From Kylie’s cornrows through to Gucci’s turbans, fashion seems to be running on low sensitivity these days.
Taking inspiration from diverse cultures is one thing, but taking cultural cues out of context and chucking them down the runway with no acknowledgement of its original source is quite another. Take Victoria’s Secret, who put its bikini-clad models in Native American headdresses for a catwalk show it then called “Nomadic Adventures”. This is no accident, crossing the boundaries of culture and taste in one fail swoop takes real effort.
But what if a culture chose to fight back?
The Big Idea
When Dior released its pre-Fall collection last year, no one was more surprised to see a 30,000 Euro coat in there than the residents of Romania’s Bihor district. The coat was a virtual carbon copy of their traditional dress, but the collection gave no credit to the community or the original motif.
Rather than let themselves become one more culture crassly imitated for the fashion elite, the people of Bihor fought back. Romanian fashion magazine, Beau Monde, stepped-in, lending its marketing firepower to create Bihor Couture – an authentic fashion line built by original Bihor local craftsmen and women, with 100% of the money going direct to the community that made them.
What They Did
This plucky David took on the Goliath named Dior by selling the authentic Bihor coat for just $500 as well as several other traditional items of clothing that came from the region. The campaign itself used every medium it could to legitimise the launch of its online shop, steering it away from becoming ghettoised as an activist move, and instead helping Bihor heritage get recognised in the way it deserved.
It used ad space in the magazine and also created films including locals pointing out what was wrong with Dior’s interpretation of the designs and reactions to the price of certain items. It also sent Bihor designers in traditional dress to Paris Fashion Week where they were style blogged to within an inch of their lives. At this point the touch paper was lit, and, with careful influencer targeting, a wave of global mainstream media coverage followed. The initiative has raised thousands for Bihor and firmly put the issue in the public eye.
I love this campaign. I love it because this is a story where the little guy comes out on top, but also because the campaign was executed with sophistication.
This could have so easily taken an angry turn and become yet another marginalised whimper in an ever-raging debate, but this was treated as a genuine business initiative that had a story to tell at its heart. Instead of simply throwing some ad spend at it, Beau Monde chose to take a much more playful approach, shining a light on the personalities and humour of the Bihor residents. Taking this tone meant that the execution was full of the sensitivity and care that Dior lacked.
I wonder if the campaign went far enough. The attention it got at launch for launch was triumphant, but to turn a single story into a meaningful threat to fashion brands, Bihor could have invited similarly plundered communities to retail on its site. This could have turned it into a movement rather than just a PR move. Ambitious, and perhaps not necessarily what it was shooting for, but turning the attention it received into a wider fashion movement could have elevated this from ‘success story’ to ‘moment in history’. I love the idea of a place that we could go to buy the authentic versions of catwalk pieces rather than the culturally appropriated couture versions.
J’adore Bihor. I give it a strong four out of five. I like the sophistication and light tone of the activation to make serious point. My hope is that this makes at least one more designer think differently about how it transports inspiration to the catwalk.