Revisiting our Branding Part 2: A Future for Fashion that is Rooted in Justice & Equity
Continued from Part 1, this is part 2 of a post written by tonlé co-creator - Rachel Faller, with guidance from other members of the tonlé team and external consultants. Rachel uses “I” statements when referring to decisions she specifically made, vs. “we” statements when referring to collective decisions and/or values.
Much of the modern sustainability movement promotes band-aid approaches that do not address the root causes of our environmental crisis. We have long believed that social justice and environmental sustainability go hand-in-hand. We recognize that utilizing waste from other brands is, in many ways, a band-aid approach, because ultimately we would like to see larger corporations be held responsible for the waste they are generating and dumping, especially when this occurs in countries which have already suffered under colonialism, oppression and foreign invasions, like Cambodia. However, until companies do take more responsibility, we will continue to use their material waste, as we believe this has the lowest possible impact on the planet, helps to clean up the natural environment in which our team lives and works, and also helps generate awareness and put pressure on the companies who are doing the polluting. Simultaneously, through our marketing and communications we promote a climate justice in which we recognize the inequalities inherent in the impact of climate change and support the community-led solutions needed to realign economies with natural systems.
We recognize that models of reciprocity which align with a healthy planet and create a culture of care and mutual thriving, rather than a model of extraction where only a few benefit, are rooted in BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) wisdom. As a team, we want to honor specifically the existing community models and cultural practices that promote healing of the earth and her people that are native to Cambodia, while not participating in cultural appropriation or selling these practices for financial benefit. That often means that these practices are upheld within our workshop for the benefit of our team, but we may not talk about them in our marketing. Through our communications, we will work to specifically amplify and credit the work of BIPOC content creators, educators, and activists, whose contributions have impacted and informed our thinking and vision.
Celebrating the heritage of tonlé makers while moving away from cultural appropriation
Over the years, we have incorporated aspects of Cambodian culture into our marketing, designs, and branding. Our approach to this has changed over time. We want to avoid the potential for cultural appropriation by people from other cultures who may wear our clothing, as well as misuse of traditional designs that were not meant to be commercialized. It has been a process to find the balance of our team members being able to express themselves and feel represented by their own work, while at the same time not perpetuating pervasive and exploitative forms of cultural appropriation. We have made mistakes in this regard in the past, and we continue to interrogate our practices to find the right balance. Today, when we incorporate Cambodian design elements into our photography or designs, members of our Cambodian team and Cambodian content creators lead the projects.
Several years back I did create a design using traditional Khmer writing from the walls of Angkor Wat. We had planned to make this design into leggings, and one of the tonlé team members, Ravy, kindly let me know that it was insensitive to put Buddhist texts on the legs of pants. She said that it was ok to put on a top and she did want to see more Cambodian imagery in our clothing, however, due to this experience I realized it was inappropriate for myself, as a white designer, to utilize any sacred Buddhist art forms on clothing that was being sold to an international audience. While some of our customers are Cambodian and may appreciate the significance of these texts, many others may not understand how they should be used or treated. We felt it was best to avoid using sacred iconography on our designs, including images of temples like the Bayon of Angkor Wat, which are common to see on t-shirts or other souvenirs. While I cannot say it is wrong in all cases to use this imagery, to me it feels like a line that we should not cross with our designs because of how this imagery can be easily misused and how the commodification of Buddhist imagery is not in line with the teachings and practices of Buddhism. tonlé also does not use the weaving technique Pidan Hol or anything similar, as these sacred Buddhist weavings were originally created to be hung on temple walls as a karmic dedication. While you may see other brands using such textiles in their work, conversations with master weavers have shown me that these textiles were not meant to be commercialized and that using them in contemporary fashion styles is antithetical to how these were intended to be used. We are working on ways for tonlé makers to express their identities through our designs - and this work will be credited on our site to the specific maker who created it.
