Urban Outfitters slammed for ‘offensive’ Navajo range

We all heard about Vogue Italy’s ‘slave’ earrings mistake/slur and now it seems that Urban Outfitters is under fire for its ‘Navajo’ range.

A Native American woman called Sasha Houston Brown wrote an open letter to the store’s CEO and it doesn’t make for pretty reading.

She branded the collection: cheap, vulgar and culturally offensive” and criticized the “Plastic dreamcatchers wrapped in pleather hung next to an indistinguishable mass of artificial feather jewelry and hyper sexualized clothing featuring an abundance of suede, fringe and inauthentic tribal patterns.”

Brown said that the collection amounts to a “mass marketed collection of distasteful and racially demeaning apparel and décor,” adding that she is personally offended by the “blatant racism and perverted cultural appropriation” that Urban Outfitters is passing off as fashion.

The Guardian, which spotted this story has done its homework and discovered that Urban Outfitters stocks 21 ‘Navajo’ items including a hip flask and pants.

While some might just brand this use of (inaccurate) cultural print as tasteless, it could also be illegal! By using the ‘Navajo’ description the shop could actually be breaching The Federal Indian Arts and Crafts Act, which prohibits any retailer selling any product that falsely suggests it is ‘Indian’ produced.

Personally I’m not sure whether anyone really believes that Urban Outfitters is selling genuine Native American produced items, (and there are legal wrangling over whether fashion constitutes art) but it raises an interesting argument as countless companies are peddling ‘Navajo’ or ‘Navajo-inspired’ fashion items this season – in fact we’ve lost count of the number of times we’ve mentioned the ‘Navajo’ trend (and did not mean to cause offense.)

The PR Director of Urban Outfitters told uberblog Jezebel: “The Native American-inspired trend and specifically the term ‘Navajo’ have been cycling thru [sic] fashion, fine art and design for the last few years. We currently have no plans to modify or discontinue any of these products.”

(The article is a fascinating insight into American law and the importance of culturally-sensitive trademarks.)

The problem for us is that the ‘Navajo’ trend and ‘Navajo’ items are everywhere in pretty much every shop and by every designer. It seems that an attack on Urban Outfitters (while arguably justified) must be made on every other retailer who has used the ‘Navajo’ word. Some people might argue that fashion feeds off past patterns and they inspire new designs, making them almost always factually inaccurate – look at Tartan skirts for example.

But as The Guardian points out, just because the ‘Navajo’ label is used so much by the fashion industry it doesn’t legitimize it and has not been simply dreamed up by a fashion editor. In fact, Navajo describes a semi-autonomous, Native-American governed area of land home to around 300, 000 Navajo people,’ and not any pattern that looks a little Native American!

Blogger and Cherokee grad Adrienne K argues in Native Appropriations that feathered headdresses are also pretty insensitive (how many of those have you seen in festival fashion shoots?) She believes wearing one is “just as bad as running
around in a pope hat and a bikini, or a Sikh turban cause it’s ‘cute’.”

Having read lots of comments on this story, opinion seems to be divided (or at least confused). Having seen real Native American handiwork, which is incredibly skilful and beautiful, it bears little resemblance to the ‘Navajo’ items on the high street, so perhaps the ‘Navajo’ names should be kept for authentic crafts. We will certainly be referring to the trend as ‘Navajo-inspired’ from now on, to mirror the fashion press to a point, although having a new word may be more appropriate.

looking on the bright side, the issue has encouraged discussion on cultural appropriation, racism and colonialism in fashion, which can only be valuable.

And to round-off our musings, here is one comment from The Guardian’s website that we found interesting. The problem is that there is very little that is original in fashion, or indeed in much art and design. A couple of years ago there was a mania for everything “Bollywood,” which is at least equally as tasteless if you think about it. Topshop is currently running a “Bavaria” collection this year that has ****** all to do with Bavaria, but does evoke the folksy-lite trend (excepting the bizarre inclusion of leopard-print) so in vogue right now. On a less contentious level, “Military” and “Nautical” collections appear with disturbing regularity, despite the fact that no one has…gone into combat in 5-inch high heels. If you challenge fashion’s right to be derivative and oblivious, the whole thing comes crashing down.”

What do you think?

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