Lauren Romero is a JD Candidate at Southwestern Law School.
“That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” … but would that which we call a brand by any other name be as hype?
Founded in 2016, Los Angeles-based streetwear brand formerly known as Chinatown Market offers everything you’d need to fit in on Fairfax Avenue. Appearing on the “Business of Hype with jeffstaple” podcast, founder Mike Cherman cites the New York street markets that he visited as a kid as inspiration for its name. The problem? As a white man, Cherman is an outsider who is profiting off the Chinatown name.
“Cultural appropriation” usually receives little attention or punishment from courts. Although huge name brands are often called out for it online, “cultural appropriation” is a difficult cause of action to present. In a rare occurrence where cultural appropriation was brought to the court’s attention, the Navajo Nation brought a trademark infringement claim against retailer Urban Outfitters (UO). The case, filed in 2012 in the U.S. District Court in New Mexico, alleged that UO infringed the NAVAJO trademark in a way that inaccurately linked the Navajo Nation with designs printed on UO garments. While cultural appropriation was not a cause of action in this case, the discussion surrounding white-owned companies’ use of designs, names, and clothing belonging to another culture arose to the forefront of fashion law. Eventually, the case was settled for an undisclosed amount and UO agreed to collaborate with the Navajo Nation on authentic Native American jewelry. Issues of cultural appropriation continue to play out in the court of public opinion.
This year saw a devastating uptick in hate crimes against the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community. Hashtags like #StopAsianHate flooded social feeds to bring attention to horrific attacks and show solidarity with the AAPI community. After noticing Chinatown Market’s silence, Julian Han Bush created an online petition for Chinatown Market to rebrand. In the petition, Bush explains that “Chinatown is not for sale” and discusses the cultural significance of Chinatowns.
Businesses and community members in New York’s Chinatown suffered due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Lack of foot traffic resulted in lack of customers for many family-owned businesses; racism cast its ugly shadow on the once lively streets of Chinatown as community members fought against racist attacks. As a response, two New Yorkers began an initiative called Welcome to Chinatown to help struggling small businesses. They raised over $2 million to aid businesses in keeping their doors open. While members of the community helped one another during this time, Chinatown Market posted an Instagram story and offered a single shirt, with proceeds apparently going to AAPI organizations.
The brand drew waves of criticism from folks on Instagram who argued that it was coming up short. Chinatown Market released a statement on May 20, 2021, acknowledging the discourse surrounding their name. They announced a name change along with a decision to sell all existing merchandise and donate the proceeds to non-profit organizations supporting the AAPI community. On August 15, Chinatown revealed their rebrand and began promoting new designs emblazoned with their new name, “Market”. In the reveal, they thanked their supporters and teased new items and collaborations.
While a rebrand and donations are steps in the right direction, the conversation remains open. Can designers respectfully pay homage to cultures that they don’t belong to? Should they? These questions may not have solid answers, but I would like to provide some tips on how to appreciate cultures without exploiting them or taking them as your own.
At the 2015 Met Gala, Rihanna turned heads and broke necks in Chinese designer Guo Pei’s “Yellow Queen” design. The theme for that year’s Gala was “China Through the Looking Glass,” which focused on the impact of Chinese design on Western fashion. As usual, Rihanna understood the assignment with the stunning design, which featured a massive canary yellow cape with waves of embroidered florals. While many high-profile guests chose to wear American or European designers, Rihanna highlighted a Chinese designer and gave visibility and appreciation to AAPI designers.
As individuals, we can shop consciously. Various streetwear brands similar to “Market” are AAPI-owned and/or do not appropriate AAPI culture. For example, Akashi-Kama is a sustainable Japanese-American streetwear brand founded by Alec Nakashima, who draws inspiration for his designs from both Japanese culture and American streetwear.
By putting our wallets where our mouths are, we can ensure that AAPI businesses flourish and that we are contributing to cultural appreciation and not appropriation.