'Not okay': Outrage over Berlei cultural appropriation 'mistake'

Kristine Tarbert
·Features and Health Editor
·3-min read

Women's lingerie brand Berlei has been forced to issue an apology after it was slammed for a cultural appropriation "mistake" in a design shared online.

The label posted what was a winning entry to their Pink Bra Project Awards on Instagram, before the image was inundated with angry comments asking about the indigenous design and the artist's heritage.

berlei design slammed
Berlei pulled this winning design entry from the competition after backlash online. Photo: Instagram/berleiau

“Is this person Aboriginal? If not this is gross appropriation and I can’t believe such a big brand is celebrating that," one person commented.

Blak Business, an educational space sparking broader learning and discussion about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander topics, wrote: "The use of dotting, concentric circles and 'meeting place' iconography is very reminiscent of motives used in Aboriginal practice and art. Of course, these are more than 'aesthetics' and instead represent important ways of sharing knowledge."

Another person wrote: “This is cultural appropriation … way off on so many levels."

While one said: “This needs to be fixed."

The following day, Berlei issued an apology for the "innocent mistake", confirming the artist Nicole Onslow did not have an indigenous background and the entry was removed from the competition. 

berlei cultural appropriation apology
The brand issued an apology online. Photo: Instagram/berleiaus

“We have spent time today reflecting on our actions, the steps that led us to this mistake, and how we would approach this in the future," the statement posted to their Instagram read.

"We have confirmed this morning that this print was submitted by a non-Indigenous artist and used without appropriate credit to the Traditional Custodians of the land in which we live, learn and work.

“This was a collective mistake by the artists and ourselves, and we both deeply apologise.

“Each entry was judged virtually, and as such the indigenous elements of this particular entry were overlooked."

Artist Nicole Onslow also issued her own “deepest apologies” on Instagram after the fallout.

She explained she “naively” took inspiration from Indigenous artworks to depict her battle with cancer after losing her mum to the disease, and recognised it as a "grave offence".

“Once the award was announced, I was ashamed to see that I had truly stepped across a line that didn’t sit well with me and ... I formally withdrew my design from the competition," she wrote.

“I was really just trying to design a print that celebrated Australia, its strong women, and its flora.”

Artist Nicole Onslow
Artist Nicole Onslow also shared an apology online. Photo: Instagram/berleiau

Despite the apologies some people were not satisfied claiming the statement from Berlei was a "cop out". 

“Claiming all cultural elements were completely missed simply because it was 'judged virtually' is a whopping cop out,” one person wrote.

“It’s so easy to see the indigenous elements, even on my phone screen it doesn’t take much effort,” another said.

“This wouldn’t have been ‘overlooked’ if you had adequate representation at your company,” another person pointed out.

Madison Connors, a Yorta Yorta, Dja Dja Wurrung and Gamilaroi woman and founder of Yarli Creative, also took to Instagram to share her thoughts after revealing she was "utterly disappointed" at the lack of awareness.

"This stuff needs to be called out," she said on her Instagram stories.

"The reason I called it out was because Berlei is an international company who have a platform internationally, and this stuff can't be seen to be okay.

"I've had a little bit of backlash. There is a lack of understanding of the significance and I just think that we have a voice and we need to use our voices to express the fact that this is not okay."

She also shared a post to explain that something which is 'Aboriginal inspired' is still cultural appropriation. 

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