April 25, 2017

Oh No, Valentino | Appropriation and the Case of the Stolen Beadwork

In 2015, Italian fashion brand Valentino looked to Canadian Métis artist Christi Belcourt for their 2016 Resort collection, and it was touted as a beautiful example of a respectful collaboration. The designers at Valentino became aware of Belcourt’s paintings, which are pointillist renditions of traditional Métis beadwork and floral patterns, and asked if they could transfer her painting, Water Song, to a range of fabrics for their upcoming collection. Some fabrics were solid, others sheer, with her dazzling bead-like florals printed or embroidered across dresses, jackets, skirts and tops.

I was slated to talk about this collaboration at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian in New York this past weekend for their Native American Fashion symposium focusing on issues of appropriation. This would be an example of a good collaboration between a Native artist and an international fashion brand.

About the collaboration, Belcourt said she researched the brand and asked questions first. She explained, “I needed to know if they had ever been accused of cultural appropriation, if they had ever had models walk down the runway in feathers or headdresses." She explains more in the video below:

Sounds great, right? Well, if you've been following the Native Appropriations blog, run by my friend and colleague Adrienne Keene, you'll know that she discovered a Valentino shoe box during a recent shopping excursion with her sister. The top of the shoe box was emblazoned with a headdress, and this image raised a major red flag. Where did this shoe box come from? Was it launched before or after the collaboration with Christi Belcourt? What the heck is going on? 

In addition, separately, award-winning beadwork artist Jamie Okuma discovered a Valentino backpack embellished with Native American beadwork designs directly copied from antique Kiowa and Cheyenne moccasins (see below, click images to zoom). Seriously, what is going on?

So Adrienne and I went on a mission. We found the backpack, and we found it on the runway. But, remember, Belcourt mentioned that she specifically researched whether they had ever been accused of cultural appropriation. Well, they hadn’t, because they were instead IN THE PROCESS of appropriating: this brand used exact replicas of beaded designs made by Native American artists. This is incredibly disappointing and distasteful.

This is significant because some Native American tribal leaders and members are feeling a need to go into ‘lockdown’ mode, and they are making a proactive decision to NOT share any aspects of their cultures with outsiders. When I was at the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe, NM, in 2008-2009, one Pueblo tribe requested that their cultural items (which went beyond the sacred items) be kept in the archives, not on view, and essentially hidden to outsiders, but accessible to tribal members only. To them, there was no need for outsiders to study or learn about their designs, because the designs would then ultimately, inevitably, be taken, replicated, commodified, and therefore removed forever from their hands, their control, their ownership.

And these stolen designs and knockoffs were a part of the same collection as Belcourt’s collaboration (see above). This is problematic because of many reasons. For example, it legitimized the collection as a whole and added value to the other beaded pieces. One fashion reviewer wrote “But before one screams cultural appropriation, the house has approached the inspiration with taste, even collaborating with Métis artist Christi Belcourt for its resort ’16 collection.” But she was not consulted for the ripoff pieces; her role was specifically for the painting-to-fabric collaboration. She had no knowledge of, or suggestions for, the other elements included in the show. Other retailers also misunderstood and misinterpreted the extent of the collaboration, describing the ripoff pieces as “made in collaboration with artist Christi Belcourt of the Metis tribe,” which, again, is not true.

In addition, we can't ignore the economics of these cases of theft, appropriation, and misrepresentation. I work with dozens and dozens of Native American artists - amazing, talented, creative artists - most of whom go relatively unrecognized and do not garner the international recognition that a brand like Valentino does, and these artists and our Native American communities and reservations feel the economic impact of other’s selling our stuff for their benefit and monetary gain. The beaded sneakers were listed for $3,000 each (with at least 4 styles), the beaded purses retailed for $6,000 (in at least 3 different styles), and the beaded backpacks were priced at a couple grand each as well. These companies are making a lot of money off of selling a culture that is not theirs to sell. Lastly, not only were ripoffs present, but also stereotypes. And below is a shirt featuring caricatured ‘Indians’ in headdresses, running with rifles, riding horses, and shooting bows and arrows:

So where do we draw the line? What is ok, and what is not ok? Genuine positive collaborations exist, but they are rare. And when they do exist, they aren’t necessarily always done well. The bad cases of cultural appropriation far outnumber the cases of good collaborations.

There are a couple of ways that companies can ethically participate in the ‘tribal trend’ and prevent the kinds of situations that misrepresent Native American people, perpetuate stereotypes, and reinforce systems of racism in popular culture:
  • Be proactive in properly engaging Native American people and tribes. Companies could do this by directly reaching out to Native communities through their official representatives, or to individual artists. Consider collaborating with a Native American artist or group.
  • Research the cultural significance of the item(s) you wish to represent. Items of religious importance, such as headdresses, require greater respect.
  • Understand that most if not all Indigenous communities have experienced histories of harmful exploitation. Ask the source community if they wish to share this aspect of their culture and how they want it shared.
  • Avoid literal knock-offs. We live in a beautiful world where we can be inspired by the cultural practices of other people and share our own cultures with others. Inspiration, however, implies creativity and requires some degree of originality. Avoid profiting off of a literal knock-off or a recycled stereotype of Native American cultures.
Finally, GO TO THE SOURCE. We can start taking an active stance to support Native designers, especially in our own day-to-day wardrobes, and help re-kindle the ancient legacy of Native adornment and reverse the assimilation assault of the past. It is now the easiest than it has ever been in the past one hundred years to buy or acquire clothing, jewelry and accessories made by Native American fashion designers. Many of these designers are connected to their communities, and are keenly aware of what sacred symbols and items should not be for sale to outsiders. Instead they look within themselves and draw inspiration from their backgrounds and experiences. They know how to translate the artistic traditions of their communities to create items that can be appreciated and enjoyed by anyone and everyone. Furthermore, in staying away from stereotypes, they present a new vision and a new version of ‘the Native’ in fashion. Let’s give our Indigenous designers the opportunity to show us the potential of Native fashion.