Welcome to our column, "Hey, Quick Question," where we investigate seemingly random happenings in the fashion and beauty industries. Enjoy!
It's certainly no secret that within fashion, appropriation is an enormously upsetting problem that still afflicts every corner of the industry, from magazines (Vogue shooting Karlie Kloss in literal yellowface) to designers and their front-row pals (an unfortunate example of which is somehow still happening as we speak). For every collective step forward we take together, it's disappointing, to say the very least, to see magazines, designers or front-row staples bringing us another two, or 10, or 50, steps — or years — back.
That's what happened during Zuhair Murad's Spring 2018 Haute Couture runway presentation in Paris on Wednesday, which made the very same missteps that have gotten dozens of other brands into the very same hot water in recent history.
The theme, it looks like, was "#IndianSummer," based on a hashtag used to promote the event on Instagram following the show. You can probably guess where this is going: This season, the Lebanese couturier seemed to be very heavily influenced by Indigenous cultures, to the extent that the accompanying runway show featured no shortage of hair feathers, chevron embellishments, teepee-like structures and a finale soundtrack of traditional Indigenous flutes.
While it's unclear which Indigenous cultures, or which specific tribes, the house was referencing, it's very likely that each and every one of its references was deeply offensive to those peoples and their heritage.
Eagle feathers are sacred symbols in many Indigenous cultures in North America, and to adorn such feathers in white women's hair without further context is disrespectful to such rituals.
So is the unsystematic use of the chevron or "Z"-like zig-zag pattern, a common, traditional motif often seen in beadwork or on hand-spun rugs and blankets.
So are the teepee lodges, historically used by Indigenous people in the Great Plains and Canadian Prairies of North America, constructed over the runway.
So is the flute music, invented by different Indigenous peoples of the Americas, that was played in the background.
And so is the "#IndianSummer" hashtag and of course, the use of "Indian" as a standalone term, which is terminology that a) is inaccurate, and b) was widely abandoned upwards of 60 years ago in an effort to avoid stereotypes.
As is the case with all appropriation, Indigenous cultures are not those from which contemporary designers or retailers or established luxury houses can pick and choose aesthetic elements as they please to fit a theme. And the fashion industry has been called out enough times for such tone-deaf stereotyping and appropriation that you would think, by now, such reprimands would stick.
UPDATE, Thursday, Jan. 25, 12:43 p.m.: In a follow-up press release, Zuhair Murad stated that Native American culture was, indeed, at the heart of its Spring 2018 Haute Couture collection, and that the range "pays homage to the craftsmanship of an array of ancient tribe." The statement reads in full:
Could be Cherokee, Inuit, Etowah, Navajo, Sioux, Creek, Apache, Seminole Tomahawk, arrow, any way the wind blow, it's just fine with me” sing the The Black Keys in their hit Navajo. TKNative American culture – observed from an fantasized and respectful perspective – is at the heart of Zuhair Murad’s Spring 2018 Couture collection.
The house pays homage to the craftsmanship of an array of ancient tribes, notably the Sioux, the Navajos, the Iroquois, and celebrates their traditional prints, embroideries, and pictograms.
Triangle-shaped dresses are adorned with pearls, fringes, bold V-shaped cutouts, and are belted. Tunics come with an audacious frontal split and multiple layers, or deconstructed and paired with a cape, or worn with matching cigarette pants. A Peplum jacket is twisted with feather work and a muslin skirt; a minimalist blouson is worn with matching [embroidered] leggings.
A array of references from Native American culture are cited as inspirations to rethink and liven up classical ball gowns – including a princess gown in jacquard, [embroidered] with arrows and headpieces, or an organza design with brightly painted cacti and flames.
A game of transparencies appears in the juxtaposition of lace and macramé, as well as in the triangular slits that run throughout the collection, allowing for the wearer’s skin to shine through the textures.Feathers and headpieces organically embellish the hair, and the fabrics – silk, tulle, brocade, and jacquard – bring together opacity and lightness, for a most sensual result.
The color palette evokes the symbolism of Native American art: white suggest purity and peace, red stands for fire, gold symbolizes the sun, black hints at a dark night, and brown is a celebration of the earth we live on.
As for the wedding dress, the final and spectacular model of the show, its veil morphs into a trail, and promises a timeless yet modernized sense of romance.
Both ornamental and spiritual, this collection tells the tale of a femininity that is instinctive and rigorous.
It's admittedly noteworthy that the house both understands and is articulating its also admittedly specific sources of inspiration — there are ways fashion entities can engage with cultures that aren't one's own — but it's also vital to recognize that appreciating such influences, even deeply, isn't grounds for their appropriation.