UN Expert Calls Rodarte's Fall 2012 Aboriginal-Inspired Prints "Offensive"--But Are They Really?

For many, Rodarte's Fall 2012 prints were nothing more than a pretty arrangement of lines, dots and hand prints. But for Megan Davis, an indigenous Australian who heads up the University of New South Wales' Indigenous Law Centre and is also an expert member of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), the prints were an insensitive appropriation of her Australian Aboriginal culture, Frockwriter is reporting. The Mulleavy sisters were quite open about the fact that they were inspired by Australia. Kate Mulleavy told Newsweek/The Daily Beast's Robin Givhan that “the show was based on the rugged outback,” though the sisters admitted they had never been. That fact was a sticking point for Davis.
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For many, Rodarte's Fall 2012 prints were nothing more than a pretty arrangement of lines, dots and hand prints. But for Megan Davis, an indigenous Australian who heads up the University of New South Wales' Indigenous Law Centre and is also an expert member of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), the prints were an insensitive appropriation of her Australian Aboriginal culture, Frockwriter is reporting. The Mulleavy sisters were quite open about the fact that they were inspired by Australia. Kate Mulleavy told Newsweek/The Daily Beast's Robin Givhan that “the show was based on the rugged outback,” though the sisters admitted they had never been. That fact was a sticking point for Davis.
Photo; Courtesy of Black Frame

Photo; Courtesy of Black Frame

For many, Rodarte's Fall 2012 prints were nothing more than a pretty arrangement of lines, dots and hand prints. But for Megan Davis, an indigenous Australian who heads up the University of New South Wales' Indigenous Law Centre and is also an expert member of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), the prints were an insensitive appropriation of her Australian Aboriginal culture, Frockwriter is reporting.

The Mulleavy sisters were quite open about the fact that they were inspired by Australia. Kate Mulleavy told Newsweek/The Daily Beast's Robin Givhan that “the show was based on the rugged outback,” though the sisters admitted they had never been.

That fact was a sticking point for Davis. “It is completely insensitive to Aboriginal art and spirituality and land and how they are inextricably linked," she told Frockwriter. "The sisters admit they have never been to Australia, so they must have had ‘inspiration’ from books, images, web or Aboriginal art, including 60,000 year old rock art – a clan’s songlines, story, life and very essence, with responsibilities and reciprocal obligations to land and kin...We know that these particular expressions, the rock art and dot paintings, are part of a religious Aboriginal system of knowledge and that there are cultural responsibilities for the protection and use of those images as well as custodial obligations.”

"As an Aboriginal lawyer I found the designs offensive," Davis said, adding, "What I find more offensive is that one doesn’t enter into a cultural protocol with a particular [indigenous] group, particularly when you keep in mind the abject poverty that a lot of these groups live in in mostly remote Australia."

Only here, she's wrong. We reached out to Rodarte and received the following statement:

"We deeply respect and admire the work of other artists. Through the appropriate channels, we licensed the Aboriginal artwork that influenced prints in our collection. As a result, the artists will share in proceeds of the pieces inspired by their work."

Davis, who is often in New York for her work at the UN, said, "The thought of seeing women walking around in this particular ready-to-wear collection sickens me. Because it is my culture and it is where I come from." Here's hoping this bit of news causes her to change her tune.

Fashion is often (always?) inspired by art and culture from around the world. In a timely piece in today's New York Times, Guy Trebay calls fashion "culture’s Godzilla, devouring everything in its path." The article focuses on fashion's latest love affair with all things Navajo (he points to Proenza Schouler's southwestern New Mexico-inspired fall 2011 collection as the genesis of the trend and calls out Isabel Marant's fall collection for those ubiquitous white jeans with the Navajo-inspired prints down the sides). You'll recall that the Navajo Nation took issue with Urban Outfitters selling things like panties and flasks labeled "Navajo." The Navajo Nation filed a lawsuit in February which, according to the Times, "alleged violations of trademark law and the federal Indian Arts and Crafts Act, which makes it illegal to suggest that goods are of authentic Indian manufacture when they are not."

No doubt about it, we're living in increasingly culturally sensitive times. Designers must be cautious with their inspiration, and it's important that when art from living cultures is being appropriated that those people are brought in, collaborated with, and compensated, as Rodarte did in this case.

What's your take on fashion's cultural sensitivity?