DIRTY DEEDS

How Kylie Jenner and Khloe Kardashian Profit Off Black Creativity

The Kardashian sisters stand accused of stealing designs from struggling African-American designers.

This summer, the streets are bound to overflow with 19-year-old mallrats in camo-print sports bras and matching sweats. But when your niece shows up to the family barbecue in deeply inappropriate, cleavage-baring duds, who will you have to thank for it? That’s the question Kardashian fans and trend watchers have been wondering ever since Kylie Jenner—Kendall Jenner’s sister turned makeup mogul—was publicly dragged for ripping off a black female designer last week.

The kontroversy kicked off when the pint-size Kim Kardashian impersonator launched a new line of camo-print merchandise on her website, The Kylie Shop. For some context, Kylie Jenner isn’t your average celebrity, which means that her online merch shop isn’t just shilling half-off American Apparel T-shirts. Jenner is an unbelievably influential trendsetter whose makeup products, corset dresses, and bikinis regularly sell out within minutes. Any girl who’s ever used the Snapchat puppy effect has probably purchased at least one Kylie lip kit, which makes her a highly successful businesswoman. But while Jenner’s entrepreneurial spirit and her eye for matte glosses that will really help you stand out during sorority rush are undeniable, her originality has long been up for debate. See, the Kardashians aren’t designers so much as they are curators—which becomes an issue when fans start to wonder if they’re creating trends or just co-opting them.

Designer Tizita Balemlay of PluggedNYC is putting her foot down with Jenner’s new collection, lest any well-meaning style blog declares that Kylie “invented camo.” PluggedNYC has been selling camo sets that look eerily similar to Jenner’s for a while now. Even more damning, Jenner actually has a relationship with Balemlay—meaning that she went a step further than just ripping off a random designer that she found on her Instagram explore page.

According to screenshots that Balemlay shared on social media, Jenner has been a longtime fan of her designs, which she has been spotted modeling on multiple occasions. Balemlay also alleges that Kylie was the first person to receive PluggedNYC’s camo set when it originally launched around Memorial Day of this year. While the designer was initially “so excited” to work with Jenner and her stylist, the relationship naturally soured once Jenner started promoting her own line of derivative duds.

Balemlay fought back by posting an Instagram with side-by-side images of her own work and Kylie’s offerings, captioned, “When you really Pablo... I am the influence *drops mic. Copy & Paste down to the shoes I used on my models 😂😭 The kardashains will take your nigga & brand I stamp lmfaooo #WeAreTheCulture.”

Now I know what you’re thinking: Kelly, Michelle, and Beyoncé did not debut the definitive castaway-chic take on this look way back in 2001 only to have these ladies arguing over who “invented” the camo two-piece in 2017. Intellectual-property claims are famously difficult to enforce in the fashion world, where trends seamlessly spread from high to low fashion purveyors and designers appear to be in near-constant sartorial conversation. While Balemlay’s receipts certainly betray some very shady behavior from the Jenner camp, it’s hard to imagine her allegations having a tangible effect on Jenner’s sales or even her business practices. After all, this type of “stealing” isn’t a misstep for Jenner—it’s a business tactic, and one that’s made her and her sisters quite successful.

In July 2016, Jenner was accused of copying a New Zealand beauty vlogger’s eye-shadow palettes. The following November, side-by-side images showed that one of Jenner’s makeup campaigns looked shockingly similar to the work of makeup artist Vlada Haggerty. As Haggerty told Refinery29 at the time, “Crediting artists is essential, but this goes beyond that. It’s theft. This is our livelihood. I see these things happen too many times to artists.” Next, Jenner sold a crew neck that was heavily inspired by a streetwear brand, and sandals that looked very similar to a pair of Chanel mules.

While Kylie might have the most colorful history when it comes to borderline copyright infringement, her sisters are quickly catching up. Khloé Kardashian appears to have recently applied Jenner’s unsavory MO to her own denim line, Good American. On June 2, designer Destiney Bleu fanned out her virtual receipts on Twitter, claiming that Kardashian’s camp reached out to borrow pieces from Bleu’s line of bedazzled nude bodysuits—styles that were then ripped off by Good American. Just two days after Bleu took her case to the people, Kardashian countered with a cease-and-desist letter, arguing that Bleu’s accusations are defamatory.

And while Bleu doesn’t seem inclined to sue Kardashian or Good American at this time, she and her attorney couldn’t resist this opportunity to get in a few digs. “It is not illegal for Khloé to copy Destiney’s designs—it is just tacky, disrespectful, and in bad taste... Destiney has a constitutionally protected right to inform others that Khloé Kardashian has copied her designs. She will not silently abdicate that right in response to a frivolous, two-bit email from you threatening legal action,” her defense statement reads. Bleu continues, “There is also something deeply uncomfortable about someone with Khloé’s wealth and power appropriating designs and fashion directly from a black woman with a small business without crediting her, making cheap knockoffs, and then attempting to threaten her into silence.”

The Kardashian klan is tapping into a long history of American entrepreneurs who spot trends and then repackage them for new markets. Instead of stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, they’re taking from predominantly black designers and influencers, and making their aesthetics accessible and desirable to new demographics—in Jenner’s case, teenage KUWTK fans with twenty bucks to blow on matte lip gloss (the kind that you could buy at ColourPop or your local Walgreens). Saying that Kylie Jenner started the matte lip trend or invented boxer braids is like saying that Kanye West created taupe or discriminatory model casting. Kylie and Khloé’s ripped-off designs hit a nerve because they play into one of the more problematic aspects of the Kardashian brand: the fact that they are so consistently lauded for creating trends or looks that women of color have been rocking—with far less fanfare—for decades.

This narrative started as soon as the Kardashians got famous, with Kim making headlines for making big butts sexy and mainstream. Swift backlash posited that Kardashian hardly invented curves—that she was only being praised because she was a white woman, while a black star with similar proportions wouldn’t make the same sort of splash. And then there’s Kylie, who not only exaggerates her curves, but even insists on wearing cornrows (while failing to acknowledge her whiteness or tell her millions of fans that #BlackLivesMatter). Jenner’s tone-deaf cultural appropriation is already grounds for critique. The idea that she literally steals from black women to turn a profit makes her even more problematic. After all, there’s a difference between appropriating a culture and literally snatching somebody’s labor. As much as this conversation is bigger than Kylie Jenner and Khloé Kardashian, it’s also bigger than these discrete instances, and bigger than an argument over best business practices. After all, Balemlay and Bleu aren’t just fighting for their profits—they’re fighting not to be erased from the cultural moments that they had vital roles in creating. As Balemlay told BuzzFeed, “At the end of the day, money equals power and the Kardashians have that power. This is a prime example… I don’t have the buzz she does or the money for billboards.”

When publications declare an established aesthetic or style to be a “hot new trend” just because the Kardashians are doing it, that’s its own form of injustice. And when Kylie Jenner tries to put herself at the forefront of yet another co-opted trend, it’s up to the rest of us to amplify the designers she’s erasing.