May 23, 2012

Ralph Lauren and the American Dream

I've brought up Ralph Lauren before (just click here), but I think a couple of things need to be said again.

In these 'trying times' - we look at stories of 'success,' stories that highlight the American Dream, and stories that demonstrate that through hard work we can accomplish a great deal.

But sometimes (hey, practically most times) these success stories are built upon the backs of unnamed people.

For Ralph Lauren, it's Native American people.

Lauren frequently uses Native themes in his collections to reference ideas of the West and of ‘the frontier.’ He is well-known for his 'Americana' collections, and his Polo shirts embraced an idealized aspect of the American experience. His Santa Fe collection was added to the brand in 1981, providing 'Navajo-inspired' designs that were a global success. It has been noted that Lauren has probably done more than any other designer to romanticize the Native American Southwest.

And romanticism is one thing, but Lauren does something that ... how does it go?.. gets in my craw? Yea, that.

It all came together for me when I watched the Oprah interview with Ralph Lauren last year. I was on the kick of watching Oprah's last episodes, and I was also doing the chick-on-a-couch-with-a-tivo-remote kick (thank you Samantha) - effectively buying into the whole 'Oprah is leaving sadtimes.'

So, needless to say I was particularly excited for the RL episode, Oprah even says that this was a major 'coup' for her.

"Known for his timeless collections filled with extreme tailoring contrasted with rugged sports looks, Ralph Lauren gives Oprah an insight into his creative lifestyle." Creative lifestyle? Psh. (I'll get to that in a second). I watched the whole thing. And one hour later, something was irritating me.

Well first of all, the show opens with Oprah going to the RL Ranch, and hanging out in some teepees. There's a weird exchange between the two of them, where it seems like Oprah (a successful black chick, let's not front), is totally enamored and enthralled with RL (a Jewish kid with identity issues, let's not front) and his ability to co-opt other cultures' intellectual property (that'd be Native peoples, let's not front). And it's awkward. So of course I had to do a screen shot of Opes totally excited:

And then in this first teepee, there's this witty banter:

OPes: "Do you collect all these old blankets?"
Ralphsy: "Yes always collected blankets, and all the Navajo stuff."
OPes: "I can't shut my mouth. This is a dream."

Where to begin? Well, first, Lauren name drops Navajo (so hot right now), but, Oprah and Lauren are in a teepee. Navajos don't live in teepees (hogans, hello). And they don't do floral Woodland beadwork (see above), that would be the Woodland tribes (duh). Second, these aren't all 'old blankets' - they look like new Pendletons to me (see below). And that's a different story. Third, let's talk about the American Dream and land ownership and how that connects to the displacement of hundreds of Native nations and, in the Plains, the removal of Native people from their traditional teepee homes into log cabins (it's a little thing called the reservation era, folks).

Or let's not talk about that, but instead focus on Lauren and his beautiful ranch (17,000 acres of Indigenous land). And now, after the process of forcibly removing people from their teepees into woodframe houses, and opening the land up for sale to non-Natives (meanwhile bringing Indigenous lands back into the care of Native nations is still an unfair uphill battle), so that Oprah can sit in one of these Lauren teepees and call it a dream. A dream come true. (more on this in a second)

Well, they move on to teepee #2, and Opes says this: "We take a peek inside a child-size tipi, it's filled with whimsical artifacts and toys." Oh yea?:

And then we get to see this screen shot (at about the 3-4 minute mark). And right away, the first question that pops into my head is "Who is that little girl?"

Who is she and why is she in a frame in Ralph Lauren's teepee? (the fact that I'm even asking these questions is an indication of how ridiculous the world is right now)

It's like the ultimate form of appropriation. That little girl is someone. She's someone's daughter, sister, antie, niece, mother, cousin, granddaughter, grandmother.

With greater accessibility to photographic collections, Native people are starting to reclaim the images of their family members that have been held hostage in archives for over 100 years. On Facebook, I see friends post pictures of their great-grandmothers, their great-uncles, people who served as leaders of their communities, their relatives. These are images of people we know - or worse, of relatives and children who we don't know because they have been taken away through government boarding school policies.

So what is Lauren doing with this picture? It's like when you go to Target and buy a frame, and decide to keep the picture of the happy couple in it instead of putting in your own picture. Why would you do that? You wouldn't. You might buy a picture at Target and keep it in the frame if it was an art image. So, are we no longer people with names? Are we just... decorative? Something to be consumed? Sold? Flaunted as status symbols and of achieving the American Dream?

Oprah talks about this 'American Dream' (at the 11 minute mark). RL’s parents were immigrants from Russia, looking for a better life in America. Through the process of becoming 'American,' he changed his name from Ralph Lifshitz to Ralph Lauren. He cast aside his cultural, ethnic, and religious background and went on to build an empire based on appropriating and selling Native American cultures and artistry. And this, I guess, is a success. During the interview, he stated, “I feel that I represent America.” Yes you do, Ralph, and that is not a good thing.

In sum, the way that Oprah positions and defines the American Dream actively excludes and oppresses Native American people and their cultures, and disregards and devalues Native Nations. I mean, you can't achieve the American Dream with Native Nations' rights to their own land and intellectual property standing in your way.