“Hmong-inspired” Ensembles Spark Discussion on Appropriation

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Women wear xauv necklaces as part of traditional Hmong dress.

The Laotian Times interviews two experts on Hmong clothing about their differing views on a celebrity’s “Hmong-inspired” outfit at the 2022 BET Awards. 

An American musician, the R&B singer Summer Walker, wore two outfits to the BET (Black Entertainment Television) Awards last month designed by the boutique Laurel Street. The clothes consisted of “Hmong-inspired” gold and silver designs fashioned into bikini-style ensembles.

One of the outfits, a silver two-piece, resembled a deconstructed Hmong xauv necklace.These ensembles sparked controversy among the Hmong community online, with some accusing both the designer and the musician of cultural appropriation and of disrespectfully sexualizing culturally important designs.

While Laurel Street has acknowledged that the outfits were inspired by Hmong motifs, some critics have said that this acknowledgement does not mitigate the problem of appropriation.

Summer Walker at the BET Awards 2022
Summer Walker at the BET Awards 2022 (Global News).

The Laotian Times spoke with two experts on Hmong culture and traditional clothing–Pachia Vang and KaYing Yang, respectively–regarding their views on these controversial outfits, those outfits’ relationship to Hmong experiences, and their views on whether such clothing demonstrates harmful appropriation or productive remixing of culture. Both experts also offered their views on how people who aren’t Hmong can respectfully engage with Hmong designs while paying due homage to their culture of origin.

Pachia Lucy Vang is a Hmong textile researcher, scholar, and maker currently completing her Master of Fine Arts in Design at UC Davis in Davis, California, USA. She is also the owner of Culture Through Cloth and hosts the Hmong•ish podcast, which plans to cover the story of Summer Walker’s clothing in an upcoming episode. 

 Pachia Lucy Vang: The main issue I see with this case is Laurel Street’s comment on having customized the jewelry. I don’t think you can call something “Hmong-inspired” or “customized” when it is a fully formed piece of Hmong jewelry that simply has an added string of stones on top. I’m referring to the gold belt worn in Summer Walker’s second outfit on the BET awards red carpet. This is where it gets problematic. Receiving the name credit for something being Hmong is only half of the battle when it comes to cultural appropriation. The larger issue is with brands stealing designs from minority communities to profit off of. You see this happening again and again, and simply slapping a label onto something and calling it Hmong isn’t equivalent to actually compensating the Hmong designers, artisans, manufacturers, or communities who produce these jewelry. 

The xauv which is worn with the silver outfit […] is worn by Hmong throughout the diaspora in remembrance of a time in history when we were enslaved/indentured servants in China. When you look at the variation of xauv designs from Southeast Asia into China you will see that many aspects of it look like chains and locks, as the word “xauv” literally means “lock” in the White Hmong dialect. Oral history references a time when we were enslaved, however, when we were freed we turned the chains and shackles that had been bound to us into jewelry to celebrate and make light of a dark situation. Today silver is seen as a strong repellent of evil spirits in Hmong cultural beliefs. 

As for the silver and gold belt worn in both outfits, these are much more complex pieces because they are actually made from the belts worn with traditional Lao/Thai outfits. Some community members argue over whether or not Hmong folks have appropriated aspects of Lao/Thai culture because we wear Lao/Thai clothing, however, cultural appropriation is about power. I don’t know if you can say that a minority group taking on aspects of a majority culture is appropriation. It sounds more like assimilation to me and perhaps a better term to describe these phenomena would be “cultural authentication” which is defined as “a process of assimilation through which a garment or an accessory external to a culture is adopted and changed.” With this in mind, you can see how these belts have been adopted into Hmong fashion/dress and transformed with the trinkets and charms you find on xauvs which have been added on to them to create a cascading effect over Hmong skirts. I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen these belts worn with Lao or Thai outfits, but I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if they have, as there are variations of Lao/Thai belts worn by different ethnic groups throughout Southeast Asia. The two Summer Walker wore are very much Hmong Lao/Thai belts. 

