The people at Paul Frank Industries — famous for putting Julius the monkey on everything from T-shirts to bicycles — were hoping to have some fun with the latest trend of Native American inspired designs. Their offerings included feather headbands, toy tomahawks and glow-in-the-dark war paint.
The backlash was in full swing within 24 hours.
Bloggers and other critics blasted last year's neon-lit powwow as racist and the latest fashion faux pas to anger Native Americans.
After apologizing, Paul Frank Industries spent nearly a year working with its most vocal critics and a diverse team of Native American artists and designers to create a new collection of merchandise with a distinct Native flavour.
This time, it was done right, said Elie Dekel, president of Saban Brands, the parent company of Paul Frank.
The beaded sunglasses, brightly colored handmade accessories, tote bags and graphic T-shirts were set to be unveiled Friday evening at the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts in Santa Fe as part of the annual Santa Fe Indian Market festivities.
Bloggers Adrienne Keene, a member of the Cherokee tribe who writes Native Appropriations, and Jessica Metcalfe, a Turtle Mountain Chippewa from North Dakota who runs Beyond Buckskin, were among those involved in the monthly conference calls and hundreds of emails that were shared over many months as the project developed.
Keene, in a recent blog post, called the collaboration "a big win for Indian Country" but said it was important to remember what sparked the collaboration.
"Remembering the beginning is how we continue to move forward together," she wrote. "History is written by those in power, so we need to continue to push to have our version shared and not forgotten."
People who worked on the project were hoping the collaboration will serve as a template for other manufacturers to be more thoughtful when dealing with cultural imagery.
"We were sincerely aghast at how we had found ourselves in that situation about a year ago, and today it's truly humbling to all involved that it has emerged into something so positive," Dekel said.
Dekel said it wasn't until he started talking to Keene and Metcalfe that he learned the problem was much bigger than a Warholesque flier featuring Julius in a headdress.
"It illuminated a larger issue of wow, Native American imagery and cultural references have been appropriated by numerous companies and businesses and industries over generations now," he said. "This is an ongoing issue."
Last fall, Victoria's Secret apologized for putting a Native American-style headdress on a model for its annual fashion show. The outfit was criticized as a display of ignorance toward tribal culture and history.
The band No Doubt also apologized after running into criticism for its cowboys-and-Indians-themed video. In 2011, Urban Outfitters Inc. set off a firestorm with its line of Navajo-branded clothing and accessories that included underwear and a liquor flask.
The collection created by Paul Frank and the Native designers incorporates beading techniques and designs that are influenced by tribal cultures that stretch from the Navajo and Taos Pueblo in the Southwest to the Great Plains and Canada.
The designers include Autumn Dawn Gomez, who is Comanche and Taos; Louie Gong of the Nooksack Tribe; Candace Halcro, who is Plains Cree and Metis Aboriginal; and Dustin Quinn Martin of the Navajo Nation.
Since some of the items are handmade, Paul Frank officials say they will only be available in limited quantities. Items such as the T-shirts, pillows and blankets will be available to a wider audience. The prices range from under $20 to $200.
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