Why the Paul Frank powwow apology matters

0 Posted by - September 20, 2012 - Editorial, Features, Visual art

The rise of fast fashion is unfortunate for many reasons: the proliferation of disposable clothing; the unethical sweatshop labour required to keep up with it; the additional motivations for teenagers to spend their weekends loitering in a mall trend-hunting; haul videos. But the issue in the spotlight this week has been the tendency of retailers to colonize culturally meaningful designs and traditions for the sake of selling crap to trend-hungry, culturally-naïve consumers.

Paul Frank, memorable for their cartoon monkey imagery, recently provoked an outrage when they hosted a party described thusly: “Paul Frank celebrated Fashion’s Night Out with a neon-Native American powwow theme. Glow-in-the-dark war-painted employees in feather headbands and bow and arrows invited guests to be photographed on a mini-runway holding prop tomahawks.”

The party encouraged partygoers to chug cocktails such as the “Neon Teepee” and “Dream Catcher” while simultaneously claiming that they “[celebrate] diversity and [are inspired] by many rich cultures.” As Jessica Metcalfe of the Native American fashion blog Beyond Buckskin put it in a letter to Paul Frank Industries, “It is ridiculous to see this level of racism still occurring in 2012.”

Paul Frank invite

Except it’s not ridiculous, unfortunately. It’s neither rare nor unbelievable. Paul Frank was just the most recent audacious example of companies thoughtlessly considering dressing up like a “Native” to be a breezy pop-culture reference, dumping of a continent’s worth of distinct indigenous cultures into a feckless blender and mixing the resulting puree with diet Red Bull & vodka.

Previous offenders include Urban Outfitters, who were sued earlier this year by the Navajo Nation for committing cavalier copyright infringement on their eponymous copyright to sell products like the “Navajo Panty” and “Navajo Flask.”

The practice is so common that Jezebel made a whole slideshow entitled “The Most WTF Navajo-Inspired Clothing and Accessories.” And let’s not forget the seasonal popularity of the Sexy Indian Girl, or the capitalization of Spirithoods© on the animalistic “savage Indian” stereotype.

Indignant party-goers and anonymous internet commenters everywhere argue that there’s nothing racist about smearing “war paint” on one’s face, posing with a plastic tomahawk, or mounting a supposedly Peruvian stuffed animal on one’s head before diving headlong into the void. The claims that such acts are “celebrating” Native culture are undermined by the fact that all of one’s insights into the homogeneous “Native culture” they’re celebrating are derived from corporate party props.

Even worse, this party draws on the worst of prevailing Indian stereotypes: that Native people are savage, mystical, drunken anachronisms, practically mythical creatures; certainly not real people with meaningful histories and contemporary cultures. It’s depressing to realise that the partygoers who thought it was fun to dress up “like an Indian” probably thought it was no different than dressing up like a unicorn or a Harry Potter character.

Paul Frank PowwowThe only unique twist on the Paul Frank story is the aftermath, in which the company president, Elie Dekel, reached out to to Jessica Metcalfe and Adrienne K, the bloggers behind Beyond Buckskin and Native Appropriations respectively, to discuss how the company could rectify their actions and develop corporate standards of practice to ensure that a similar event wouldn’t happen again.

Concrete commitments include Dekel and both bloggers speaking at a panel for the International Licensing Merchandisers Association (LIMA) conference about the use of Native imagery in fashion, and collaborating with a Native artist to create designs that would see profits donated to a Native cause.

This is the real jaw-dropping turn of events: not the careless racism, but the thoughtful apology. It not only sets a bar for other companies that want to continue using Native imagery, but it demonstrates that it’s at least hypothetically possible for collaboration to happen between mainstream designers and Native artists.

Too often mainstream culture falls on the “frozen Indian” stereotypes, assuming that only through appropriation, re-envisioning, and marketing by non-Native individuals can indigenous designs break out of their irrelevant, prehistoric moulds and become appealing or interesting to the masses. Paul Frank apologizing, reaching out, and welcoming collaboration changes the conversation to include Native voices and perspectives, rather than simply plagiarizing them for the sake of convenience.

This isn’t to say that disposable fashion is defensible as long as they have an indigenous designer on board. But seeing this response at the level of Paul Frank has the potential to set a precedent for fellow fashion leviathans who can and have simply steamrollered over complaints and carried on, relatively unmarred by scandal.

Paul Frank could have issued a culpability-shrugging statement (a la Urban Outfitters: “Like many other fashion brands, we interpret trends and will continue to do so for years to come”) and carried on, and the sad truth is most shoppers would be undeterred from scooping up their products. What matters even more than their apology and subsequent actions is the fact that they could have chosen not to take them at all, but did.

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