In addition to working to avoid cultural appropriation from Cambodia, we identified two products that needed to be changed due to a history of cultural appropriation in the international fashion industry. In 2019 we changed the name of our “Kimono Jacket” to Chanlina Jacket, a name meaning “moonlight” in Khmer and removed any kimono tags or meta descriptions from our site, with guidance from Emi Ito. To read further about the issues surrounding cultural appropriation of the kimono, we encourage you to read Emi’s posts which are linked in her instagram highlight.
In 2020, we changed the name of our “Kaftan Dress.” While some people equivocate about the kaftan or caftan being a form of cultural appropriation, there is no doubt that historically it is part of a trend of exoticizing and fetishizing the Middle East by Western European colonists. The word “kaftan” itself comes from ancient Mesopotamia, and since the shape of our kaftan dress is similar to that of garments from many different cultures, we felt it was best to change the name of the dress to Otres Dress, named after a beach in Cambodia where we have held team retreats and has personal significance to our team. In both of these cases, we now see that the names of these garments perpetuated the harmful colonially-rooted practice of cultural appropriation and not the culture of mutual care and support we want to cultivate at tonlé. I personally apologize and take responsibility for this misstep. Most of our product names are named to honor team members or significant places in Cambodia and we will continuously review our naming guidelines going forward.
We are working towards a new fashion ecosystem, one where those historically sidelined or exploited by the traditional fashion industry are recognized and centered as leaders and creators. We champion the leadership of garment makers in our theory of change. We believe that people of all sizes and gender expressions should feel good in their clothes and we design around this belief.
We set inclusivity as one of our core values because in this regard, we know that we have work to do to make our business more inclusive. Specifically surrounding size inclusivity in both our product offering and representation with models, we know that we have not done enough. While there have been some setbacks and challenges, without going into detail, I personally take responsibility for not taking the leadership on that. In this way we have some work to do to align with our core value of inclusivity and we are actively working on this. I apologize for the ways in which we have failed to be inclusive with our sizing in the past and we are working toward doing better in this regard.
Similarly, regarding gender, the fashion industry practices extreme gender binarism that seeps into culture and public policy, contributing to transphobia and harmful stereotypes about gender and perceived gender norms in general. From sizing standards, to segmenting “men’s” vs “women’s” categories in retail stores, to which side of the lapel your buttons are on, gender binarism is deeply rooted in the fashion industry and in fashion design. We are working to challenge this by offering clothing that fits different body types and can be worn by all genders. tonlé still has a particular aesthetic that may not cater to everyone’s personal tastes, however we are working to adapt the fit, functionality, sizing, and marketing of our clothes so that anyone who feels alignment with our style can wear our clothing. We are also working to change language, sizing guides, clothing details, and marketing that reinforces gender binarism, and I apologize for ways that we have failed to do that sooner. During certain holidays like Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Womens’ Day and Valentine’s Day, many brands promote products and language that are also exclusionary of non-binary and trans folks, and this is something that we may have contributed to in the past. On these holidays and others, we will be working to be more aware of the language that we are using to be inclusive and non-discriminatory.
We believe language is powerful. We seek to choose the best words that align with our core values and adjust as we learn. Over time norms and meanings around words can change and there are many words in our lexicon that have either held or taken on harmful meanings. I apologize for harmful language that we may have used in the past and will continue to work towards improving and changing the language that we use to be more aligned with our values. That being said there are a few terms I want to call out specifically that we have used in the past that we have taken out of our marketing.
- “Empowerment.” We haven’t used this word in quite a while, but it’s important to note why. As Manpreet Kalra summed it up so well in a recent interview we did with her: “Empowerment is a very loaded word and one I see often used by fair trade brands and social enterprises to describe the impact of their work on the artisans they work with. Personally, I find the word empowerment to be quite problematic because it reinforces the idea that the person on the other end has no power to begin with, essentially discounting any form of agency. This understanding of relationships being one sided leads to problematic marketing that is rooted in saviorism, furthering colonialist power dynamics between the Global North and Global South.” Read the full article here.
