Nuno Gama’s Fashion Epic: Legal Considerations on the Use of Cultural Elements within Fashion Design 

By Lígia Carvalho Abreu

Lusíadas II by Nuno Gama (2016 Spring/Summer) Photos by Rui Vasco/ Moda Lisboa



Nuno Gama is a Portuguese designer whose work reflects the richness of a nation: its culture and history. From his first collection of hand-painted and embroidered t-shirts, shirts and swimsuits to a more recent creation of Maison Nuno Gama[i], the designer has been transforming several elements of the Portuguese cultural and historical heritage into a contemporary concept of fashion and life-style.

One of the most coherent and interesting works of Nuno Gama within the last couple of years is his fashion design version of Portuguese epic Lusíadas from Luís Vaz de Camões, in particular the second part of this fashion epic: the 2016 Spring/Summer Collection.

The codes of elegance from a contemporary and increasingly male dandyism, in particular the renewal of the everlasting classics from tailor made clothes to customised shoes[ii], the mixes and matches of the African Dandy, the magnetism of simple suits with oriental elements or the Indian appeal of bohemia and evasion through casual clothing, visually recount the ancient story of Portuguese noble visionaries and intrepid explorers and sailors. Just like those men, Nuno Gama has brought us elements and aesthetics from different cultures.

This influence and use of cultural elements made me think about a recurrent fashion law subject related to intellectual property and ethics: the difference between inspiration in a culture and cultural appropriation.

Cultural appropriation comprises all types of acts that do not dignify the culture of people and withdraw its meaning and dignity. Thus, they are considered offensive.

What is more, freedom of inspiration is an essential element to the fundamental freedom of intellectual and artistic creation, in which I include some fashion design. However, freedom of inspiration should not be confused with the right to use what is considered to be part of an indigenous cultural heritage without having the consent and benefit sharing of the indigenous people.

With the Lusíadas Collections, Nuno Gama wanted to recover the pride of  Portugal´s unique history and mission, including contact among diverse cultures in Africa and Asia.

At Lisbon Fashion Week he presented a mise en scène to pay tribute to this history of mutual influences to which he added the contemporary dandy. The democratisation of travelling and easier access to information made the incorporation of elements from others cultures a current trend.

For this collection Nuno Gama uses patterns from Kenyan indigenous people which are part of their cultural heritage. The Kenyan Constitution recognises the intellectual property rights of the Kenyan people, with the importance of ensuring that communities receive compensation or royalties for the use of their culture and cultural heritage (Article 11 nº 2 c) and 3 a)).

The Maasai Intellectual Property Initiative (MIPI) [iii], through the NGO Light Years IP[iv] is enabling Kenyan and Tanzanian Maasai to reclaim their intellectual property rights and to secure licensing revenue from those who use the Maasai name and designs in order to support the community when it comes to health and education as well as buying water rights and rights to grazing land so as to sustain their culture. When the Maasai people claim the protection of their name and designs against the exploitation of their cultural identity, they are claiming their right to cultural property and to fair benefit sharing in order to contribute to the country´s economic development. Nevertheless, they cannot prevent the creation of fashion designs inspired by their culture when these designs are not copies, but rather the result of intellectual and technological efforts and also when there is no unfair usage of what is unique and represents the richness of a nation.

When evident cultural elements of indigenous people are incorporated in fashion designs this is only a cultural appropriation if the designer or the brand did not ask for their consent or do not have a license to use those elements from the indigenous people or that they did not buy, for instance, the original fabrics from those indigenous communities.  If a designer does not make a literal copy nor a literal interpretation of the cultural elements, and if he uses original fabrics from the source and not counterfeited ones or knockoffs, then there is no cultural appropriation.



[ii] The shoes presented at the Spring/Summer 2016 Collection are the result of Nuno Gama’s partnership with Undandy,