Cultural appropriation of Navajo culture currently “in” with the fashion industry

By Guy Trebal / New York Times

LESBIAN chic, Goth chic, rocker chic, Masai chic, androgynous chic, biker chic, punk chic, minimalist chic: fashion is culture’s Godzilla, devouring everything in its path. Half the time, the monster doesn’t know what it ate.

Most recently it gobbled up the complex Navajo tribal culture, which then, semidigested, turned up on runways, in stores, online and finally in the news, as last week the people who unwittingly provided inspiration for Navajo chic took legal issue with a process of cultural appropriation that American Indians know perhaps too well.

“We are very proud of our name, Navajo,” said Ben Shelly, Navajo Nation president, referring to a civil legal action begun in late February by the country’s largest Indian tribe to stop Urban Outfitters and its subsidiaries from misappropriating the Navajo trademark and name.

“To be used in this kind of fashion, I’m very unhappy with it,” Mr. Shelly said in a public statement, referring to 20 or so items — some by now renamed or removed from circulation by the mass market retailer — apparently inspired by one of the more unpredictable fashion trends of recent years.

It started, by all accounts, with Proenza Schouler’s spring 2012 ready-to-wear collection shown last fall, which shrewdly reworked as stylish and urban the muted earth colors and stylized geometries characteristic of much Southwestern design.

Apparently triggered by a vacation trip the designers Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez made to Santa Fe, N.M., land of the broomstick skirt, the jackalope and the howling blue coyote, the collection either inspired a raft of imitators or blundered into a stealth trend.

Anna Sui got on board, and so did Mathew Williamson, Etro and Levi’s Workwear. Nike introduced some anomalous sneaker-style moccasins.

The French designer Isabel Marant produced a spring collection that draws on the stylized motifs of Navajo sand paintings and the arts of the Southwestern Pueblo tribes. In cities like Los Angeles, Ms. Marant’s skinny jeans ornamented with Navajo-style patterns quickly went celebrity-viral, if that term can be used for material goods. To judge from the catalogs of high-end retailers like Bergdorf Goodman, New York is due for an Indian spring.

On either coast, the cliché references have been dusted off: squash blossom necklaces, beadwork, feathers, turquoise jewelry, Minnetonka moccasins, Pendleton-blanket jackets, clunky silver, fringed anything. Trend-establishing shops like Rene Holguin’s RTH on La Cienega Boulevard in West Hollywood, Calif., have lately begun looking like satellites of some Wild West trading post.

It was probably inevitable that mass merchandisers would seize on a trend that requires little beyond bowdlerized graphics and ornamental doodads to telegraph cultural reference, and just as likely that items like Urban Outfitter’s Navajo Printed Hipster Panty would also turn up soon enough to inflame Native American sensibilities.

In its complaint last October, the Navajo Nation singled out the panties as “derogatory and scandalous,” along with a Navajo Print Wrapped Fabric Flask, an association the group considered particularly objectionable, given that the sale and consumption of alcohol is banned on the 25,000-square-mile reservation.

Though the company eventually withdrew certain Navajo inspired products from its Web site, others continued to appear in catalogs and Web sites for brands like Free People, which Urban Outfitters controls.

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