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Inspiration Or Appropriation? A Win For Romania As Louis Vuitton Pulls Folk Items From Collection

Women wearing traditional Romanian blouses known as ia or ie (pronounced "ee-yeh") use mobile phones to check their outfits during an event celebrating rural national costumes in Bucharest last month.
Women wearing traditional Romanian blouses known as ia or ie (pronounced "ee-yeh") use mobile phones to check their outfits during an event celebrating rural national costumes in Bucharest last month.

Full of "airy silhouettes" and "watercolor motifs," Louis Vuitton's latest summer collection, called By The Pool, features what the French fashion mega-house calls "signature creations." But one of those creations, in particular, raised the hackles of some in both fashion and folk culture circles who say the design was clearly inspired by Romanian traditional dress.

When releasing the collection, however, Lous Vuitton had not acknowledged the design's inspiration or its clear similarity to Romania's traditional blouse known as an ia or ie (pronounced "ee-yeh"). Romanian cultural proponents called for Louis Vuitton to be held accountable for its appropriation of the blouse and to give credit where credit is due, saying that, while it is important to encourage inspiration, it is crucial to do it right and not copy something in its entirety.

Andrea Tanasescu founded the La Blouse Roumaine online community in 2012, which aims to celebrate the ia in modern times and its deep cultural connection to Romanian heritage. Starting in early June, members began reporting that Louis Vuitton had apparently copied the design and style of clothing specific to communities in Romania's Transylvania, Oltenia, and Muntenia regions.

In a comparison of two images -- one archival and one belonging to the French brand -- it is apparent that one of the items in the collection bears a striking resemblance to one from the Marginimea Sibiului area, an ethnographic region in the south of Sibiu County.

"It was extremely clear because this type of shirt is unique in the world," says Tanasescu. "Then we checked the whole collection and realized it wasn't only the shirt that was copied, but other objects were created around it, because there are four or five more in the collection."

She notes that the French designer kept both the structure and the original cut of the traditional piece.

In a series of online posts, the La Blouse Roumaine community requested that Louis Vuitton withdraw the products. They reasoned that the pieces should legally require the consent of those who were the source of inspiration and noted that folk clothing is not just any clothing -- it bears the testimony of a culture's history.

"Yes, everything is an inspiration in the fashion industry," says Tanasescu. "But here we are dealing with something else. We are dealing with a cultural heritage, with traditional cultural expressions that have been perfected for hundreds -- maybe thousands -- of years.

"There is a human experience encapsulated in these clothes that must be protected and preserved," she adds. "And the fashion industry has another role to play here: that of a protector, a role to capitalize on this culture and help communities around the world carry it forward."

Symbols Of Identity

Romanian Daniela Strimbei, now a collector of ia, lives in Malaysia. Several years ago, she found herself at a crossroads of identity, and she craved a connection to her roots back home.

"That's when I started looking for an ia," she says, adding jokingly that she had previously considered the blouses to be only for folk singers.

After she got her first ia, she began to learn more about the embroidered meanings and symbols that it contained. She says she was fascinated by what she discovered.

"All the symbolism, all the stories, the spirituality of our folk clothing made me realize where my roots are. Not in the piece itself but in what it represents for me," Strimbei says.

She went on the create an Instagram page called Ii Calatoare (The Traveling Ia), where she posts images and information about Romania's traditional clothing.

One particular item that she came across was unique to the Marginimea Sibuilui area.

"I ordered it from someone who goes around the villages and buys them to sell, so the process was quite commercial," she says. "However, there was a surprise when I received it: I discovered some small but significant symbols that could not be seen in any of the pictures."

The white shirt, with black detailing, contains a protective symbol, called a "straja," or guard, which is a type of stitching made outside the pattern. The jacket in question has two guards on the left sleeve, sewn opposite the heart.

"The guard was sewn with a thread that had been tied to a bunch of basil and taken to church on Epiphany. The thread was consecrated during the service, after which it was sewn onto the wedding garment to protect the wearer from evil spirits," says Strimbei.

Another significant and symbolic detail is the tiny red dots sewn on the shirt, visible only at close proximity. These are atypical in that the garment generally consists of a white cloth on which black details are woven.