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with people who do not identify as Hmong wearing Hmong clothes or jewelry. It can obviously sting for many Hmong people to see because the Hmong have faced an enormous amount of racism and still do to this day. So to see someone wearing our beloved clothing items or jewelry would feel enraging, especially if they know nothing about who we are or what we’ve been through; wearing our designs as a fast-fashion trend to toss away when they are sacred designs we’ve developed through the generations. Any brands or companies using Hmong designs in their products should really consider donating a part of their profits back into Hmong communities. Pick a non-profit or school to donate to. I’ve seen businesses using Hmong designs who have made it a part of their business model to donate 20-50% of their proceeds back into the communities they are taking the designs from – whether that is to directly towards the artisans/designers or towards a local school or non-profit. 

People complain about cultural appropriation not being real, but then advocate for the protection of couture fashion houses from counterfeit knock-offs. Why is there this imbalance in protection? Hmong fashion and dress have been made through a long and collective process of community-based design. It belongs to the community and the people, not to brands now picking them up. This should also include how Hmong people choose to collectively make and wear their dress. Traditional dress holds a sacred role in our rituals and rites. They document the histories, peoples, and homes we’ve lost through the forced displacement and diaspora we’ve experienced. We are born with traditional clothing and we die with them, wearing them on our deathbeds to take with us into the afterlife to find our ancestors with. We’ve dutifully preserved these designs for generations and it’s something we continue to share with Hmong communities throughout the global diaspora. 

[With regards to the issue of] pitting Black and Asian communities against one another – this issue should have nothing to do with Summer Walker’s racial identity. She is a celebrity [emphasis Vang’s] and with that comes a very specific class, privilege, and platform. If she’s wearing Laurel Street and helping to promote them while they are passing off Hmong jewelry as their own, that is a big problem. I’m happy that Laurel Street has apologized and recognized the pieces as Hmong jewelry, but we need to continue speaking out on issues like this so more people can understand why it’s an issue. Hmong folks are building themselves up from generations of poverty and marginalization. Don’t steal from or discredit them in this process, especially when it comes to their art, dress, and fashion which have been instrumental to the preservation of their cultural identities and livelihoods.  

KaYing Yang is the co-founder and president of Redgreen Rivers, a social enterprise which works with women and girls in the Mekong Region to bring their handcrafted products to a global market. She has also worked with Hmong women internationally and helped women and girls gain access to educational and economic opportunities. 

KaYing Yang: I am glad to see many Hmong people speaking up on social media in defense of our culture and educating others about our history. This is a sign of our collective social justice awakening. Equally important is the increased visibility of our community. I am glad to see that Hmong inspired designs, stories and artists are embraced by other cultures.  

Whether in this or other situations, harm is inflicted when Hmong are not credited for our beautiful artistry and the story of resilience behind it is excluded. I understand that some are hurt by the lack of acknowledgement from the Laurel Street company. Others are concerned about the oversexualization of how the jewelry is worn. Sure, it is a bit shocking. Lets stop and think, what has this singer gained from wearing our jewelry? In the spirit of allyship with our Black brothers and sisters, let’s focus on her beauty and inclusion of unique designs into her brand. Let us teach her and others our story.

 Let’s not forget that for many generations, Hmong people have lived in different countries. Our people have survived because we are able to adapt and adopt new ways of living and integrating into the societies around us. I urge our community to reflect on the ways we may have appropriated food, dance, language and music from cultures in countries that we have lived in. All over the world, Hmong youth love, appreciate and appropriate hip hop, rap and dance originated by Black and Brown people. Let’s give some grace in holding others accountable for the same.

What is troubling me is that in 2014, when large corporations like Target and Walmart marketed scarves with Hmong designs, and described it as ‘tribal’ without a mention of Hmong, where were the criticisms? I would like to see this same energy directed at corporations who have made tremendous financial gains from our designs which have not benefited our community. This is the kind of harm that needs our attention.