of the textiles and production are told at every step of the way, and that our values of inclusion, economic empowerment and community are shared throughout”.
In creating their brands, both Zhao and Deva wanted to create a dialogue about how culture plays into our own lives and what it means for these traditional garments or prints to be taken out of their origins and worn by a diverse community around the world.
“This is a really important question to ask and I think something that each person has to consider for themselves,” said Zhao. All levels of personal identity are an intimate journey in self-exploration, down to what you wear. Bright prints that hail from western Africa or silk scarves can present an opportunity to return to yourself by acknowledging the stories that came before. By engaging with culture and playing an active role in how our own culture continues to evolve, we create a third option– neither cultural appropriation nor celebration, but an option centered in restoring agency, dignity, and mutual exploration.
“We invite our customers on that journey with us,” said Deva, “and believe that there’s a biodiversity equivalent to the cultural traditions we strive to preserve and engage. When we feed and support the longevity of global handiwork traditions, it benefits all of us.”
Written by Anya Edelstein for Armoire