- “Pioneer.” This one was pointed out to us recently by Emi Ito. The word pioneer has a harmful history with Indigenous people in the regions now known as North America. Using it to describe a leader or front-runner in a space, especially when speaking of a white person in sustainability, has obvious harmful connotations and we have removed it from our marketing.
- “Lightness and Darkness” as a proxy for good and bad. As an example, we formerly talked about the fashion industry being a “dark place.” However, because of colorism being rampant in the fashion industry and across many different cultures (including in Cambodia) equating darkness to being something bad is a painful and harmful allusion— especially because white supremacy has created so much evil. We have worked to remove all elements of this type of allusion in our marketing and will continue to do so. (Shoutout to Seema Hari who describes this metaphorical misuse very succinctly in a recent instagram post.)
- Specific painful stories about the past trauma of our team members. This is also something we haven’t been sharing since the early days of our business, but it bears noting. While a company in North America would never consider sharing sad stories about the people on their team, it is common in the “fair trade” community to share trauma narratives about artisans. Such stories portray them as hapless victims in need of saving, allowing brands and their customers to feel like saviors, without addressing the underlying dynamics of the exploitation. Without addressing structures of power many ethical or sustainable brands perpetuate the very forms of exploitation they claim to be working against. As such, although some of our team members have developed incredible resilience in the face of extraordinary adversity, and sometimes do share these stories with visitors to our workshop or press, we avoid sharing these stories as part of our marketing as it is easy for their voices to be reduced to a singular narrative. This is especially true in a country like Cambodia, which has been bombarded by a constant stream of volunteer-tourists and aid agencies that often promote hierarchical narratives as a way to fundraise and self-promote. In the past we have used these stories, taking what some of our team members have said at face value and publishing those narratives. This was intended to honor their direct quotes and experiences, however, context needs to be taken into account when sharing these stories, and we realized not every story needs to be shared externally: even when someone gives permission for their story to be told, it can be misinterpreted and taken out of context. We believe our team’s work should be valued on its own merit and we no longer use any story of personal trauma, or even overcoming personal trauma, when tied to marketing our products.
- “Marginalized” is a tough one, and our thinking on this has evolved and will continue to. We currently use “marginalized” when we are being specific about how and where that marginalization has occurred. For example, we speak about people who have been historically marginalized or oppressed by the mainstream fashion industry. It’s important to point out the context. However, we don’t use marginalized when referring to a specific person. For example, we wouldn’t say that “we work with marginalized producers”. Similarly, we don’t use the term “disadvantaged” as it doesn’t point out the power structure that created the inequity, leading to a potential misunderstanding of how that person came to be in a difficult position.
This post was written by Rachel Faller, co-creator at tonlé, with feedback from tonlé team members and collaborators. First and foremost - thank you to Sreyoun and Rae from tonlé, who helped guide many of the thoughts here and who helped guide our direction significantly over the last few months as we have persevered to stay afloat as a business as well as realign our priorities and values. Thank you also to Manpreet Kalra and Emi Ito - who both provided guidance around the branding and language in our documents as well as this blog post. I also wanted to specifically mention and credit Dominique Drakeford whose work through Melanin & Sustainable Style and most recently The Root - a Podcast series with Conscious Chatter - has helped shift the direction and definition of the sustainability movement to centering leadership of Black and Indigenous People of Color, and her leadership in this space has influenced my thinking and most certainly the words shared here. To our customers and supporters - so many of you have uplifted our work and been here with us throughout this journey, shared guidance, ideas, and feedback with us, and are a critical part of this community, so thank you! Most importantly, my deepest gratitude goes to Ravy, Eng, and Srey, who started this journey with me 12 years ago - who have counseled, supported, challenged, and inspired me, and persevered with me to bring tonlé to where it is today.