In The Testy Issue Of Cultural Appropriation, Accountability, Says Filip+Inna’s Len Cabili, Is Sometimes What Matters Most
In early April, a photograph of a female model sporting a traditional Tagakaolo blouse paired with a bikini bottom came out on the pages of The Philippine Star. Part of a fashion editorial that featured clothes from the high-end brand Filip+Inna, the 10-year old fashion brand that works with indigenous groups as its artisans, the image caused a mild ruckus online, sparking very angry, strongly-termed statements from cultural workers who thought the Tagakaolo garment was being “sexualized.” Different groups involved in the protection of indigenous people’s cultures were being called out to condemn Filip+Inna. Words like “sacrilegious” and “desecration” were being thrown around.
Print on print. Tagakaolo on Tboli. Beadwork on Embroidery. Tradition on Contemporary. Tagakaolo Traditional Blouse with "upcycled lollipop sticks" cut into beads juxtaposed with Tboli hand embroidery. Accessories by Maranao and Tboli artisans. Work of our hands at its best ! On location : @taophilippines Photo : @studioguerrero Model : @anjavpeter Stylist : @luisespiritu Make up : @babaparma #tagakaolo #tboli #mindanao #handbeaded #handembroidery #philippines #artisans #upcycle
Not the controversial photograph but part of the series of layouts produced for the brand Filip+Inna early this year.
The next day, the woman behind the brand, Leonora “Len” Cabili, took to social media to air her side. While those familiar to online debacles like this would expect Cabili to defend the photograph, she admitted the garment was indeed used inappropriately, and apologized to the Tagakaolo, and those that the image may have offended. According to the website Ethnic Groups of the Philippines, the Tagakaolo is an ethnic group that can be found in Mindanao, Sarangani, Davao del Sur and Mount Apo. They belong to the Austronesian and Malayo-Polynesian language families, and their name “translates to ‘inhabitants of headwater or sources of rivers and streams.’”
In her apology, Cabili said that the Tagakaolos are co-creators of her work. “I would never consciously create or promote my line at the risk of offending them or any other Indigenous people from whose cultures I draw inspiration and who are the true artisans and partners of Filip + Inna. I offer my sincerest apologies to the Tagakaolo people and to any other who may have been offended. Rest assured that FILIP+ INNA will be more vigilant and respectful of the sensibilities of our indigenous artisans and partners and is working on corrective action.”
To offer her personal apology, Cabili flew to Sarangani and met with 17 tribal leaders. “They expressed their hurt, they were offended, they were angry--name it and they felt it,” she tells Metro.Style.
“I asked for forgiveness and told them I took full responsibility over what happened. And I told them that whatever they decided on I would accept it knowing it was a consequence to the action. I think what saved the day was the fact that I have a personal relationship with the groups I work with so somehow there is that aim to work things out. I broke down and cried when I heard their forgiveness,” she adds. Also present at the meeting was Malungon Municipality Mayor Tessa Constantino who first saw the offending photograph and ‘cried’ upon seeing it according to newsline.ph.com. The mayor was half B’laan, a group of indigenous peoples in Southern Mindanao.
A visit to the B’laan of Polomonok in January this year.
Welcome to the age of cultural appropriation. Cambridge Dictionary defines it as “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture.” The concept is not new in the creative field, especially in fashion where a number of celebrities or designers have been accused of cultural appropriation so often that a new name would be flagged online even before one can actually weigh in on the last person accused of the act. Among these celebrities were Katy Perry who donned a geisha look head-to-toe for an MTV awards performance; Selena Gomez who—also for a performance—went Bollywood style complete with a bindi on her forehead; Marc Jacobs who had “predominantly white models” walk down the ramp in dreadlocks at his show; and Stella McCartney who took inspiration from a traditional African print allegedly without giving due credit to the culture from which it came from.
In the west, the discussion on cultural appropriation has often morphed into a word war between cultural cops and the artists with the former accusing the other of insensitivity and exploitation while the latter maintains that taking inspiration from another culture is a necessary part of the creative process.
Often there is no end nor clear answer to the issue. Compounding it further is social media where both sides create an infinite thread of arguments that often go nowhere.
In Cabili’s case, the reaction came straight from a person of B’laan heritage. Mayor Constantino was quoted as saying that “the publication has caused deep dismay for what it appears to be a show of cultural misappropriation to IPs.” The mayor’s office also took to Facebook with this post. “Matched with only a bikini by a summer wear model during a pictorial in El Nido, Palawan, the publication has sparked controversy not only to the entire tribal community as it likewise goes on a viral [sic] over the internet.”
“That was a very tough time for me personally as I have tried to be very careful the last 10 years,” says Cabili. “It was very humbling and with all the comments people were making [but] I decided to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to what was being said and focused on who was most important—the artisans.”
Cabili in Lake Sebu
Cabili has always taken pride in her relationships with her artisans who belong to various tribal groups around the Philippines. In a recent episode of ANC-X’s State of the Art, she spoke of the journey of her brand. She has shared that her artisans are paid per stitch and are allowed to have their creative take on the embroidery they are working on. The name of each artisan is also spelled out on the label of the piece that they have worked on to give due credit to their design.
She also says that constant consultation has been a practice of the brand, seeking guidance from the artisans for new design concepts before pursuing them and forgoing those that went against their beliefs.
“Even if you do proper research, much of the information that you learn is directly from the people. That is why a relationship with the artisans is most important. We need to be connected to people--to our roots. And I think that is where the sensitivity towards the proper use of culture comes into play,” she says.
However, no matter how deep relationships have been established with artisans, many factors come in when it is time to market a garment so much so that the context becomes diluted in the process. This happens when people—publicist, editors, stylists, photographers—who have not directly worked with the artisans and do not have the complete grasp of the context of a design come into play. When the focus is on containing the product in contemporary elements to presumably speak to the modern consumer. An article in the Business of Fashion made a great point when it argued that mood boards—used by many creatives as a design tool—divorce imagery from its context:
“When we create a mood board, we are pulling images from everywhere and anywhere, removing its source information and any related meanings, to develop an unrelated new visual language. This becomes an issue when the images used are related to cultures other than our own, of which we know nothing about. Once we remove an image from its cultural context, it is easy to see how misappropriations can occur. This is especially true if the person creating the mood board isn’t necessarily the person designing the garments or producing the photoshoot.”
There is much to learn in Cabili’s experience in the cultural appropriation debate and given the context in which she found herself in this dilemma, she may have done what was most appropriate for the situation: an apology which also translates to accountability.
She says: “Globalization has just made people more aware of the references and source of inspiration. What is inevitable is accountability. In the debate and call to action for respecting culture and tradition, everyone has a voice now, so accountability is on a global level. The responsibility is in using that voice for good.”
Find out more about the story of Filip+Inna in State of The Art which premieres on Metro Channel on the 8th of August at 9PM.