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Luxury dresses criticised for 'culturally appropriating' North African design

Tory Burch and Harvey Nichols slammed for selling traditional embroidered clothes at high prices and without acknowledgement of their Maghreb roots
The dress bears a close resemblance to casual dresses worn by women in North Africa during the summer (harveynichols.com)

A British luxury department store and an American fashion label have become the latest target of cultural appropriation allegations after featuring dresses accused of imitating traditional North African clothing.

The dresses, designed by Tory Burch and featured on the London-based Harvey Nichols website, are described as “folk-inspired” embroidered tunic dresses and can be purchased with a combined price tag of £625.

With little else referencing the traditional dresses worn by women in North Africa they closely resemble, or the embroidery that is common in Morocco in particular, a wave of criticism has risen online.

The cost has also come under scrutiny, when compared to the dresses found in North Africa that are sold for considerably less.

Translation: Let them pay 500 for a dress that's €5

Translation: How is it $270 for a dress that's 10 dirhams in the market

According to its website, Harvey Nichols is an advocate for sustainable fashion, using primarily sustainable materials and low-impact manufacturing processes to minimise negative environmental effects. 

The department store says it also attempts to feature ethical fashion brands who ensure fair treatment of workers as well as the use of organic materials. Such practices would contribute to the higher costs of Tory Burch dresses compared to those sold in North Africa.

This is not the first time Tory Burch has been accused of cultural appropriation. In 2017, the fashion label was criticised over its summer collection campaign for using a song by two black artists despite not featuring any models of colour in its promotion clip.

Speaking in a 2014 interview, Burch, whose company is valued at over $3.5bn, described how she was “inspired by women of many cultures” and how she resonates with “other places around the world because it’s really about women we are inspired by and all cultures”.

Middle East Eye reached out to Tory Burch and Harvey Nichols for comment but has not received replies by the time of publication.

'Whitewashing'

In recent years, designers have been accused a number of times of “whitewashing” cultural designs and overselling items that are otherwise easily accessible to its high-end customers.

In 2017, British high-street retail brand, Topshop, came under fire on social media for releasing a playsuit appropriating the pattern of the Palestinian keffiyeh - a national symbol made famous in the 1960s by the late Palestinian Liberation Organisation leader Yasser Arafat.

Similarly, last year luxury brand Cecilie Copenhagen was criticised for heavily featuring the keffiyeh print as part of its autumn/winter collection, with prices of its garments ranging from £84 ($103) to over £230 ($283).

Fashion retailers Urban Outfitters, Boohoo, and Asos have also been criticised for selling clothes with the keffiyeh print, diluting its use by activists to fashion chic.

Israeli brand Dodo Bar Or’s first collection featured the print on playsuits and blouses, which have been popular with Instagram influencers.

Spanish apparel retailer Zara, meanwhile, is no stranger to issues of cultural appropriation and has had its clothing lines criticised for failing to acknowledge the heritage or cultural significance of the styles they sell.

Products sold include Moroccan-style shoes, traditional Afghan designs in dresses, skirts that resemble South Asian garments, and Somali-inspired clothes.

While some designers have been praised for inclusion and representation, criticism of opportunism hasn’t fallen far behind. Nike’s attempts at sports inclusivity, specifically making attire for Muslim female athletes, fell short after selling its version of the burkini for nearly £500. 

In 2019, Muslim shoppers spent an estimated $484bn on clothing and footwear, something which was anticipated by Dolce and Gabbana, who unveiled a collection of abayas and hijabs that was received with mixed reviews. 

Many designer brands such as DKNY, Oscar de la Renta, Tommy Hilfiger, Mango, and Monique Lhuillier have produced collections often sold around Ramadan to capitalise on the busy occasion which this year will be greatly reduced.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.