Is There a Good Way to Appropriate Culture?

In recent years cultural appropriation became a hot topic. One of the most current examples might be Kim Kardashian’s shapewear that was launched this summer and initially was called “Kimono”. What was intended to be a fun wordplay between Kardashian’s first name and an already existing clothing piece ended up insulting the original Japanese kimono (Brown, 2019). Even the mayor of Kyoto criticised Kardashian’s latest branding (Asian Boss, 2019). Although the word “kimono” simply translates to “a thing to wear” it has never been used to refer to undergarments. Quite the opposite is the case. In general, it describes an ankle-length, long-sleeved, wrapped overgarment that is used for special occasions such as weddings and traditional festivals. It is only understandable that the Japanese were offended by applying the word “kimono” that represents tradition, pride and honour to them, to a random, American lingerie line. Even Kim Kardashian came to realize that and changed the brand’s name to “SKIMS” (Bonner, 2019). While this is quite an extreme case of cultural appropriation and it’s easy to say “that’s wrong” there are many more subtle ones, especially in fashion, where a decision about its political, ethical or cultural correctness is a lot less clear to make.

Do We Take? Do We Buy? And Does it Even Matter?

This leads us to our own brand HANIMANNS. Where do we stand when it comes to cultural appropriation? Cultural appropriation can be defined as “taking something produced by members of one culture by members of another” (Young, 2005). While most of this definition fits what HANIMANNS is doing, the word “taking” seems not quite accurate. Whenever Melanie goes to Ghana she visits local fashion shows, interacts with visitors and artists and gets in contact with the brands that impressed her the most. In meetings she discusses the terms and conditions of a possible collaboration and a contract gets signed or not signed. Can this process simply be called “taking”? Isn’t buying a more matching term for what we do? And does it matter if you take or you buy? Is only taking associated with cultural appropriation? Or buying as well?

I think part of the problem is that as an individual of one culture you can buy a product from someone with another culture. Although you paid for the product, you did not and you cannot pay for the cultural aspects that went into the creation of the product. For example when HANIMANNS buys coats from ThreadedTribes we pay for material, the production and the design however it is, of course, impossible to pay for the invention of mud cloth, for the people who kept the production going over many years and made a tradition out of it, for the meanings of the patterns. In a sense, we do “take” part of the culture with just the allowance of one single person of that culture and so we do participate in cultural appropriation.

However, this sense of “pricelessness” is not only tied to products produced by other cultures. Nearly every product that we buy today has some sort of history that we can’t pay for and in the process of the making people were involved that can’t be asked for permission when buying “their” product. That leads me to the conclusion that no one can buy something without taking a part of the culture or history that went into the creation of that product.

The Main Problem with Cultural Appropriation

But why is it perceived as “more wrong” if you take from another culture? I don’t think that the “taking” is the problem. I think the problem lays in “taking without understanding what you take”, “taking without telling where you got it from” and “taking with telling a wrong or too simplified story about the origins”.

On first sight it might seem easy to avoid all that but while I researched for this blog I realized that I already did take and tell a too simplified story about the origins. I started to work for HANIMANNS this February. One of my first tasks was to bring some order to our webshop that also included giving proper names to our goods. Early products of us where the initially so-called “Bogo Cloaks”. I stumbled over the name since I didn’t know either word. I googled and found out that “bogo” is short for “bògòlanfini” which translates to mud cloth and mud cloth refers to a handmade Malian cotton fabric that is dyed with fermented mud and the patterns on it are representative of Malian culture. “Cloak” can be used as a synonym of coat but when I checked google image search only medieval, cape-like overgarments like the one we know from little red riding hood popped up. So I decided to name the product “Malian Pattern Coat” instead. A few months later the designer of ThreadedTribes sent a message to Melanie and asked her to use the word “cloak” instead of “coat” for branding reasons. Slightly unwilling I changed it back. However, I kept the descriptive title “Malian Pattern”. But of course, this title is exactly a form of telling a too simplified story about the origins. But how should I call it to be politically, ethically and culturally correct? Just “bogo” like in the beginning? But would anyone google it’s meaning? I wouldn’t if I just want to buy some clothes. Or I call it with fermented mud dyed Malian fabric with traditional Malian Patterns, cut designed in Ghana. How catchy is that?

Towards a Solution

I think the product descriptions are the wrong platform to tell a story. Hence it’s HANIMANNS job to create a platform where a story can be told, and that is what this is. In the future, we will talk about our products as accurately and as wholly as possible on this blog. We hope you stay tuned.

