There are a few ironies in the sad saga of Australian swimwear label Lisa Blue, which has just come through a week in hell.
The funky surfer label, based in Byron Bay north of Sydney, had one of the most disastrous runway debuts ever when a swimsuit design in its new collection sparked international protests almost overnight. Lisa Blue’s offense? Using a colorful image of the Hindu goddess Lakshmi in one of their 2011 styles.
Images of the suit (see below) sparked protests in several Indian cities, with some protesters burning the Australian flag and demanding that the government take legal action against companies that disrespect Hindu deities.The Indian Ministry of External Affairs filed an official complaint with the Australian High Commission in New Delhi while, in Sydney, the Indian Consul General reportedly contacted designer Lisa Burke to register his concerns.
The incident caught Burke totally by surprise and she responded swiftly by halting production on the Lakshmi swimsuit on May 7 (two days after the runway show) and issuing a heartfelt apology:
“Lisa Blue has been born out of a love of conservation, spirituality and a respect for all people. At no time would we ever have intended that the brand would cause offence. The use of images of Goddess Lakshmi was not in any way a measure of calculated risk taking, simply it was a desire to celebrate different cultures and share that through our brand. … This range will never be available for sale in any stockists or retail outlets anywhere in the world. We apologise to the Hindu community and take this matter very seriously.”
But that wasn’t enough to satisfy some people, who have elevated the issue into some kind of flashpoint for cultural appropriation in general and western insensitivity to Hinduism in particular.
Lisa Blue’s Facebook wall quickly turned into a political forum, giving the debate further momentum. By the end of last week, Lisa Blue issued a statement to announce its Facebook account had been hacked and disavowing responsibility for content appearing on fake “Lisa Blue” accounts that were spreading the issue.
Altogether, the episode has been a brutal baptism-by-fire for Lisa Blue, a very fashion-forward label that, after five years in business, was making its solo runway debut at Rosemount Australian Fashion Week when everything went terribly wrong. It’s a grim irony that the ensuing flap probably gave Lisa Blue 100 times more attention than its designs ever could have — remember that the next time someone tells you there’s no such thing as bad publicity.
Lost in all this craziness, however, is the truth about what this small Aussie swim label really stands for. Lisa Blue is known for swimsuit prints based on familiar imagery, often borrowed from art masterpieces (that was Cintia Dicker in a Lisa Blue art-print bikini in Sports Illustrated.)
But it’s also one of those ethical fashion brands driven by core values that it puts into practice in numerous ways. Burke, a former surfer and model, launched her label in 2006 to raise money for conservation efforts for whales and dolphins after experiencing some life-changing close encounters with the animals. Since then, the label has donated 25% of its profits to whales and dolphins, and has earned quite a reputation Down Under for its advocacy. You can read Burke’s personal story here.
It’s also worth pointing out that Lisa Blue has flirted with the issue of cultural appropriation before, but without causing the same fuss: several of its swimsuit prints (see below) are based on traditional Aboriginal ‘dreamtime’ painting and come at a time when the issue of appropriation of Aboriginal art is hugely controversial in Australia. Lisa Blue managed to dodge that controversy thanks to its well-known ethical and social commitments and by choosing Aboriginal model Marlikka Perdrisat (first photo below) as the brand’s official spokesmodel.
If there’s a lesson in Lisa Blue’s recent calamity, it’s to remind us that fashion is indeed a global force that does not stand apart from politics or culture or media. Styles are quickly dispersed around the world. A print that is innocuous to the small regional label that created it can be offensive to strangers half a world away. Designers who experiment with “exotic” or foreign styles and images need to tread carefully.
And it’s a timely lesson, since a growing number of lingerie designers have been courting controversy recently by incorporating religious iconography (ie. Christian crosses) into their designs. When that happens, it’s no longer just a fashion statement.
And a final irony: back in 2008, Heidi Klum created a mini-stir when she appeared in a Halloween costume based on the multi-limbed Hindu goddess Kali. But the issue fizzled overnight and Heidi drew more raves than catcalls for her daring choice. Some people, it seems, can get away with anything.
For those who didn’t know Lisa Blue before now, here are some images from its latest swim collection. You can find LB pieces in numerous boutiques in the U.S.