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Why Is H&M Apologizing for Its Kurdish Look-Alike Jumpsuit?

In late September of last year, the designer Alexis Mabille unveiled a collection that in the somewhat befuddling words of Style.com reimagined “Rosie the Riveter as a Vargas girl, a kind of pneumatic tomboy pinup.” The collection, Style.com noted cryptically, “gave Mabille some depths to plumb, especially given his historic interest in ultra-feminizing masculine signatures.” ...

DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP/Getty Images
DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP/Getty Images

In late September of last year, the designer Alexis Mabille unveiled a collection that in the somewhat befuddling words of Style.com reimagined “Rosie the Riveter as a Vargas girl, a kind of pneumatic tomboy pinup.” The collection, Style.com noted cryptically, “gave Mabille some depths to plumb, especially given his historic interest in ultra-feminizing masculine signatures.” First down the runway was an olive-green, vaguely army-inspired jumpsuit. In all likelihood, an H&M designer was watching. After all, the Swedish retail giant has made a fortune on bringing runway fashions to the masses at bargain prices — and its fall collection this year includes a remarkably similar jumpsuit.

So the Swedish company was horrified this week when Kurds began complaining on social media that H&M had ripped off female Kurdish fighters, who, yes, wear green jumpsuits into combat. H&M has at no point overtly compared the jumpsuit to the Kurdish women’s uniform, but the company quickly issued an apology when a narrative began to take hold online that suggested the Swedes appeared to be profiteering off the plight of the Kurdish fighters, who are currently engaged in battle with Islamic State militants. The extremists have beheaded several captured Kurdish female fighters.

“We are truly sorry if we have offended anyone with this piece, this was of course never our intention,” Ida Ståhlnacke, H&M’s global press officer, said in a statement. “At H&M we want to offer the latest within fashion and trends and we continuously listen to our customers’ requests.”

So how much does the H&M jumpsuit compare to its Kurdish counterpart? Judge for yourself.

The H&M version:

And the Kurdish version:

Is the fabricated controversy about to spur sales of H&M jumpsuits? Your guess is as good as ours, but the overlap between military and mainstream fashion is one that long predates this latest brouhaha. Bomber jackets, trench coats, Henleys, and bell-bottoms all originated as military fashions and were later appropriated by various designers.

So perhaps the female Kurdish fighters were indeed H&M’s inspiration for their jumpsuit. If so, let’s hope they get more attention as a result. They are a fascinating group of women and are currently on the front lines against the Islamic State.

Mohammed Salih profiled the fighters for FP last month. That article focused on a 24-year-old woman named Avesta. This is how she came to pick up a gun and join a guerrilla force:

Like many who joined the PKK’s ranks, she was radicalized at a young age. The trigger came when she saw her brother’s mutilated body. He was a PKK fighter, too, and died in a clash with Turkish security forces in 2005. Shortly afterward, she left her hometown, Van, in Turkey’s southeast and headed to the mountains to take up arms. She was 15.

Avesta attended an intense boot camp where she was immersed in the party’s revolutionary leftist ideology and view of women’s role in society, and trained to use weapons. In the mountains, PKK fighters live in isolation in bare-bones camps. The organization’s rules prohibit romantic relationships, and the fighters have little access to their families.

It was as a young woman in the rugged mountains of southeast Turkey and northern Iraq that Avesta says she discovered herself. “It was in the mountains that I found out women can be also powerful,” said Avesta. The ranks of the PKK, a Marxist organization, are filled with women, a rarity in the conservative cultures of the Muslim world. About half of the organization’s leaders are women. And the Kurdish guerrilla group stands in especially stark contrast to the radical fundamentalism of the Islamic State, which confines women’s role to mostly domestic tasks such as raising children, cooking, cleaning, and pleasing their husbands.

“It gives us strength and motivation when a woman like Avesta is our commander,” says Kendal, a 19-year-old male fighter in Avesta’s unit. “She gave us orders during the fighting and instructed us on tactics.”

She was reportedly killed shortly after the article’s publication.     

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace. @EliasGroll

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