Fashion and Refugees

Fashion’s evolution has both impacted changes in cultures while simultaneously establishing its own dynamics. It is merely a mirror image of a culture’s social, economic and political change.  Change is constant and inevitable and fashion has indeed followed the paradigm.

Despite fashion’s innate impact from culture to culture, a growing controversy has surrounded the concept of “cultural appropriation” and its ethical standing. Cultural appropriation is the adoption or use of elements of one culture by someone or members who are of another culture.

Culture continues to impact works in the fashion world, but one overlooked aspect would be the influence of refugee lifestyles. Photographers, stylists, artists and designers have incorporated or even in some cases mocked refugees which has seemed to add more to the controversial uproar already at play.

In 2015 Hungarian fashion photographer, Norbet Baska, was harshly criticized in the media because of his refugee inspired photoshoot with models portraying different scenarios and hardships  that refugees face. The photos depicted those who were subjected to the refugee crisis in Europe. Models were seen wearing “refugee-like” clothing while surrounded by  barbed wire. Others showed the model being dragged away from police. Viewers expressed their opinions on Baska’s photoshoot and some of the comments were wildly critical. According to Buzzfeed News who reached out to the photographer, he did the photoshoot in an unsuccessful attempt to raise awareness of the refugee crisis.

Baska wasn’t the only one inspired by refugee scenery as hip hop recording artist, songwriter, producer and clothing designer, Kanye West presented an entire fashion show as the unveiling of his album “The Life of Pablo”  and the theme surrounded a photo he had come by of a Rwandan refugee camp. The 20-year-old camp photo served as the invitation to the show as well.  The show took place in Madison Square Garden in New York and by the looks of it, Kanye outdid himself to ensure the venue resembled that of the refugee camp. Models were all of color and said to have looked sad and exhausted. A model from the fashion show who spoke out anonymously described in great detail, her experience on the day of. She expressed her feelings while on a bus ride from the warehouse that provided the attire for the show, back to the venue saying “I feel like I’m headed to a concentration camp. It feels odd.” The photo of the refugee camp was that of a southwestern town in Rwanda called Kibeho that was overthrown by government forces who killed an estimated amount of 4,000 people. Kanye has not spoken directly about his reasoning for his them thus raising questions of his ethical beliefs.


Fashion and its seemingly inevitable impact on culture has taken the world by storm. It has correlated itself with world matters such as the refugee crises. Not everyone can agree with this new approach leaving people who follow trends wondering the motives of these fashion icons and designers. It is relatively normal to question if they are “raising awareness” or simply using the concept of refugees simply using the suffering as personal propaganda.

The fashion world is not only inspired by refugees, but it has provided jobs and opportunities for them. Businesses and designers are helping to pave a way for refugees to become a part of the industry. Refugees are participating in runway shows, becoming muses for photographers and even beginning businesses of their own.

It is not uncommon for refugees to go without work for some time after their transition, but fashion has opened new doors.Refugees have every right to conserve their traditions while away from home. Although, it may be hard to conveniently find traditional cloth and materials, it is not impossible. Many migrants were and still are able to gain access to their traditional materials.

The Ethical Fashion Initiative is one exceptional organization that connects with marginalized designers. It was created in 2009 and began in Kenya. They believes in a fashion industry that provides workers a living wage and are offered dignified working conditions. The organization also supports rising designers from Africa and encourages them to join in collaborations with other designers.

“People first, fair supply chain, living wages, dignified working conditions. This is what The Ethical Fashion Initiative stands for. The EFI is against any form of labour exploitation.”

They strive to use fashion as a driving force out of poverty all while bringing fairness to the industry.


A lot of people fail to notice that refugees and designers from all over the world play a pivotal role in our fashion consumption today. It is not often that someone buys an article of clothing and inquires about the hands that sewed it together. Refugees are placed in sweatshops and dangerous conditions, all to make little to no pay. This limits those with a true passion for design, tailoring, sewing and fashion to a condensed unfit factory.

Large, well known businesses such as H&M and Next have publicly admitted to finding child labour in the Turkey based supplier factories. Other companies have neglected to answer question involving child labour thus creating suspicions on how widespread the problem of labour in sweatshops actually is.

According to, an estimated 250 million children ages 5 to 14 are forced to work in sweatshops in developing countries. Products that commonly come from sweatshops are clothing, coffee, shoes, toys, chocolate, rugs and bananas. The people who are forced to work in sweatshops usually spend the majority of their earnings on food and other survival essentials.

Consider the clothes you wear on a daily basis. If they are labeled with a well-known brand name, there is a possibility that your clothing was created in a sweatshop and shipped from overseas. The Power Act is in place to prevent and protect workers from exploitation and retaliation.”All workers, regardless of their immigration status, are protected by federal and state labor and employment laws. We must hold employers who break the law accountable for their actions.” However, sweatshops are not easily exposed and workers are most likely afraid to stand up to employers in fear of being deported out of retaliation.

It is important for everyone to take a stand and raise awareness. Everyone has a voice that deserves to be heard. It may be difficult, but there are opportunities for refugees with a passion. The fashion world and its entirety is developing and creating opportunities for refugees.




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