Cultural Appropriation — In Their Own Words: Kenneth Ize

Nigerian designer Kenneth Ize zoomed onto the international fashion radar in 2019 as a semifinalist for the LVMH Prize for Young Designers, and then took it up a few more notches with his Paris runway debut last February, with Naomi Campbell walking in his show.

The show brought global attention to Ize’s culture, and particularly his signature plaid fabric, inspired by the aso oke cloth woven by the Yoruba people in Nigeria, and realized by craftspeople in his native country.

The designer went to fashion school in Vienna and has mixed denim and embroidery fabric from Austria’s HKG Embroideries into his collections. Next April, he will unveil a capsule collection with the Karl Lagerfeld brand.

Here, Ize shares his thoughts on cross-cultural referencing:

WWD: Countless designers have referenced Africa or been inspired by Africa, from Yves Saint Laurent, to Maria Grazia Chiuri at Dior, to Stella McCartney. How do you feel about it? Where do you think appreciation ends and appropriation begins? What measuring sticks to do you use?

Kenneth Ize: To be honest, we can go back and forth on what is what, but for me the true measure is economic and financial results. It’s a business, we aren’t doing anyone any favors. Are the owners of the culture better or worse off by your inspiration? Are you ensuring they are empowered, celebrated and compensated? Let’s be fair to all cultures: If they add value, they should be compensated.

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WWD: Can you give an example of a good use of African referencing and a bad one?

K.I.: African referencing…hmm, it’s such a strange term. I feel like we can enjoy each other’s cultures with respect and reverence. Even if you don’t understand, find someone who does and be humble enough to receive knowledge. You always know when you’ve crossed the line if you are truly honest with yourself.

WWD: You studied fashion in Austria. Why? And how did that shape your thinking about cultural borrowing and the ethical and moral boundaries around it?

K.I.: I studied in Austria because my parents immigrated there to give us a better life. It wasn’t as romantic as it sounds; I didn’t necessarily choose, I created opportunities for myself where I found myself. But being in Austria was a huge education and reintroduction into the world of fashion. I took what I learnt and applied it to what I knew culturally, drawing parallels where I could. I feel like it’s so easy to find yourself in an unethical cultural borrowing situation, but I guess coming from Africa, I know to treat all cultures with respect and reverence. You can’t disrespect something if you approach with humility and treat it with reverence

WWD: Americans seem more woke on this subject than Europeans. Do you agree? Why or why not?

K.I.: Americans are more direct and upfront culturally so it comes naturally for them to speak up on social issues.

WWD: Do you have any advice for new or established designers about the ground rules they should follow in terms of cross-cultural borrowing?

K.I.: Respect, humility and reverence. Respect for the culture for what it is and the people it serves. Humility, admitting you do not know and being open to learn. Reverence for the spirituality of culture. Think less about what you can get from it but what you can offer it. What does the culture need? Can you help it along its journey? Instead of taking from it without repaying the kindness.

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