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Is Cultural Appropriation an Issue for Sneaker Brands?

Cultural appropriation is a hot-button issue. Critics have bashed Bruno Mars for profiting off of traditionally African-American music, and recently the movie “Isle of Dogs” and Bhakti tea have been added to the discussion.

But in the footwear world, Adidas Originals and Pharrell are the most recent targets of backlash stemming from the release of the Holi collection, which is inspired by an ancient Hindu festival in India of the same name.

Ahead of its release, Adidas Originals described the collection as “a continuation of the Hu journey, reflecting Pharrell’s founding vision of energy, color and spirituality as a unifying force between peoples.”

But people on social media immediately voiced criticisms of the line and accused the brand and the musician of borrowing from the holiday without paying proper respect to the culture.

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NMD Hu Adidas Originals x Pharrell Holi
An NMD Hu from the Adidas Originals x Pharrell Holi collection.
CREDIT: Adidas

Matt Powell, The NPD Group Inc.’s senior industry adviser for sports, warned brands to be more careful with product storytelling in this day and age.

“Brands are searching for stories to tell. A new collection without a story doesn’t mean anything,” Powell said. “But you always have to be careful when you’re grabbing a cultural or religious icon, and understand people could get offended.”

And Sam Poser, analyst for Susquehanna Financial Group LLLP, agreed. “Everything depends on how you do it and why you’re doing it, and I think everybody’s got to tread very carefully,” he said. “In this environment, if you do something wrong, you’re going to pay for it, you’ll definitely get backlash. [But] if you get it right, you probably don’t hear about it.”

Although Adidas and Pharrell have come under fire, Powell doesn’t believe cultural appropriation is an issue widely plaguing the athletic footwear industry.

“I think people are sensitive about these topics today, maybe more than they were. Or perhaps they felt confronted in the past and chose not to speak up and are now,” he said.

Powell noted collections surrounding holidays or themes that have hit the mark previously, such as Black History Month, Women’s History Month and Chinese New Year launches. However, he also mentioned an instance in which the name of a shoe got a brand in serious trouble.

In 1996, Reebok launched the Incubus, a women’s running shoe. And roughly a year after its release, reports of a backlash surfaced over the name. Incubus, as defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is “an evil spirit that lies on persons in their sleep; especially one that has sexual intercourse with women while they are sleeping.”

“I’m horrified, and the company is horrified,” Reebok spokesman Kate Burnham said in a statement published by the Los Angeles Times in 1997. “How the name got on the shoe and went forward, I do not know. We are a company that has built its business on women’s footwear, so to do anything that’s denigrating to women is not what we’re about.”

Following the initial Holi backlash, in an email to FN, Adidas sent the following statement: “Adidas Originals and Pharrell Williams created Hu as a global platform to inspire positive change. Hu was founded upon the principles of unity, equality, humanity and color with an intention to explore humanity and celebrate diversity around the world. Together, Adidas Originals and Pharrell Williams use the platform to help tell stories of others from around the globe.”

Pharrell Adidas Originals Holi
A model in the Pharrell x Adidas Originals Holi-inspired looks.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Adidas

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