BORROWED STYLE A CULTURAL ISSUE: PROTECTING INUIT COAT CONCEPT
Eva Friede, The Gazette Montreal, Que., Dec 3, 2002. p. D2
When designers in Paris or Milan borrow styles from Bali to Baffin Island, not everybody is amused. The appropriation of indigenous styles has become an issue that concerns cultures around the world.
In Ottawa, an Inuit women's association called Pauktuutit is working to protect a specific item of clothing - the amauti, a woman's parka with a pouch to carrya baby against the mother's back."We're working toward creating some new form of legal protection in Canada that will address the collective nature of the property, among other things," said Tracy O'Hearn, executive director of the organization. "The amauti is also a concept, which is owned by all Inuit women in Canada."
In the film Atanarjuat - The Fast Runner, the hero presents his first wife with beautiful garment on his return home. It is an amauti made of caribou skin and with decorative fringes and an intricate overlay design on the front. The amauti is unique, the result of adaptation to a unique environment and climate, O'Hearn said. So far, she said, elements of amauti design have not been appropriated.
A few years ago, O'Hearn recalled, representatives of Donna Karan went up north
and started buying up Inuit garments, without informing people of their intent, but presumably to take inspiration from the designs. Karan did not respond to Pauktuutit's letter of concern, O'Hearn said, but the organization had heard that the New York designer would not pursue the buying spree.
What is at issue is the notion of clothing design as intellectual property. "Clothing is a big part of the cultural heritage, especially for Inuit. Inuit women were traditionally seamstresses," said Taqralik Partridge, who works with the cultural arm of Makivak Corp. O'Hearn said Pauktuutit is concerned about the Inuit woman's right to profit
from the traditional design. As to the practicality of pursuing legal protection for clothing design in this age of knockoffs, O'Hearn pointed out that designers do pursue copyright infringement. "While they may borrow, I would suggest they're also quite active in protecting their own individual property," she said. We're not working in isolation, O'Hearn said. "This is a big issue for indigenous people around the world."