Marina van Spyk
Second Hand Heaven

“It’s new, I’ve never worn it,” my father would say as he hands me down a mothball scented pair of grey pants. “Just because you haven’t worn it, doesn’t make it new,” I would say rolling my eyes so that I do not have to witness the sacrilege before me. I am sure many of us “dadaba” (privileged), as well as the “average” Ghanaian kids have similar horror stories to tell from the past. However, in recent years these old pair of mothballs have actually become quite fashionable, as the old has become cool again. Who knew? As an extension of that, Ghana, which imports more second hand clothes than any other country in Africa (around 30,000 tons of used clothes) plays a vital role in the lifecycle of clothes from the west.  

Kantamanto is located near Markola market about five kilometers from Adabraka in Accra, Ghana. This is where you can find many of the second hand/donated clothes from the west (mainly UK, Korea and China). This is the place where everybody shops, literally, my mom, my friends, the guy I drove past a the bus stop the other day. So how does this second hand market even work? Well first of all there has to be a supply to match the demand. That is where donations come in. See, people in the western world,  UK, Canada etc. get bored of their clothes once the new fashion trends are in (which is about every other week or so, prove me wrong). This fast fashion trend of inexpensive clothing that has been mass-marketed by retailers get donated to second hand clothing stores or the salvation army or something. These organizations sell what they can in their home countries but the bulk of donated clothes will be sold to distributors who will ship the clothes to Africa, most usually Accra. The whole sellers pick up the wrapped up stack of clothes, called “bail” and sell them off to sellers in Kantamanto, who then sell it to streetwise urbanites or boutique owners looking for a good deal.  

The clothes that come into Kantamanto range in quality from the uber classy, Ralph Lauren, Polo, H&M? to the probably less known and knock off brands. The second hand clothes are known as “broni we wu” (the white man has died). The reason being that down here people think that the only way that someone would let go of these clothes is if they were dead. Anyway, fresh “new” second hand clothes make their way to the wardrobes of Accra and Kumasi’s worker ants, searching for a good deal. Which you can find if you made it to the market really early - like say 7am - 8am. After that you have the clothes with damage on them, tears, or stains etc. These clothes are called second class, whereas the top tier ones are called first class.  

The most interesting thing about Kantamanto is the seeming lack of organization. But if you look closely the place is very well organized. It is a maze of sellers yelling at you “shorts!” “women’s dresses” I even heard someone say “50 get it for 5” clearly an amazing deal! But through this labyrinth you can find basically anything you are looking for, well apart from a good partner! Clothes: brand name, knock offs, women’s dresses, from classy to trashy, babies clothes, electronics: 

playstation 2, the original xbox, plumbing, curtains anything - you name it, its there. It is illegal to sell underwear, but you can find it, trust me.  

I kept asking myself this question: “Why is it so hot?” well another question, that is: why do people buy clothes from Kantamanto?  I mean isn’t there some stigma associated with wearing second hand clothing? There are even some detractors that say the Kantamanto is killing the local clothing market. People are more inclined to be SECOND HAND CLOTHES FROM OUTSIDE GHANA, than “first hand?” clothes from people who hone their craft here. This goes along a very protracted, on going debate about how Ghanaians do not patronize their own country man’s/woman’s work. Which to a certain extent is true. But from the people I talked to (which included locals, my mom, Ghanaians who have lived outside and foreigners who live in Ghana right now) I realized that the reason isn’t some thing deep, its just cheap. You can get five decent tops from Kantamanto with the same money you would use to purchase one at a high end store or boutique.  

When I was first contemplating how to approach this article, I was thinking that there would be something to be said about creative reuse. That is, taking something that has been discarded and adding value to it then reselling it. Something about decluttering your life because as a culture - a global culture we have too many things, many of which we don’t need, per se (I do need that extra pair of bluetooth headphones thank you very much!). But when it came down to it, on the ground in Kantamanto it wasn’t about that. We, as consumers are always looking for a good deal. I went with a friend of mine (named Docas Lanister probably because she always pays her debts) and she was able to purchase a lovely gold and black, skin hugging dress for thirty eight cedis (conversion into euro). The seller had mentioned adamantly the she was sell it for forty. After a protracted, but interesting haggling session: “forty” my friend shakes her head: “thirty-five” they “agreed” on thirty eight. It goes to show the savvy of the modern day Ghanaian consumer. Amid the sights, sounds, smells and general feeling of being overwhelmed in this vibrant corner of the city - you can find  gold. 

To stay with the times we must all readjust our outlook on how we consume. Fashion is no different. Some of us who would have once rolled our eyes at hand me down’s or second hand clothes, now probably look at them with a new lens. Either a lens of mindful consumption or a good deal - either way I will be rocking those mothball scented pair of grey pants with my head held high. 

By Helel Smith 

Film Maker 

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