These [red] dots, like the guards, were meant to distract those around the wearer. When women went to a dance, they wanted to impress, but they were also at risk of being looked at with an ‘evil eye' of envy. This irregular sewing pattern was meant to distract evil gazes," Strimbei adds.

Not The First Time

Louis Vuitton is not the first major international brand to take inspiration from Romanian culture without giving credit.

In 2012, the singer Adele was featured in Vogue magazine wearing a Tom Ford creation inspired by a blouse from Salaj. This was one of the triggering moments that led to the birth of the La Blouse Roumaine community and the Universal Day of the Romanian Blouse in 2013. The annual holiday occurs on June 24.

In 2017, fashion designer Tory Burch included in one of her collections a wool coat almost identical to a traditional Oltenia creation from the early 20th century, exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City.

Initially, the designer said the coat was inspired by African culture, but after La Blouse Roumaine flagged the case, Burch admitted that the inspiration was, in fact, the Romanian coat.

"After a tremendous mobilization of people, we got it in The New York Times, and that forced the brand to acknowledge the Romanian origin, apologize, and even dedicate it to the art of embroidery in Romania."

After this incident, the #GiveCredit campaign was born, which aims to preserve and give credit to elements of local culture, including the concepts behind the creations.

Tanasescu says that, ethically speaking, correct inspiration presupposes that a creator spend some time in the community that is the starting point of ideas and ask for their consent.

Henri Matisse is an example of an artist who, she says, honored Romanian culture and correctly promoted the Romanian shirt with his painting La Blouse Roumaine -- a name that, in turn, inspired the community's same name.

"The painting could have been called Girl Dreaming. And perhaps history would have been different," she says.

Another case that is a positive example is Yves Saint Laurent (YSL) and its collections from the 1970s and '80s.

"YSL introduced in haute couture the Romanian take and many other inspirations from traditional cultures of the world, but always credited them," says Tanasescu.

Finding Opportunities

As a lover of the ia blouse for almost a decade, Strimbei wasn't shocked that Louis Vuitton drew inspiration from local culture, given the precedents.

Instead, she sees it as an opportunity to highlight that this phenomenon is no longer acceptable nowadays.

"Let's say in the past, 50 or 60 years ago, there wasn't so much access to information, and this could have happened by accident. A foreign traveler would come to our shores, come across a shirt, pick it up for 5 leu ($1), return to his homeland, no longer be interested in it, and sell it at a flea market.

"Some designer from a fashion house, say, then buys the shirt, recognizing something inspirational," she continues. "He goes on to make a whole collection not even knowing where it came from."

The incident, Strimbei adds, is also beneficial in that Louis Vuitton's notoriety could foster accountability among other fashion houses, even smaller ones.

Women pose for a selfie during an event celebrating the country's folk clothing in Bucharest on May 12.
Women pose for a selfie during an event celebrating the country's folk clothing in Bucharest on May 12.

"We also have smaller cheats who know very well what they are doing, and they copy traditional pieces -- not only Romanian but also Ukrainian and from other Eastern European countries," she says.

Giving credit automatically means honoring the past and a community that has established a craft, but at the same time, economically, it can create new opportunities for the next generation of local artisans, as well as visibility for tourism.

"We have local craftspeople who are trying to make a living out of maintaining this craft and trying as much as possible to maintain its authenticity. Such a collaboration would create opportunities for our community; it would create economic and tourism opportunities, and then maybe there would be more people interested in cultural tourism to come and visit the area," says Strimbei.

"It would have been a huge marketing win for Louis Vuitton to say there is also a socio-cultural mission behind this collection," she adds.

Prompted by the online requests, Romania's Culture Ministry reached out to Louis Vuitton and asked that the fashion house "recognize the heritage and cultural value of the model of the lace-up shirt specific to the Sibiu area."

On June 25, La Blouse Roumaine posted on Facebook saying that the "Louis Vuitton brand has acknowledged, apologized, and withdrawn the pieces inspired by the traditional Romanian ia / shirt from the 2024 beach collection."

Louis Vuitton has so far not responded to an RFE/RL request for comment.

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