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U.K. designer label copies an Inuit shaman’s sacred design for fashion runway piece

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An Indigenous family from the Canadian territory of Nunavut was outraged last week when they discovered that one of their family's most sacred traditions -- the design on a parka specifically designed to be worn by one of their ancestors who was a shaman -- was being paraded down a European runway without permission or context.

In fact, the high-end-with-no-shame European fashion label, Kokon To Zai, literally stole the design and was using it as a pattern for a sweater. The original parka design was to protect its wearer, a shaman named Ava.

"I was furious. I was angry. I was upset. I was in shock, most of all," Salome Awa, who works for the CBC, told As It Happens host, Carol Off. "It was an exact duplicate copy." Awa is the great granddaughter of the shaman.

"It's a protection parka," Awa explains. "Only him himself thought of it and wanted to design it, so he can save his life." The parka design was to protect against drowning and dates back to the 1920s. Luckily Awa discovered the theft and was able to protect her family's birthright.

To be clear, this is not a case of "better to ask for forgiveness than permission" because I'm 100 per cent sure that Kokon To Zai never had any intention of working with, or even contacting the family, regarding the use of the Indigenous design. Both Awa and myself consider the treatment of the design to be theft.

Awa attempted to contact the designer but no one bothered to do the right thing and return her calls. She believes that the designers at Kokon To Zai found a photo of the parka in archival footage from the Journals of Knud Rasmussen.

The CBC's As It Happens also attempted to contact personnel from the high-end fashion label but to no avail.

But anyone simply logging onto Kokon To Zai's Facebook page can easily see where the concern would be regarding the patterns used, including an Eagle and/or Thunderbird, another extremely powerful cultural symbol for many different Indigenous nations in North America. This is further evidence that no one was raising any red flags until the label was exposed.

The specific sweater with the stolen motif was being sold at Canadian retailer CNTRBND for $925. CNTRBND has since removed the sweater from its website and pulled it from the sales floor.

Awa was later offered an email apology from Kokon To Zai, telling As it Happens, "I'm kind of happy about it but sad at the same time. They didn't even mention an apology to my great-grandfather and they didn't even offer any monetary gains to our family." 

"Our work is never intended to offend any community or religion. We sincerely apologise to you and anyone who felt offended by our work as it certainly wasn't our intention," the apology reads. 

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