Belgian fashion designer Walter Van Beirendonck sent male models dressed in feather headdresses in his Fall 2014 show during Menswear fashion week in Paris.
But wait, before we get up in arms, we can plainly see that Van Beirendonck got his messaging in loud and clear.
Akin to something we’d see in a Kenneth Cole runway in the decades past, he used his runway for social commentary. His blatant signs bring to light the laundry list of cultural appropriation that we’ve seen these last few years.
Being native is so hot right now. It hasn’t been this on trend since the ‘70s when Cher claimed to be a "half-breed."
We’ve seen pan-American Indian trends infiltrate our runways and reality around every corner — dream catcher tattoos on pop starlets, "Navajo" branded gear at Urban Outfitters, made-in-China beaded earrings galore, and the worst: the hipster headdress onslaught.
This trend hit rock bottom when Victoria’s Secret paraded out Karlie Kloss in her cheetah (or is that cougar?) print bra and bottom and full-length feather headdress in garish colours.
Her presence in a fashion show, that cost over $12 million dollars and was viewed by 12 million people, was the hugest slap in the face to native people.
There was an uproar on the internet because it’s implausible that no one at the largest American retailer of lingerie didn’t notice what happened the week before, when No Doubt pulled its Looking Hot video.
The video grossly sexualized the image of Native American women and was retracted with an apology the very next day following its release.
No Doubt, a group which has sold over 33 million albums worldwide, and its entire team didn’t bat an eye when they made the music video, despite the criticism that Lana Del Rey faced the month prior (October 2012) when her Ride music video showcased her in a headdress dancing around a fire with a bunch of bikers, with a gun in hand.
“For those not familiar with this issue, 'playing Indian' is racist," S.E. Smith, a writer for xoJane.com, comments.
The entire team at Red Light PR in New York City missed that memo when they created the infamous Dream Catchin’ with Paul Frank: A pow wow celebrating Fashion’s Night Out, which also debuted Paul Frank’s native-inspired casual collection.
“First off, (there’s) a painted cow skull, on a bar,” Adrienne Keene of Native Appropriations describes in her post. “Then the sign says, cheerfully, ‘Pow Wow and have a drink now!’ and the three drinks are labelled ‘Rain Dance Refresher,’ ‘Dream Catcher,’ and ‘Neon Teepee.’”
True story. It was originally reported on by Beyond Buckskin and caused such an uproar that not only did Paul Frank apologize, they then went on to create a capsule collection with native designers. Talk about a PR best practices case study right there.
Yet in 2013, we still saw three (major) instances of appropriation practised by large fashion brands. First up, we have the Jeremy Scott x Adidas collaboration for Spring 2013 that resulted in a tragic totem explosion.
Next up was H&M, along for the headdress ride as a part of its H&M Loves Music collection in August 2013.
Kim Wheeler (Ojibwe/Mohawk), formerly of CBC Winnipeg, spotted the headdresses on the shelves in Vancouver and made mainstream media mentions that headdresses are given to honour and respect individuals and are not to be worn as a fun festival accessory.
Karl Lagerfeld, head designer at Chanel, apparently did not read Vogue UK’s coverage of the H&M headdress scandal.
His Pre-Fall 2014 Métiersd’Art show in Dallas in December went the "Cowboys and Indians" route. Oh yeah, he did that. The backlash was very minimal and wasn’t splattered across social media like the Kloss episode.
But no episode is a good episode, and the fact that designers like Walter Van Beirendonck are taking careful notes and giving lectures is a sign that the fashion folks are moving in the right direction.
Let’s hope that the message was clear enough.