Fashion, music, art — they all routinely mine the world’s bounty of riches for inspiration. But there’s an area where appreciation for someone else’s history and culture becomes straight-up appropriation and that is why allegations of insensitivity are being lobbed against fashion line Paul Frank.
For its Fashion’s Night Out celebration in New York City last week, Paul Frank held a “pow wow,” decked out its employees in neon “war paint” on their faces, and served drinks with names like “Neon Teepee” and “Rain Dance Refresher.” The advertisement depicted the signature Paul Frank monkey wearing a headdress inside a tee pee. As Hollywood Reporter described the actual event:
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.
You can see pictures of guests — including the singer Christina Milian — posing with the “props” here.
Oof. Oof, I say!
Paul Frank ain’t even close to being the first company to culturally appropriate Native American patterns/dresses. Remember last year, when “Navajo prints” were a big thing at trendy stores like Urban Outfitters and everyone was, like, Oooh, awkward?
To be clear, I don’t think there is something wrong with wearing clothes from someone else’s culture in-and-of-itself. That’s part of the great melting pot of America: If you really love your kimono or a bright, colorful African-style headscarf, good for you. Yet there is a difference between respectful, benign appreciation and distilling someone else’s culture down to a “theme” for a party. Which, in fact, is exactly what Paul Frank Fashion’s Night Out event did.
Why they thought this was a good idea, I don’t know. I don’t think they asked any actual Native Americans for input on this because they ignorantly lumped all the various Native American groups together into one culture, as if all Native Americans live in teepees and do rain dances. Yet they wouldn’t have thrown a party that appropriated “black culture.” They wouldn’t have thrown a party that appropriated “Latino culture.” (Because really, what are either of those things? What kind of “props” would you even have at a party that appropriated “Latino culture”?) Yet they cobbled together a bunch of disparate cultural signifiers for Native American culture (“rain dance!” “a tomahawk!”), came up with some “props,” and thought it was OK. But Native Americans are an ethnic group, not a theme for a party. And it is especially unwise to treat them like a theme when it’s missing the mark in the first place.
After they were criticized by bloggers for their FNO party, the president of Paul Frank, Elie Dekel, responded hastily. Blogger Adrienne K. of Native Appropriations went into great detail about ways in which Paul Frank’s party erred, such as how headdresses as sacred and the offensiveness of the guests who used their “prop” tomahawks for scalping. We can assume all this was news to Dekel, whom Adrienne K wrote after a phone call with him promised to have the images removed and never used again and also promised to hire a Native artist to make some actual authentic Native American designs for the company. That truly is one of the best responses a company could have given; Dekel seemed genuinely concerned about his brand offensively depicting Native Americans.
But will it stop other companies for appropriating other cultures in the future? Probably not.